KOŠICE: While many ruling coalition politicians had hoped that the socialist Party of the Democratic Left would choose a less controversial replacement for chairman Jozef Migaš at its July 8-9 annual congress, the party itself had other ideas, re-electing Migaš to another term with 64% support and sending a strong signal of disapproval to more moderate party members such as Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová and Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik.
Migaš, who has been criticized by his coalition partners and party colleagues for apparently clientist relations with the Slovak-Russian financial house Dev'n banka, took the offensive at the congress and lashed out at his opponents. Although the party's 443 delegates met behind closed doors, participants later said that the chairman had slammed Schmognerová and former Democratic Left chairman Peter Weiss - a popular stance that later brought him 283 votes.
A change to the party's statutes, approved before the leadership ballot, also strengthened Migaš' support on the Democratic Left's senior decision-making body, the republic council.
Party delegates and political professionals said that the results of the congress had divided the party more deeply than ever before. Schmognerová, who left the Košice meeting early, has said she may consider giving up her ministerial post if she does not obtain a statement of support from the republic council; other Democratic Left members have mooted forming a breakaway wing of the party.
The results of the congress may also have a significant impact on the work of Slovakia's four-party ruling coalition. According to some government officials, the Democratic Left may now intensify its socialist stance, slowing important changes such as public sector and social insurance reform even further.
"The election of Migaš endangers what the government is trying to push ahead, namely the reform of the public sector," said ruling coalition MP František Šebej, a member of the right-wing Democratic Party. "The victorious elements in the SDĽ are anti-reform. This means complicated times ahead for the ruling coalition."
Going into the congress, Migaš and Ftáčnik - the two candidates for the chairmanship - had been given roughly equal chances of taking the post. But in the end, Ftáčnik took only 183 votes, and was elected vice-chairman along with youth candidates Braňo Ondruš (27) and Ľubom'r Andrassy (26).
According to a party delegate who requested anonymity, it was the youth vote combined with the support of the regional rank and file that had given Migaš victory. "Young party members supported him [Migaš] because he was the first and only chairman to raise their profile. He brought them to Bratislava and allowed them into high politics. He made vice-chairmen of them. And the old guard voted for him because he represents the old socialist school, the old [communist] structures."
Ftáčnik, on the other hand, was handicapped by the modernity of his socialist policies, according to the delegate. "Ftáčnik is a chess-player, an intellectual. He doesn't understand the regional delegates, and they in turn don't understand him. The regional delegates fear his modern thinking because they think it will cost them influence in the party."
Former party chairman Peter Weiss also received rough treatment at the congress, being accused by Migaš of destroying the party by leaking internal information to the press, and of inadequately representing the Democratic Left's foreign policy (Weiss is chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee).
"The very fact that you already know what the chairman said in his speech, which took place behind closed doors, proves that I'm not the one leaking information," Weiss told journalists during a break.
In his 25 page speech, Migaš also reserved criticism for two other special targets - Schmögnerová and Defence Minister Pavol Kanis, who along with Weiss had openly supported Ftáčnik before the congress. Schmognerová, who a week earlier had said she might leave the Democratic Left if Migaš were re-elected, was accused of dividing the party, while Kanis was presented as unable to direct the party's 'practical politics' wing (he is currently head of the Democratic Left's council of ministers).
Again, the delegate said that Migaš' criticisms met with solid applause. "Simple people from the countryside blame Schmögnerová for all the unpopular economic reforms the government has undertaken, and she doesn't know how to explain her steps to the common people. She's like a bull in a china shop when it comes to leftist politics - she may be an economic specialist, but she's definitely not a political survivor, a tactician or even pratical."
Following the leadership vote, some disappointed Ftáčnik supporters said they were considering leaving the party, which under Migaš has fallen from over 14% popular support in September 1998 elections to under 6% this summer. MP Milan Ištván, for example, said "it looks as if Migaš is actually trying to force these people [Weiss, Schmögnerová, Kanis and Ftáčnik] out of the party. But I think in the end the most likely outcome is that they will form a separate platform within the party."
Migaš expressed surprise that any Democratic Left members would want to leave. "I have no information that anyone wants to leave the party after the congress. The SDĽ [Democratic Left] needs all its members," he said. But when asked if Schmognerová still had his support, Migaš hesitated and replied almost inaudibly "she does", giving the clear impression that the Finance Minister may not enjoy this support for long.
And despite Migaš' proclamation that the results of the congress had united the party's factions, delegates reported that the reformers and the old guard had fought a pitched battle following the leadership vote. Shortly after Migaš' re-election, Ftáčnik supporters began circulating a petition to create an SDĽ platform that would oppose Migaš and remain clear of accusations of clientelism. Migaš supporters in turn began collecting signatures in favour of Ftáčnik's resignation - a standoff that, according to one delegate, was resolved only when Migaš intervened to calm the waters.
While Ftáčnik was publicly conciliatory following the congress, Schmögnerová said she might resign her post if the republic council did not express support for her at its next meeting. But changes to the party's statutes, increasing the number of regional delegates - and thus potential Migaš supporters - on the 25-member council from 8 to 16, make it now less likely that this support will be forthcoming.
"If Schmögnerová doesn't get this support I can imagine she might resign," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Bratislava think tank Institute for Public Affairs.
Mesežnikov added that while the results of the congress would have no dramatic impact on the SDĽ's voter support, in solidifying Migaš' position it "will have a damaging impact on the ruling coalition [government] because it increases the influence of a group which has not been very cooperative [in supporting reforms]."