HZDS boss Vladimír Mečiar warned of citizen unrest after President Rudolf Schuster decided on August 24 against calling a referendum on the minority language law, passed in June.
The government endured many rocky moments, with the resignation of two key ministers and constant tensions over the future of largest member party, the SDK. Former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar predicted early elections throughout the year, and added that his opposition HZDS party had been holding "secret negotiations" with members of the ruling coalition on forming a new government. Meanwhile, rising unemployment and falling real wages sparked union protests and the threat of a national strike.
Despite these difficulties, the government successfully passed two key pieces of legislation - a law providing for direct election of the president and a minority language law - and managed to uphold the principles of political pluralism and the rule of law.
A 'constitutional law' (requiring two-thirds support in parliament) on direct presidential elections passed in January, and another law passed in March set the stage for the country's first-ever direct presidential elections on May 15 (see 'PRESIDENCY' section, page 8).
The language law, passed on June 23 after weeks of emotional debate in parliament, was the last political criterion Slovakia had to meet in order to be considered for EU membership. Although the law followed recommendations laid out by the OSCE, the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) refused to support the draft because it did not govern the use of minority languages in education, culture and media.
While the political dissent over the language law was overshadowed by the importance of the legislation, disagreement in other areas of political life brought instability to the ruling coalition and was widely reported by the media.
The scene of the toughest battles was the SDK ruling party, itself a coalition of five former parties who had joined to form the SDK in May, 1998 in order to circumvent an election law amendment passed by the former Mečiar government.
Throughout 1999, the SDK's member parties weighed the virtues of remaining united, and thus bound to a common political voice, against the attractions of returning to a loose coalition and the freedom to follow their political callings. The Christian Democrat (KDH) faction of the SDK was the most aggressive in favour of abolishing the SDK, and announced at a congress on September 11 their intentions of entering the 2002 elections under their own banner.
The internal turmoil within the SDK brought angry outbursts from coalition partners. "The government has been weakened by this SDK infighting," said SDĽ Vice-Chairman Peter Weiss. "The time has come for the DS [another SDK faction] and the KDH to realise that they carry responsibility for the entire country."
Adding to the party's problems were scandal allegations levied against two SDK ministers. On August 8, Telecom Minister Gabriel Palacka resigned after being accused of corruption over his handling of cases such as the selection of a privatisation advisor for the state telecom monopoly Slovenská Telekomunikácie (ST) and the cancellation of a tender for a third Slovak mobile telephone operator.
Exactly two months later, Economy Minister Ľudovít Černák also stepped down after a series of economic scandals, including the botched purchase of a 45.9% stake in gas storage company Nafta Gbely and the embarrassing loss of the state's controlling share in Priemyselná Banka.
Politicians disenchanted with the political scene made waves of their own. Former Slovak Ambassador to the Czech Republic Ivan Mjartin founded a new political party in September called the Party of the Democratic Centre (SDS). Former SDĽ MP Róbert Fico, a highly popular figure who had made controversial comments criticising Hungarian participation in the Slovak government, formed his own party called SMER (direction) on December 11. According to the latest polls, Fico's party would capture over 12% popular support compared to 12.4% for the governing SDK and 25.8% for the opposition HZDS.
On October 23, Mečiar shocked political observers when he said that the HZDS had been holding secret negotiations with member parties of the ruling coalition. "Whether they like it or not, we're here and we'll be in a dominant position for the foreseeable future," Meciar told the daily Národná Obroda. "Other parties will have to define their relationship towards us."
As the parties played out their political tug of war, public unrest intensified. On February 12, approximately 2,500 metal workers gathered in Bratislava to protest the government's economic policies, which they said were costing workers jobs, wages and rights. A package of economic 'austerity measures' approved by the government in May over the objections of the KOZ labour umbrella group further inflamed angers among unionists.
In line with the state's massive cost-cutting measures, the cabinet announced in July that 27,000 civil servants would be fired by the end of the year in order to save three billion crowns for the state budget.
Education employees also took to the streets September 2 in the country's three largest cities - Bratislava, Košice and Banská Bystrica - to protest low wages and the government's decision to lay-off 10% of the system's non-educational employees. If demands were not met, educators said, strikes would soon follow.
The largest protest of the year, organised by the KOZ, was staged on September 25 in Bratislava's SNP Square. Some 40,000 workers from around the country gathered to demand higher wages and lower unemplyment, and to vent their frustrations over the government's economic policy.
Ultimately, the Dzurinda government won credit for steering important legislation through parliament, but was criticized for showing disunity and disregard for other important reforms. "Throughout the year, Dzurinda has led the government poorly," said Ľuboš Kubín, a political scientist with the Slovak Academy of Sciences. "He has put off the most important reforms - amending the constitution, reforming the civil service, making economic cuts. I would describe this past year as the year of missed chances."
20. Dec 1999 at 0:00 | Chris Togneri