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SDK warned to stop squabbles

Sunday, September 26 represents a year to the day that Slovak citizens voted for change. Rejecting the authoritarian Vladimír Mečiar and his HZDS party, voters gave the combined parties of the opposition a constitutional majority - 60% of seats in parliament - the first time in Slovak history that a government held such a commanding mandate.
One year after 1998 national elections, however, political professionals say the government has not used its overwhelming strength to take difficult but necessary economic and legal reforms. The parties of the former opposition may have been ready to take power last September, pundits say, but they were clearly not prepared to lead the country.

Sunday, September 26 represents a year to the day that Slovak citizens voted for change. Rejecting the authoritarian Vladimír Mečiar and his HZDS party, voters gave the combined parties of the opposition a constitutional majority - 60% of seats in parliament - the first time in Slovak history that a government held such a commanding mandate.

One year after 1998 national elections, however, political professionals say the government has not used its overwhelming strength to take difficult but necessary economic and legal reforms. The parties of the former opposition may have been ready to take power last September, pundits say, but they were clearly not prepared to lead the country.

"This government has behaved like a caretaker administration, not like a government with a constitutional majority," said Luboš Kubín, a political scientist with the Slovak Academy of Sciences who helped advise the ruling SDK party through its election campaign last year.

"Throughout the year, [Prime Minister Mikuláš] Dzurinda has led the government poorly. He has put off the most important reforms - amending the constitution, reforming the civil service, making economic cuts," added Kubín. "Usually, these unpleasant measures are taken immediately after elections, when political unity is at a maximum, but the Dzurinda government was unable to come to terms. I would describe this past year as the year of missed chances."

Many government politicians say the 'missed chances' to agree on tough steps were due to the heterogenous make-up of the ruling coalition, which combines parties from across the political spectrum. No party is more representative of this political mosaic than Dzurinda's SDK, itself an amalgam of five parties, and none has borne more of the blame for the government's paralysis.

"The SDK today behaves like an unstable political entity which is unable to restore order in its own kitchen," said Ľubomír Andrassy, vice-chairman of the former communist SDĽ, the second largest party in the ruling coalition. "Its internal problems must be solved as quickly as possible, because the stability of the entire government depends on the stability of the SDK."

The SDK was transformed from a coalition into a single party last May, in order to circumvent a discriminatory election law passed by the Mečiar government. Once elections, and the need for unity, were over, many SDK members expected to return to their mother parties. But their desires have been thwarted by SDK Chairman Dzurinda's determination to keep the party - and his political support base - alive.

"Two political wills exist within the SDK," said Kubín. "The paradox is that if the SDK simply breaks up into its two camps - one resurrecting the mother parties, and the other keeping a united SDK - it could actually stabilise matters [by releasing tensions]. But if they all keep on pretending that the SDK is united, the party will remain fragmented, which could be dangerous."

Judging from public warnings recently issued by the party's coalition partners, the 'dangers' inherent in a fragemented SDK are already at hand. "The current SDK is not the SDK with whom the SOP signed the coalition agreement [on October 29, 1998]," said Deputy Prime Minister Pavol Hamžík, leader of the SOP junior coalition party, on September 20. "The SOP needs a reliable political partner which is able to keep mutual agreements. Mikuláš Dzurinda can fulfill this role, but the SDK must provide him with a platform from which to fulfill his function as Prime Minister."

Changing the PM?

For now, the SDK's fractious elements are still declaring support for Dzurinda both as party leader and as Prime Minister. But Kubín said the government as a whole should begin considering a change in leadership.

"Dzurinda is simply not the man to find a junction between the SDK's member parties," said Kubín. "Politicians should begin thinking about changing the head of the government without any pointless hysteria."

"A weak political party which has internal problems automatically weakens the position of the Prime Minister," agreed the SDĽ's Andrassy. "That's why it should be in Dzurinda's best interest to solve the SDK's problems as soon as possible. So far, the SDK's coalition partners still respect Dzurinda as the head of the government."

For Andrassy, as for other coalition politicians, 'solving' the SDK's problems and buttressing Dzurinda does not include allowing the party to break up into its factions. None of the SDK's member parties actually contested 1998 elections or won votes under its own banner, Andrassy argued, and thus none should be allowed to inherit the political mandate given to the SDK. "If the SDK were to break up as a party, a completely new political situation would confront us," said Andrassy. "We would not only have to re-evaluate but completely rewrite the coalition agreement."

Rewriting the coalition agreement, however, is still a far cry from calling early parliamentary elections, something the opposition HZDS has been predicting for some months as cabinet disunity continued. Kubín opined that it was extremely unlikely that parliament would ever summon the 90 votes - the constitutional majority - needed to call pre-term elections.

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