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TURMOIL DEPLETING ENERGY FOR CHANGE

Political crisis endangering reform

The Slovak government is mired in a serious crisis which last week defied two attempts to bring it to heel. Neither a six hour special cabinet session May 18 in western Slovakia's Trenčianské Teplice, nor a further four hours in Bratislava May 22 produced agreement on a cabinet shuffle that had been demanded by at least three of the ruling coalition's five parties.
The stymied talks, from which Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda emerged with an even stronger position than he had occupied before, according to analysts, spelt the virtual end of any further reforms the government had promised to carry out in its 1998 programme manifesto. While the Dzurinda cabinet still has 16 months left in its term in power before the next elections in 2002, they said, it appeared the member parties had abandoned serious work in favour of jockeying for electoral support.


Pro-reform Deputy Prime Minsiter for the Economy Ivan Mikloš (right, front) survived a May 23 vote of non-confidence in parliament.

The Slovak government is mired in a serious crisis which last week defied two attempts to bring it to heel. Neither a six hour special cabinet session May 18 in western Slovakia's Trenčianské Teplice, nor a further four hours in Bratislava May 22 produced agreement on a cabinet shuffle that had been demanded by at least three of the ruling coalition's five parties.

The stymied talks, from which Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda emerged with an even stronger position than he had occupied before, according to analysts, spelt the virtual end of any further reforms the government had promised to carry out in its 1998 programme manifesto. While the Dzurinda cabinet still has 16 months left in its term in power before the next elections in 2002, they said, it appeared the member parties had abandoned serious work in favour of jockeying for electoral support.

"The pursuit of reform had been in a hopeless state even before this crisis, but now it's even more complicated," said Miroslav Kusý, a political science professor with Bratislava's Comenius University.

The key reforms still to be undertaken by the Slovak government, according to the European Union and other international bodies, include decentralising state power through changes to public administration, as well as putting the schools and health sectors on a sounder financial footing to enable them to grow despite state budget restrictions. No significant laws have been passed in any of these key areas in the past three years.

"The key tasks of the coalition, for example reform of the education, health and public administration sectors, have absolutely not been fulfilled," said Ľuboš Kubín, a political analyst with the Slovak Academy of Sciences. "Instead, politicians have come up with this pantomime of reshuffling the cabinet to distract the public's attention from unfulfilled promises."

The main actor in the "reshuffle pantomime", according to analysts, has been the Prime Minister himself. After firing Deputy Prime Minister Pavol Hamžík at the beginning of the month over a scandal involving the use of European Union funds for Slovakia, Dzurinda had initially announced that the cabinet needed several changes in order to improve the performance of the government. His initiative was at the time supported by all his coalition partners, who at the summit in Trenčianske Teplice were expected to prepare lists of ministers they wanted to see changed.

But after Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner resigned May 14, Dzurinda unilaterally nominated party colleague and personal friend Ivan Šimko to the post, in defiance of a coalition agreement requiring that such changes be discussed beforehand by the Coalition Council, a senior government body.

Dzurinda's defiance of the coalition agreement - and his refusal to retract Šimko's nomination - threw the Trenčianske Teplice meeting into chaos, with the Christian Democrats saying they would table a motion for Dzurinda's recall. But six hours after disappearing behind closed doors, ruling party leaders Jozef Migaš, Pavol Hrušovský and Hamžík emerged, their faces red with evident anger, to admit that no deal had been reached.

When asked why, Hamžík said "ask that there Prime Minister. This whole supposed reconstruction of the government was just camouflage." The Christian Democrats' Hrušovský, when asked what had happened to the party's intention to suggest Dzurinda's recall, said "our proposal didn't meet with the support of our partners," before turning away from reporters and disappearing up a stairway.

Dzurinda, for his part, appeared satisfied with the talks. "We didn't find agreement on the various opinion platforms," he said with a smile, admitting that his method of selecting his new Interior Minister had been "unusual".

"From now on, I will try to act in the standard manner and in accordance with the coalition agreement," he continued, adding that Šimko's nomination stood.

Enervating warfare

The outcome of the meeting - which before had looked ominous for Dzurinda, but seemed afterwards to have left him in a stronger position than ever - left analysts searching for explanations.

"Dzurinda simply found himself in the position of a politician who would be very hard to replace, and the other parties suddenly realised this," said Kusý, adding that while before the balance of power in the coalition had never been seriously tested, when push came to shove the parties had understood they could not survive the departure of the Prime Minister.

Ľuboš Kubín agreed: "The departure of Mikuláš Dzurinda would have meant the end of the government, because this coalition is now not strong enough to find a new leader." Kubín added that Dzurinda's unilateral nomination of Šimko had been a trial balloon floated by the Prime Minister which had confirmed the strength of his position when the coalition parties were unable to best it.

The PM's test of strength was challenged on May 22 by the Democratic Left Party (SDĽ), whose leader Jozef Migaš warned that if another round of talks scheduled for that day did not lead to a cabinet reshuffle, the SDĽ would consider leaving the government.

But again, several hours of talks produced no deal, beyond the vague statement that coalition parties again would review the performance of cabinet ministers and submit proposals for change at some date in the future.

"Leave it to the politicians," said Migaš with a smile, when pressed for details on the meeting.

Analysts questioned whether Migaš' intention had truly been to force through the recall of unpopular ministers like the party's own Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová, or whether it was another act in the pantomime to obscure work undone.

"Migaš just wants to get rid of Schmögnerová, who leads a pro-reform wing of the SDĽ, and that's the only reason he's talking about a cabinet reshuffle," said political scientist Darina Malová. "The SDĽ has always been against reform, and this talk of changing ministers only makes the cabinet agitated, and distracts it from its tasks."

The final test of strength came on May 23, when parliament voted on a motion of non-confidence in Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Mikloš. While the SDĽ in particular had said it might side with the opposition and force Mikloš' removal, Dzurinda said that if Mikloš went, he would resign too. In the end, only one coalition MP voted with the opposition, and Mikloš held onto his job easily.

What effect Dzurinda's new-found strength will have on reform cannot be predicted, said observers. While on the one hand the Prime Minister had damaged the trust between coalition partners, and made compromise on reform even harder to find than before, he could still use his power to force through at least the public administration reform so key to EU entry.

"It really depends entirely on Dzurinda, and what support he can personally drum up for the government's programme," said Malová. "He should, for instance, tell them this - 'let's keep our mouths shut, let's do what's necessary until the fall, and then you can all start your pre-election campaigns'. "But not until then."

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