When the two largest opposition parties the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the Slovak National Party (SNS) called an April 13 parliamentary vote of non-confidence against Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, it appeared to be just another round of opposition tactics. After all, the vote against Dzurinda was the seventh vote of non-confidence initiated against a ruling member of the government since the beginning of last year, none of which had yet to result in a dismissal.
But after HZDS Member of Parliament Alojz Engliš addressed Dzurinda during the parliamentary discussions preceding the vote by saying, "You, Mr. Prime Minister, are nothing more than a gypsy," it soon became clear that this would not be a normal day in Parliament.
Indeed, Jozef Migaš made sure of that. The Speaker of Parliament and chairman of the reformed communist Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ), Migaš shocked observers and caused a governmental uproar when he, as well as four of his party mates, voted against the PM.
Dzurinda survived the vote - 60 MPs voted against him, 78 for, and 12 abstained - but Migaš's unpredictable behaviour raised questions of SDĽ and government stability. Coalition partners issued immediate and sweeping condemnations against the Speaker of Parliament, while political analysts said Migaš's behaviour had been an act of desperation by a man trying to save his sinking SDĽ ship.
"Migaš's vote was very irrational," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, President of the Institute of Public Affairs on April 18. "It was the reaction of a man whose party is in deep trouble, and he was trying to solve them this way. But all he actually did was betray his closest allies."
Migaš defended his vote by saying that although he supported the current government coalition, he felt that the nation would be better served with a reconstruction of the government agreement signed by the coalition parties in 1998. Few in the coalition shared this belief, and the SDĽ was divided into two factions - one supporting Migaš, and the second in favour of turning over the party reins to Defence Minister Pavol Kanis.
"The level of trust between us has been severely damaged," said Peter Weiss, the former SDĽ Chairman and current head of the parliamentary Foreign Committee, on April 14. He added that he found it "strange" for the government-nominated Speaker of Parliament to fight against the coalition more than the opposition.
"I think we need a better national representative to be our Speaker of Parliament," said Pal Csaky, Deputy Prime Minister from the coalition Hungarian Coalition Party.
Migaš's vote also took foreign diplomats in Bratislava by surprise. "I was really stunned. I started thinking about the real possibility of early elections," said one foreign diplomat in Bratislava, who spoke on the condition of anonymity on April 17. Weiss added that he, too had struggled to explain the situation to foreign embassy representatives. "It's not that important which embassy it was, but it was very hard to explain," he said.
The opposition, meanwhile, embraced Migaš's vote. HZDS Vice-Chairman Jozef Božik said that Migaš had "proven himself to be a good politician, a politician who should also be involved in the next Slovak government."
For the SDĽ, internal squabbles are proving increasingly divisive while political polls reflect a plummeting preference rate. Analysts explained that the first of the party's two opposing forces centred around Migaš and SDĽ vice-chairman Ľubomír Andrassy, who were supported by a handful of SDĽ MP's and regional leaders. On the other side was a group of high-ranking government officials led by Defence Minister Kanis, which included Weiss and Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová, who support the current government and its reform efforts.
Although Migaš's security within the parliament as well as his own caucus now appears to be seriously weakened, the substantial regional support from lower SDĽ bodies remained influential. The SDĽ Republic Committee, consisting of 21 national and regional party leaders, met on April 15 and declared their support for Migaš's vote, as well as his desire to remain party boss. The committee also refused a proposal made by pro-government SDĽ members to call an emergency party conference before their next scheduled conference in October.
When elected to government after the September 1998 elections, the party enjoyed 14.7% support, but the latest polls showed that the figure had slipped to around 6%. "There is a danger that the SDĽ will break into two parties and actually disappear from the Slovak political scene," Mesežnikov said.
But Weiss said such speculation was premature. "We've already started party discussions about our future," he said. "Time will show which road the SDĽ will take. There are various persons and various opinions within our party."
Weiss added that the SDĽ was in dire need of a transformation. "We must improve our style of governing, because we've lost the image of being a modernised and democratic party," he said. "We are paying the price for supporting difficult social reforms - especially Schmögnerová [Finance Minister] and Magvaši [Labour and Social Affairs Minister] who must carry out the most painful measurements."