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Old guard departs DS party muttering

One of the oldest political parties in Slovakia was dealt a mortal blow last weekend. The leadership of the Democratic Party (DS), whose members were among those who brought Communism down in 1989 and erected a new political system in its stead, was captured by a man the old guard disparagingly called "a marketer". Under new boss Ľudovít Kaník, the former DS leaders said, the party would never be the same.
A DS congress on February 18 had been held to decide who would lead the party into the 2002 elections and towards higher voter support (according to recent polls, the DS has about 2% support, while 5% is needed to secure representation in parliament).
Party delegates had two strikingly different alternatives to choose from: to stay with the DS's 'old guard' leaders and the party's conservative, right-wing profile, thereby risking nothing and gaining little, or to go with Kaník and his strategy of 'marketing' the party to new groups of voters, with the risk the DS might lose its identity.


Ľudovít Kaník won the chair...
photo: Spectator archives

One of the oldest political parties in Slovakia was dealt a mortal blow last weekend. The leadership of the Democratic Party (DS), whose members were among those who brought Communism down in 1989 and erected a new political system in its stead, was captured by a man the old guard disparagingly called "a marketer". Under new boss Ľudovít Kaník, the former DS leaders said, the party would never be the same.

A DS congress on February 18 had been held to decide who would lead the party into the 2002 elections and towards higher voter support (according to recent polls, the DS has about 2% support, while 5% is needed to secure representation in parliament).

Party delegates had two strikingly different alternatives to choose from: to stay with the DS's 'old guard' leaders and the party's conservative, right-wing profile, thereby risking nothing and gaining little, or to go with Kaník and his strategy of 'marketing' the party to new groups of voters, with the risk the DS might lose its identity.

The first, more conservative choice was represented by leadership candidate František Šebej and his four hand-picked bidders for vice-chairmanship seats; the second by Kaník and his group of aspirants.

In the end, party delegates hedged their bets, electing Šebej party chairman and Kaník first vice-chairman. But after two hours this compromise proved unworkable, with Šebej resigning his post and leaving the congress hall along with 50 of his sympathisers.

"I can't have as my vice-chairman a person I distrust and with whom I disagree, not only on party matters but on issues of basic morality," said Šebej, explaining his behaviour in an interview February 20 with The Slovak Spectator.


...after František Šebej abdicated.
phot: TASR

Following Šebej's departure, 116 of the 160 delegates present elected Kaník to the vacated chairmanship, and installed Kaník's four-member team in the vice-chairmanship positions. The new party boss said later that the delegates had decided "the DS should finally begin to sell its well-developed ideas to voters".

In electing Kanis, delegates may have chosen a more savvy political operator at the expense of the party's political clout; the five Members of Parliament who represent the DS - Šebej, Ján Langoš, Peter Osuský, Peter Tatár and Peter Zajac - have firmly rejected what they all call the "marketing" approach of Kaník.

"I don't think that politics is marketing. When Kaník says that our ideas are well-developed and that we just have to sell them, I feel as if I am in a world that is completely unfamiliar to me," said Šebej.

But Šebej and his circle object to more than just Kaník's style, which they call foreign to the party's values and priorities - they also accuse him of clientelism, corruption, and ties to a business lobby group.

In 1999, when Kaník was the head of the FNM privatisation agency, he was accused by Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda and then-Economy Minister Ľudovít Černák of clientelism and corruption in his handling of the state's interest in the Nafta Gbely gas storage facility.

When Kaník was unable to prove his innocence, he was recalled by parliament. While at the time the DS leadership defended Kaník vigorously, today Zajac calls Kaník's past "a risk for the DS".

"A person suspected of clientelism and corruption cannot be the head of a party which is the greatest opponent of these things," said Zajac.

Kaník himself denies any connection to a business lobby group, as well as all accusations of clientelism and corruption. He also demands that his political rivals show what proof they have for their charges, if in fact any exists. "Of course I can't prove it, but I have a great deal of information suggesting that's the way it is," says Šebej.

The defeated old guard also sees grounds for suspicion in the fact that Kaník, as Šebej said, "refused to discuss the party's Code of Ethics" at the weekend congress.

The Code, which was proposed by the five MPs representing the DS, would require party members to disclose what property they and their family relations own - a measure not demanded by Slovak law, but one meant to guarantee DS members do not use political influence for private business gain.

"In Slovakia's corrupted and clientist environment, it's difficult to know if you're dealing with a political party or some financial group, so it's essential that political parties establish a Code of Ethics which goes beyond the letter of the law," said Šebej.

Kaník declared the Code was "aimed against doing business", and refused to support it; the Šebej group interpreted this refusal as Kaník "putting his economic interests above those of the party."

The final conflict between the Kaník and Šebej groups is over the future direction of the party. Kaník does not hide his intention to fight 2002 elections in coalition with either Dzurinda's SDKÚ or the Christian Democrats (KDH), rather than independently, as Šebej and his circle would like.

As the KDH said two days after Kaník's election that the new DS leadership was virtually unacceptable as a coalition partner, that leaves the SDKÚ, which in its short history has shown a preference for assimilating rather than working with small parties such as the DS (the SDKÚ in 1999 absorbed most members of the Democratic Union, and in 2000 subsumed a major part of the Christian Democrats - ed. note).

For Kaník, "absorption by the SDKÚ is so far something we don't want, as most of the DS membership is against it. The DS is a proud party which would not take disintegration lying down."

Šebej said he felt such statements only thinly disguised Kaník's intention to lead the DS into political oblivion within the bosom of the SDKÚ.

Political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov, for his part, says it's too early to tell what direction the DS will take under its new leadership, but agrees that it will probably lose its former voter base with the departure of Šebej, Langoš and Zajac. "We'll have to wait and see whether Kaník manages to attract new voters or not," he said.

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