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SMK: Coalition must pass law, or we leave

DVORY NAD ŽITAVOU, BRATISLAVA: The Slovak government has been given an ultimatum by one of its own member parties - to pass a law in parliament ceding central state powers to newly created regional units by September 30, or say goodbye to the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK).
The SMK's decision, reached August 25 at the party's national council meeting in the tiny south Slovakia village of Dvory nad Žitavou, drew mixed reactions from its coalition partners, but on the whole, the response was an angry one.
Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda said he was optimistic the deadline, and even a September 15 cut-off for cabinet approval of the law, could be kept. He called the SMK summit result "positive and encouraging".

DVORY NAD ŽITAVOU, BRATISLAVA: The Slovak government has been given an ultimatum by one of its own member parties - to pass a law in parliament ceding central state powers to newly created regional units by September 30, or say goodbye to the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK).

The SMK's decision, reached August 25 at the party's national council meeting in the tiny south Slovakia village of Dvory nad Žitavou, drew mixed reactions from its coalition partners, but on the whole, the response was an angry one.

Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda said he was optimistic the deadline, and even a September 15 cut-off for cabinet approval of the law, could be kept. He called the SMK summit result "positive and encouraging".

But Jozef Migaš, speaker of parliament and head of the ruling coalition Democratic Left Party (SDĽ), decried what he saw as "blackmail" and "a tone of ultimatum" in the SMK's demands.

"The SMK's decision did not contribute to domestic political stability," said Migaš August 27. "Giving ultimatums won't improve the quality of public administration reform, and nothing Earth-shattering will happen if the law is passed two or three days later [than the SMK requested]."

Nevertheless, at an August 27 meeting of the coalition council, a senior government decision making body, the SMK's four coalition partners yielded to its demands and agreed to speed up negotiations on the remaining laws related to 'public administration reform', as the shift of power from the centre to the regions is known in Slovakia.

"The SMK did indeed put its coalition partners under pressure," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Bratislava thinktank Institute for Public Affairs (IVO). "But the pressure is of a positive nature. After all, all [coalition] parties have confirmed they want the [central state] powers to be transferred."

Mesežnikov added that were the coalition now to refuse the SMK demands, they would be seen as obstinate and even anti-Hungarian. "The coalition has the power to achieve this deadline, and if they don't, it would confirm that the Hungarians are not wanted in the cabinet," he said.

Decision time

While the SMK appears to have its partners in a political headlock, the party's August 25 meeting bore no signs of either triumph or aggression. SMK leader Béla Bugár and member of parliament Pál Farkas, looking calm and relaxed, arrived punctually for a scheduled afternoon press conference to announce the SMK council's resolution, reached after seven hours of talks among 90 SMK members.

If the required laws were not passed by the end of September, the SMK would "appeal to [SMK] cabinet members and deputy ministers to hand in their resignations forthwith", the statement said.

"We won't meet again," Bugár said, turning his head slowly to take in his silent audience. "This is our final decision."

The Hungarians' adamance arose from what the party saw as perfidy on the part of its government colleagues over reform of Slovakia's state apparatus - its public administration. On July 4, 2001, parts of the government voted with the opposition to overturn a cabinet-approved bill on how the territory of the country was to be divided. The vote gave Slovakia eight, instead of 12, self-governing regions, to the dismay of the SMK which felt the eight-region model reduced the chances of SMK candidates in regional elections set for December 1.

Having suffered one defeat, the SMK said it was determined that the 'competence bill' designating specific powers to regional assemblies not be sabotaged in a similar fashion.

The cabinet plan states that powers should be transferred from central to regional bodies gradually over three years. The SMK, explaining its insistence on the September 30 deadline, said candidates running in December 1 elections should have at least a short time to acquaint themselves with the powers they were likely to assume. "The later the competence bill is approved, the fewer powers will be ceded to [newly created regional] units by the time they take office at the beginning of next year," Bugár said.

Blackmail?

Despite the government's acquiescence to the SMK's demands, the party's threat to leave the government remains real until parliament approves the competence bill.

Should the SMK leave, the Slovak government would suffer in both internal stability and international reputation. "The SMK contributes a level of stability to the cabinet," said Mesežnikov.

"If pluses and minuses were assigned [in evaluation] to political parties, the SMK would have the lowest number of minuses," President Rudolf Schuster agreed of the SMK's three-year record in government.

Mesežnikov added that the three mid-August appeals by foreign diplomats to the SMK not to leave the coalition was also evidence of how much store the international community set by the presence of the Hungarians in the government. Slovakia's indifferent record on minority rights was one of the main criticisms the European Union and Nato had of the 1994-1998 government of Vladimír Mečiar.

Those arguments cut little ice with some coalition politicians, however. "The sun won't go down, no flood will come upon Slovakia, should the SMK leave the coalition," said SDĽ vice-chairman Ľubomír Andrassy. "The SMK is blackmailing its coalition partners, they're trying to play a double role. On the one hand they say they will leave the coalition, and on the other they want to stay by forcing us to act under time pressure."

"What time pressure?" responded Bugár. "We simply want the competence bill to be approved in line with the concept approved by cabinet itself over a year ago [in March 2000]."

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