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SDĽ leader threatens to leave coalition

Tumbling voter preferences and the government's continuing aggressive market reforms led a senior government member this week to announce his party might leave the ruling coalition.
Jozef Migaš, speaker of parliament and the chairman of the former communist Democratic Left Party (SDĽ), told the SITA news agency on February 15 that his party might quit the government if more was not done to ease the effect of economic reforms on the average citizen - the SDĽ's traditional voter base.
"The SDĽ wishes to remain a stable element of the government coalition, but if it [the government] continues its restrictive policies and neglects programme goals regarding employment, education and the social sphere, the SDĽ would consider the possibility of quitting the government," Migaš said.


According to political scientists, the SDĽ is not as united as it seems.
photo: TASR

Tumbling voter preferences and the government's continuing aggressive market reforms led a senior government member this week to announce his party might leave the ruling coalition.

Jozef Migaš, speaker of parliament and the chairman of the former communist Democratic Left Party (SDĽ), told the SITA news agency on February 15 that his party might quit the government if more was not done to ease the effect of economic reforms on the average citizen - the SDĽ's traditional voter base.

"The SDĽ wishes to remain a stable element of the government coalition, but if it [the government] continues its restrictive policies and neglects programme goals regarding employment, education and the social sphere, the SDĽ would consider the possibility of quitting the government," Migaš said.

Migaš's announcement was apparently prompted by a February 12 SDĽ congress in the eastern Slovak town of Rožňava, where a regional branch of the party cited falling public support for the SDĽ as a reason to consider leaving the government. A January poll by the Markant agency gave the SDĽ 5.3% support, far below the 14.7% the party won in September 1998 national elections.

Many in the SDĽ have pinned blame for the falling numbers on the three waves of energy and transport price hikes approved by the government since early 1999, as well as the country's spiralling unemployment level, which last December topped 20% for the first time in Slovak history.

"I take it [the Rožňava congress criticism] as motivation to make our politics even more socially-oriented and leftist than we have been doing so far," Migaš said, adding that Finance Minister and SDĽ stalwart Brigita Schmögnerová should re-evaluate the government's "cruel rightist measures."

"She should realize the consequences [of economic reforms] for the long term development of the country," Migaš said.

Many government officials dismissed Migaš's words as empty populism. Peter Švec, Schmögnerová's spokesman, told media on the minister's behalf that "no one can doubt the necessity for restrictive economic measures."

Katarína Mathernová, an advisor in the office of Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš, called Migaš's statements "political posturing," and vowed the SDĽ leaders promise of 'more leftist' politics would not stall further reforms.

Political professionals also played down Migaš's threat to leave the coalition, with political scientist Ľuboš Kubín branding such an act as "political suicide for the SDĽ." Kubín, too, felt the recent tempest was an attempt by Migaš to win voters back by portraying himself as the defender of the common man.

Ironically, it is Migaš's aggressive behaviour which may actually be driving the faithful away. The party's preferences have been in steep decline since the departure of popular MP Róbert Fico. Fico, who left the SDĽ last year to found a new party ('Smer'), blamed "lack of support" from senior party officials for his decision.

"Due to the illiterate [economic] language used by Migaš, many people have decided to give their support to Róbert Fico," said Soňa Szomolány, head of the department of political science at Bratislava's Comenius University. "Fico is a more eloquent and more intelligent speaker than Migaš, and he is also a bigger populist."

She added that it was natural that the SDĽ was now seriously concerned about its political future. "But Migaš does not react appropriately. He spreads panic. To say the party will consider withdrawing from the coalition is irresponsible."

According to many political scientists, the SDĽ is made up of two groups. The first, represented by Migaš, consists of communist die-hards who believe the state should have a strong role in the economy. The second, clustered around Schmögnerová, understand how a market economy works and have accepted the need for economic reform. "Migaš does not understand the rules of a free market economy," said Szomolányi. "He does not represent the interests of the common people but rather those of state bureaucrats."

Ties between the Migaš SDĽ group and state bureaucracy were the focus of a recent dispute over land. Agriculture Minister Pavol Koncoš refused in January to transfer certain lands administered by the central Slovak Land Fund to local municipalities, even though the measure has been set this year by the government as one of its main objectives.

Hungarian Coalition party leader Béla Bugár told The Slovak Spectator that Koncoš's connections to big farming cooperatives (which rented the land in question at a cheap rate from the Land Fund) were behind the Agriculture Minister's refusal to carry out the government's programme objectives. Bugár added it was a pity some SDĽ members were casting a shadow over the good work done by other SDĽ ministers.

"The SDĽ has ministers who can have a positive impact on improving the situation in employment and economy," Bugár said. "Schmögnerová and Labour Minister Peter Magvaši are in good position to encourage and make positive changes happen. But instead, the SDĽ always criticizes and never comes up with a realistic plan to solve burning issues."

These charges were refuted by SDĽ deputy Milan Ištván, who declared that "the SDĽ does not slow down reforms - quite the opposite. We have pushed for reforms for which our coalition partners weren't prepared, and we have blocked only those reforms that we thought were not well prepared, like the restructuring of public administration."

Ištvan added that the SDĽ had not been surprised by its drop in popularity, and was expecting its numbers to improve next year once the fruit of austerity measures began to ripen. The threat to leave the coalition was neither bluster nor blackmail, he said, but a "fair and realistic attempt to point out existing problems and draw attention to the extremely difficult social situation of Slovakia's common people."

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