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EDITORIAL

Through the looking glass:Is the government in danger?

Viewed up close from Bratislava, Slovak politics seem to go through a serious upheaval every month. Observers in the capital frequently have a difficult time, however, explaining to worried foreign callers how it is that the government continues to function.
The decision this past week of the Democratic Party (DS) to quit the parliamentary caucus of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's SDK party is a case in point. Ruling coalition officials have said that the move negates the 'coalition agreement' securing cooperation between the five government parties, while local media are agog with Chicken Little speculations as to what the future holds. In short, the sky seems about to fall.

Viewed up close from Bratislava, Slovak politics seem to go through a serious upheaval every month. Observers in the capital frequently have a difficult time, however, explaining to worried foreign callers how it is that the government continues to function.

The decision this past week of the Democratic Party (DS) to quit the parliamentary caucus of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's SDK party is a case in point. Ruling coalition officials have said that the move negates the 'coalition agreement' securing cooperation between the five government parties, while local media are agog with Chicken Little speculations as to what the future holds. In short, the sky seems about to fall.

But as close as the Bratislava heavens sometimes seem to pavement level in December, no general political crisis is at hand. Quite simply, all members of the governing coalition - whatever parliamentary caucus they lay claim to - have too much to lose and nothing to gain from seeing the government tumble. All have promised to cool their jets and respect agreements, no matter how ominous the portent of departures and defections. That said, the departure of the Democratic Party offers some fascinating insight into the current state of politics in Slovakia.

The SDK, as readers may be weary to be told again, is made up of five parties which united in the lead-up to 1998 parliamentary elections. The original idea was to fight elections as a coalition, allowing each member party to maintain its voter profile, but that was nixed when the former Vladimír Mečiar government passed an anti-constitutional amendment requiring each member of a coalition to score 5% voter support for the coalition to be represented in parliament, a feat clearly impossible for three of the SDK's five members.

The SDK in response transformed itself into a single party, but even then only narrowly survived (by 18 votes to 17) an electoral commission vote on whether it really was a party. Mečiar's last gamble had been the disqualification of the democratic opposition to his rule; in that he failed, but the wounds inflicted on the SDK have bedeviled the current coalition ever since.

Having finished a strong second to Mečiar's HZDS in elections, and having subsequently formed a government, the five SDK parties had hoped to return to a coalition and thus reassume their political identities forged over the past decade. But Dzurinda, realising his authority would be diluted by having to get agreement from SDK member bosses on each decision, refused to countenance a return to coalition, and actually formed a new party - the SDKÚ - hoping to sideline the SDK factions. The choice: Join me, or I'll strip the political assets of each party and leave you to fight 2002 elections with what remains.

Many SDK members seethed at what they saw as a betrayal from the PM, but could do little to head it off. Votes were held in two of the major SDK factions, the Democratic Union (DÚ) and the Christian Democrats (KDH), which resulted in pro-Dzurinda people carrying the former and anti-Dzurinda forces winning the latter. As a result, the DÚ merged with the SDKÚ, while the KDH won general approval for its decision to leave the SDK and set up as a fifth ruling coalition party.

Which brings us to the Democratic Party. Rather than wait for a March 2001 party congress, at which a pro-Dzurinda candidate would likely have fought for joining the SDKÚ, anti-Dzurinda party leader Ján Lángoš jumped the gun and left the SDK before such a contest had occured.

He seems to have miscalculated. Ruling coalition officials were prepared to acknowledge the results of DÚ and KDH ballots, but have put their collective feet down at Lángoš' precipitate move. Key pro-Dzurinda members of the Democratic Party, including influential and popular Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš, have distanced themselves from Lángoš and what they call his "hasty" decision - hasty less in the sense that he didn't give senior party functionaries a chance to approve it, than in the fact that no general party vote had been held at which pro- and anti-Dzurinda sides could fight for their agendas.

It's a well-administered lesson in basic Slovak politics. Since receiving the absurd proposal of former KDH leader Ján Čarnogurský that he could return to the status of SDK spokesman, Dzurinda has called the tempo of SDK disintegration. As PM he was allowed to do so by other ruling coalition members, with the results of the KDH and DÚ votes taken in stride. Not so the Democratic Party, which will now be slapped down for unseemly haste.

The great pity is that Slovak politics continues to be ruled by squabbles between tiny, disenfranchised parties anxious to recapture their former relevance than by sober consideration of the reforms needed. Dzurinda and Mikloš surely have more important matters on their plates than answering the summons of bygones such as Langoš. In the words of political scientist Miroslav Kusý, "I know these guys, they're my friends. But they're not politicians."

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