Members of Slovakia's government coalition reacted with forbearance in late November to the decision of nine Christian Democrat members of parliament to abandon the caucus of the ruling SDK party. But after six members of the Democratic Party followed suit last week, the warning bells were sounded by coalition leaders.
The decision of Democratic Party leader Ján Langoš to leave the SDK with five colleagues and recast themselves as 'independent' MPs leaves Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda with the backing of only 27 SDK members, down from 42 following 1998 elections. What is more, only 19 of the remaining MPs are firmly behind Dzurinda, with the remaining eight weighing up their next move.
"This means the collapse of the coalition agreement [a document which governs the way in which the ruling coalition cooperates]," said Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) leader Béla Bugár after being informed of Langoš' December 4 decision. Party of Civic Understanding (SOP) vice-chairman Igor Presperin agreed, while Ľubomír Andrassy, vice-chairman of the Democratic Left Party (SDĽ), said he would be demanding an explanation from Dzurinda at the next meeting of the Coalition Council, a senior government body.
"On the basis of this explanation, the SDĽ will decide how to proceed," he said.
The departure of the Democratic Party dramatically heightens tensions within both the SDK and the ruling coalition, strains that leaders had tried to soothe the week before by making the restless Christian Democrats an equal member of the now-five party coalition government. Coalition officials said at the time they were not prepared to admit any further members to the government.
Party leaders regard the disintegration of the SDK as particularly worrisome because it has radically altered the balance of power in the coalition. If the SDK loses another five members, as seems possible, Dzurinda's party would control the same number of seats in parliament as the SDĽ, a party which has consistently opposed the economic and public sector reforms considered vital for European Union and NATO accession.
Whence it arose
The core of the trouble in the SDK has been the desire of its five founding factions to return the party to a coalition footing, on which it had been before 1998 elections, and the refusal of Dzurinda to allow this to happen. But after Dzurinda himself formally established another party, the SDKÚ, on November 17, the SDK member factions decided the time had come for them to jump ship as well.
Following the defection of the Christian Democrats, a senior Democratic Party body resolved December 2 to allow its MPs to abandon the SDK if Dzurinda refused to clarify relations within the larger party. Following an SDK meeting on December 4, Langoš did just that, saying that "as I had expected", Dzurinda had refused to put the SDKÚ on a footing equal to other SDK factions.
But the very gravity of the situation has given some Democratic Party members pause for thought. Ivan Mikloš, Deputy Prime Minister for Economy and a Democratic Party member, called Langoš' decision "hasty and unfortunate", while Democratic Party vice-chairman Ľudovít Kaník expressed similar disapproval. Meanwhile, Democratic Party MP Jozef Kužma has decided to remain with the SDK at least until senior party officials approve the move.
"I'm staying in the Democratic Party, and at our March congress I want to support Ivan Mikloš for the leadership," said Kužma.