Juraj Švec (left) and Ján Budaj (centre), vice chairmen of the Democratic Union (DÚ) party, confer with DÚ chairman Ľubomír Harach moments before storming out of the party's May 6 conference.
Internal disunity has plagued the SDK since the party came second in 1998 elections (26.3%) and formed a coalition government with three other parties. The SDK, itself a coalition of five still-existing parties now known as 'platforms', could never agree on a power-sharing mechanism that would respect the independence of each platform but ensure that joint decisions were reached quickly.
Divisions within the SDK deepened early this year as Dzurinda announced a risky plan to form a new party - the SDKÚ - and take with him any SDK member who would follow. Many high-level SDK politicians did just that, among them Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan and Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner. Other SDK deputies who remained with their original platforms said they felt betrayed by Dzurinda, and called the SDKÚ an attempt to divide and conquer the PM's opponents within his former party.
Dzurinda's new call for a fusion of the SDK's centre-right platforms has thus simply heightened tensions within the crumbling party. One of the SDK's five platforms, the Democratic Union (DÚ), is already in tatters after a May 6 conference when DÚ vice-chairmen Ján Budaj and Juraj Švec resigned and stormed out claiming that DÚ chairman, SDKÚ signatory Ľubomír Harach, was not acting in the DÚ's best interests. Almost a third of DÚ delegates joined the rebels in abandoning the conference.
"This isn't the first attempt of Dzurinda to abuse the political potential of parties which started the SDK," said a grim Budaj in parliament May 9. "I see this [the PM's proposal for political fusion] as an attempt to fragment rather than unify the political scene. Similar attempts will be made at the conferences of the other SDK platforms - the DS [Democratic Party] and the KDH [Christian Democrats], where groups of MP's close to Dzurinda will again attempt to build a party along non-standard lines."
Other SDK members are taking the same line, among them the Christian Democrats' František Mikloško. "The KDH refuses these negotiations [on a fusion of the SDK's platforms], and indeed we won't take part in any negotiations that mean our own liquidation," he said.
The Democratic Party, the most right-wing of the SDK's member groups, is also taking a dim view of Dzurinda's plan, with vice-chairman Peter Zajac calling the proposal "abnormal". "We think that 'fusion' should mean 'coalition' - not a false or violent process which would mean the liquidation of the SDK platforms," he said. "I think if Dzurinda is a realist he will accept this model. I see his recent offer as an attempt to liquidate the platforms. The DÚ is a perfect example of this."
But SDKÚ adherents are standing firm by Dzurinda, and claiming that dissenting voices within the SDK are simply those of politicians who don't grasp the political future of the country.
Gabriel Palacka, a former Telecom Minister who resigned amid corruption allegations last year and who is currently regarded as a close supporter of the prime minister, said that it was high time the country offered voters a strong centre-right alternative to the many leftist parties and former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar's surging opposition HZDS.
"The time has now come," he said. "It's two years to the next elections, and we wanted to give people who don't want socialism or nationalism but a normal party a clear choice of whom to vote for." If SDK members like Budaj, Mikloško and Zajac feared the destruction of their political parties, most of which had existed since the 1989 revolution, said Palacka, "that's their problem. It's absolutely irrelevant and unimportant which individual politicians join the SDKÚ."
Political professionals, for their part, were generally supportive of the PM's initiative, arguing that the SDKÚ, currently at around 13% in the polls, represented the best vehicle for current SDK members to score a significant result in the next elections. With Mečiar's HZDS at between 25 and 30%, and independent MP Robert Fico's upstart Smer party at 23%, they said, Dzurinda had to act quickly to regain ebbing support for the ruling coalition's strongest party.
"Dzurinda is faced with the problem of raising the voter potential of his party, and from this viewpoint I understand him," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) think tank. "There has been a huge upheaval in the SDK while deciding in what form to enter the next elections, and the problem is that the solution he has presented the SDK is unacceptable."
Dzurinda himself claimed that the form the proposed fusion would take - coalition or liquidation - was open to negotiation, and most SDK members said they thought the PM would not lose his seat over the upheaval. But as Budaj added, the latest squabble meant the party was continuing to squander resources on internecine warfare rather than worrying about how to defeat the resurgent Mečiar.
"If we want to fight Mečiar we can't fight among each other," he said. "As a result of these recent fights, the HZDS is stronger and more unified than ever before. The SDK, on the other hand, the winner of the last elections, is divided, and even its platforms are in huge disorder."