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PM takes high hand as next minister quits

Following the recall of Deputy Prime Minister for Integration Pavol Hamžík in early May, another member of Slovakia's five-party cabinet gave up his job last week. Calling himself a "thorn in the eye" of some of his ruling coalition colleagues, Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner resigned May 14 in order, he said, to remove a barrier to stable government.
Ironically, however, Pittner's departure hurt rather than helped cabinet stability, as a scuffle over who would replace the minister led to a suggestion by the Christian Democrats (KDH) that they might leave the coalition.
According to political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs think tank, the current crisis - like so many in the government's 30-month history - does not seriously threaten the longevity of the Mikuláš Dzurinda administration.

Following the recall of Deputy Prime Minister for Integration Pavol Hamžík in early May, another member of Slovakia's five-party cabinet gave up his job last week. Calling himself a "thorn in the eye" of some of his ruling coalition colleagues, Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner resigned May 14 in order, he said, to remove a barrier to stable government.

Ironically, however, Pittner's departure hurt rather than helped cabinet stability, as a scuffle over who would replace the minister led to a suggestion by the Christian Democrats (KDH) that they might leave the coalition.

According to political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs think tank, the current crisis - like so many in the government's 30-month history - does not seriously threaten the longevity of the Mikuláš Dzurinda administration.

"This crisis is dangerous in that it seriously endangers voter trust in the ruling coalition, as well as its ability to function on such important matters as the reform of public administration," Mesežnikov said. He added, however, that given the government'slow popularity, no party would likely risk brining the cabinet down and forcing early elections.

According to a poll published May 16, the five government parties now enjoy support of 35%, down from over 60% in 1998.

"If the Christian Democrats were to walk out on the coalition, they would come under serious public pressure. They would wind up holding a losing card - the destroyer of the coalition - which wouldn't help them much," the analyst reasoned

Origins of crisis

Based on events so far, it is Prime Minister Dzurinda, rather than the Christian Democrats, who has been blamed for fanning the flames of coalition discord.

Using his constitutional power as head of the government, Dzurinda on May 15 submitted a proposal to President Rudolf Schuster that Ivan Šimko, the general secretary of Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) party, replace Pittner as Interior Minister. The unilateral move both surprised and angered other ruling coalition parties, particularly the Christian Democrats, who had wanted their own Vladimír Palko to take the post.

According to the Constitution, the President must accept the PM's nomination. But according to unwritten custom since 1998, the Prime Minister should have discussed his plans with the Coalition Council, a senior government decision-making body comprising the heads of all member parties.

Mesežnikov theorised that Dzurinda's action had been motivated by the power the ministry gave the party that controlled it. "The Interior Ministry is in many areas a key portfolio," he observed.

At the beginning of the week, however, the resignation of Pittner had seemed an unremarkable event. "It appeared that left-wing elements in the government had serious misgivings regarding my work," began the Interior Minister. "Since I don't want to be a destabilising element in the government, and since there is no better alternative to the current Dzurinda government, I decided to resign."

Pittner and the ministry he led had been criticised mostly by the socialist Democratic Left Party (SDĽ). The latter's discontent arose from the fact that in two and a half years since the 1998 elections, none of the major political and economic scandals under the 1994 to 1998 Vladimír Mečiar government had resulted in a successful prosecution of the culprits.

Among the scandals cited were the 1996 privatisation of gas storage firm Nafta Gbely for one-sixth its market value, the privatisation of the lucrative Piešťany health spa facility, asset-stripping at steel maker VSŽ, the murder of police informant Róbert Remiáš and the kidnapping of former President Michal Kováč's son. The many investigations of wrongdoing by the country's secret service, the SIS, have also not resulted in convictions, and former SIS head Ivan Lexa remains a fugitive abroad with an Interpol warrant out for his arrest. Getting to the bottom of these affairs had been one of the key promises of the Dzurinda government in 1998.

In accepting Pittner's resignation, President Schuster made indirect reference to the cases.

"In some areas, the Interior Ministry did not bring an improvement in matters, and maybe even worsened the situation, which is why I decided to accept the resignation," the President said.

But then the jockeying for power began. An hour after his meeting with Pittner, Schuster gave an audience to Dzurinda, who proposed that the Prime Minister be given temporary control of the Interior Ministry until a replacement was found for Pittner. The President said that "it wouldn't be good if the Prime Minister took control of this function as well; as far as I'm concerned, it should be given to someone else."

That "someone else" turned out to be Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský, former head of the Christian Democrats, as Dzurinda discovered while watching television in the early hours of May 15.

"I found out from the teletext [news] that the President wanted to empower Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský to take temporary charge of the Interior Ministry," Dzurinda told journalists May 15.

The Prime Minister said that he had that morning met Čarnogurský and demanded he not accept the President's temporary nomination, "because otherwise I won't be able to accept the Christian Democrats' proposal that they be given the [permanent right to the] Interior Ministry post." Čarnogurský, according to Dzurinda, responded that if Dzurinda refused the Christian Democrats the cabinet seat, "you are risking the fall of the government."

Following the meeting, Schuster named Čarnogurský temporary Interior Minister, and the latter accepted.

In response, Dzurinda cancelled discussions with the Christian Democrats on the permanent right to the seat, and at noon gave Schuster a proposal that Šimko become Slovakia's new Interior Minister. The Prime Minister alerted his coalition partners of his intention by telephone minutes before meeting Schuster.

Ruling coalition party leaders were furious. "By acting in a hasty and non-standard manner, the Prime Minister endangered the stability of the government coalition," they wrote in a joint statement. They also demanded that consequences follow Dzurinda's moves.

The upshot

While other coalition parties were guarded as to what 'consequences' they might demand, Christian Democrat Chairman Pavol Hrušovský was less diplomatic. He refused to rule out the chance that the KDH might leave the government, and when asked if the party might demand Dzurinda's recall, he said "the non-standard tactics which Dzurinda began have weakened his position."

The principal fears of the other government parties - the SDĽ, KDH, Party of Civic Reconciliation (SOP) and the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) - is that Dzurinda will use his constitutional power to recall ministers to 'reconstruct' the government over their objections.

'Reconstruction' - in effect a major cabinet shuffle - was to be the topic of a special cabinet meeting May 18, and had been launched by the firing of Deputy Prime Minister Hamžík May 4. Dzurinda had then termed cabinet reconstruction "a major opportunity to make the activities of the government more efficient".

The coalition parties had been asked to prepare a list of their own ministers with whose work they were dissatisfied. After last week's events, however, they approached the Friday meeting in fear that Dzurinda might use his constitutional power to push through his own conceptions.

"Dzurinda might just arrive and say he wants to recall our ministers, and without further talks take his proposals to the President," said Ľubomír Andrassy, Vice-Chair of the SDĽ. "The Prime Minister cannot have such a position where he alone decides reconstruction."

Dzurinda, for his part, said as The Slovak Spectator went to print May 17 that he had no reason to demand the recall of any other government ministers, although he did have "certain ideas as to changes we might make to allow the government programme to be fulfilled better."

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