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Schuster New Year speech touches nerve

Coalition politicians reacted with surprise to a New Year speech from President Schuster in which he criticised the government for failing to listen to Slovak citizens and attacked the coalition for internal bickering slowing the pace of key reforms.
In his speech, which some political analysts described as 'standard' and lacking in sophistication, Schuster went as far as to say that the coalition had shown contempt for the will of the people following a November 11 referendum on early parliamentary elections that attracted only 20% voter turnout, thus invalidating the referendum.

Coalition politicians reacted with surprise to a New Year speech from President Schuster in which he criticised the government for failing to listen to Slovak citizens and attacked the coalition for internal bickering slowing the pace of key reforms.

In his speech, which some political analysts described as 'standard' and lacking in sophistication, Schuster went as far as to say that the coalition had shown contempt for the will of the people following a November 11 referendum on early parliamentary elections that attracted only 20% voter turnout, thus invalidating the referendum.

He said that the coalition had, instead of taking the low turnout as an opportunity to take active reform steps on the back of the people's support for them to see out their term to 2002, turned to intra-coalition squabbling.

"I agree that the coalition possibly did not grasp the opportunity citizens gave it after the referendum, but contempt is too strong a word for me," said Béla Bugár, leader of the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), in reaction to the speech.

Leader of the Christian Democrats (KDH) Pavol Hrušovský said: "I cannot agree that failures [in the coalition] have been as bad as the president said they were. I do not agree that we did not understand the message the citizens gave us in the referendum. The president also wanted to draw a line with the last century, but to do that we have to get past it gradually."

The theme of the speech touched a raw nerve in the coalition. The year 2000 finished with the coalition Democratic Left Party (SDĽ) going back on previous coalition agreements on the recall of Supreme Court Chief Justice Štefan Harabin and the cancelling of amnesties granted by former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar to people possibly connected with the kidnapping of the son of former president Michal Kováč Jr (see story pg 1).

Within the SDĽ, senior figures have agreed with Schuster's comments on the coalition.

"Certain political parties [after the referendum] paid attention to tactics and solving their internal conflicts instead of emphasising progress and a willingness to pass constitutional amendments and start public administration reform as quickly as possible," said SDĽ deputy Peter Weiss.

Both the state administration reform and constitutional change have stalled within the coalition, with demands from various members delaying progress on the two key legislative issues.

Political analysts said that the speech had done little to improve the situation within the coalition and that the president actually had little basis for his criticisms.

"The criticism of the coalition after the referendum confirmed his simplified view of politics. It's an illusion that the coalition did not mobilise themselves to move reforms forward. They have agreed on the charter on minority languages, agreed on a budget and made positive steps in the sphere of public administration reform," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) think tank.

"The disintegration of the SDK (the ruling Slovak Democratic Coalition) after the referendum [the KDH and Democratic Party both left the SDK just weeks after the referendum - ed. note] was part of a natural process within the SDK as a very broad-band coalition," he added. "It would have happened sooner or later.

"Schuster's speech brought nothing to the political scene in Slovakia. The president was repeating his well-known ideas on national reconciliation. It was a summary of his personal impressions from last year and the president was putting himself in the place of a representative of the people, but the parliamentary deputies occupy this role. The President has misunderstood his own role."

Mesežnikov added: "The speech was neither constructive nor specific. But then this is the way the president speaks."

In his speech, however, the president did not reserve his criticism solely for the coalition and suggested that opposition parties could play their part in co-operating in parliament and doing more to help reforms, and through them, the people of Slovakia.

"Politicians should recognise the idea [of cooperation] and learn to help their rivals in priority matters," the president said.

President Schuster was unrepentant after his speech, saying that he refused to pay lip-service to political parties.

"If I am expected to meet the wishes of the ruling coalition or opposition in my speech then my role is pointless," he said.


Additional reporting by
Martina Pisárová

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