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EDITORIAL

SMK packs its bags: The beginning of the end

In this silly summer of bickering over yoga courses for school children, it seemed safe to neglect politics in the holiday torpor.
But the threat of the ethnic Hungarian SMK party to quit the government has, like a sudden buckle in the pavement, interrupted all political traffic.
The SMK will decide on August 25 whether or not to remain a member of Slovakia's five-party ruling coalition. But given their unequivocal intention to leave, the decision is foregone, and we are left to guess the consequences.

In this silly summer of bickering over yoga courses for school children, it seemed safe to neglect politics in the holiday torpor.

But the threat of the ethnic Hungarian SMK party to quit the government has, like a sudden buckle in the pavement, interrupted all political traffic.

The SMK will decide on August 25 whether or not to remain a member of Slovakia's five-party ruling coalition. But given their unequivocal intention to leave, the decision is foregone, and we are left to guess the consequences.

If, or rather when, they go, they leave the government with a maximum of 75 seats in the 150-member parliament. The opposition also has 75, but since HZDS member Ivan Lexa fled the law in 1999, they technically have 74, giving the coalition the theoretical (and in many situations unusable) majority needed to pass laws. Of the government 75, three are independent MPs, one has joined cause with the non-parliamentary ANO party, and many more are unreliable (remember that four members of the leftist SDĽ party actually supported a non-confidence motion in Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda in April 2000).

It's a bleak outlook, given that the government needs to maintain a frantic legislative pace to keep the European Union happy this year and next. Nor does it augur well for the 2002 state budget, which requires 90-vote support, or the school and pension system reforms which must get by a parliament resistant to political risk and real change.

But to paraphrase Churchill, it's not the end of the government, and perhaps not even the beginning of the end of the important privatisations and macro-economic health the Dzurinda government has brought Slovakia. It is, though, the end of a promising beginning, in which voters, western alliances and foreign markets gave the government benefit of serious doubts over its ability to transmogrify the legacy inherited from former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar.

Predicting Slovakia's political future has always been a mug's game. But political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov, whom this paper has always trusted because he has neither a political past nor future (and because as a Russian native he has less invested in Slovak political outcomes) feels the government may yet pull through its most serious crisis yet.

The most likely outcome is a minority government with the SMK as a silent partner, meaning that on the most important laws (the budget, EU accession requirements) the SMK will help the government push through the business of state. While political bravos from the leftist SDĹ and SOP parties are braying defiance of the Hungarians, the SMK's compromise deal to continue supporting the coalition - keeping some of their state appointments - is in the hands of the coalition as a whole to negotiate. The SMK's seven heads of district state offices, for example, can only be recalled by Interior Minister Šimko, who belongs to Dzurinda's more moderate SDKÚ party. In other words, cooler heads have the room to prevail, and probably will with the support of moderate SDĽ members like Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová and Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik, or the SOP's Deputy Prime Minister for Integration Mária Kadlečíková.

The alternative to such a minority government is one with the support of the opposition HZDS, or so claim some SDĽ and SOP officials. However, given that the HZDS has the most to gain from early elections, it is unlikely they would sustain the Dzurinda government for anything less than a price ruinous to Slovakia's integration and legislative health. And a HZDS deal would likely lead to far greater government departures than just that of the SMK.

But even if the form of Slovakia's ruling coalition is preserved, its essence has already been buried. Ethnic harmony in the executive has fled, corruption has proven as hard to eradicate as social reform has been to launch, and promises such as doubling wages and cutting unemployment have been exposed for the juvenile frauds that they were.

The alternative remains worse, however. It's like the endless construction in Bratislava's streets - one wonders, walking home from work, why they couldn't just have got it right the first time and spared us all this noise and sweat. But at least they're out there, hoping that at least this time they'll get those drains sorted out, rather than sitting home planning to sabotage the invisible ducts of this country's life.

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