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RULING COALITION PARTNERS CALL ON SDK DISSIDENTS TO REMEMBER THEIR "RESPONSIBILITY TO SLOVAKIA"

Coalition mates scold SDK for low discipline

The opposition HZDS of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar has been predicting for several months now that October will bring significant political change to Slovakia in the form of early parliamentary elections. With over 30% support in a recent poll, compared to 13% for the SDK, the strongest government party, the HZDS has confidently predicted that it will return to power, replacing a government wracked by disunity and beset by scandal.
The current government has steadily dismissed the HZDS forecasts, but recent events show that the SDK is no longer functioning as a unified political body, causing disunity and tension within the coalition. The five member parties who united to form the SDK last summer are now deciding what policies 'their' deputies will support, while the SDK's coalition partners look on in dismay, fearing that the coalition agreements signed by the SDK will become invalid if the party dissolves.

The opposition HZDS of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar has been predicting for several months now that October will bring significant political change to Slovakia in the form of early parliamentary elections. With over 30% support in a recent poll, compared to 13% for the SDK, the strongest government party, the HZDS has confidently predicted that it will return to power, replacing a government wracked by disunity and beset by scandal.

The current government has steadily dismissed the HZDS forecasts, but recent events show that the SDK is no longer functioning as a unified political body, causing disunity and tension within the coalition. The five member parties who united to form the SDK last summer are now deciding what policies 'their' deputies will support, while the SDK's coalition partners look on in dismay, fearing that the coalition agreements signed by the SDK will become invalid if the party dissolves.

In the past week, division within the SDK became apparent when the Democratic Party (DS) faction, a small cluster of right-wing market reformers, declared it would not support the recall of Ľudovít Kaník, the president of the FNM state privatisation agency. Kaník's recall had been proposed in July by SDK Chairman and Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, who claimed Kaník had undermined the interests of the state in handling the sale of a stake in Nafta Gbely, a lucrative gas storage company.

By press time, 18 SDK deputies, most of them from the DS party, had resolved not to support the government motion when the matter came to a vote during parliament's September session. Kaník had been appointed to his post at the suggestion of the DS and its most visible member, Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš.

The SDK has also been divided into radical and liberal camps recently by a draft law on Large Scale Privatisation, which would allow the sale of state utilities and banks to foreign investors. The liberals in the party - mainly the Democratic Union (DÚ) faction - agreed to compromise to meet the demands of the former communist SDĽ party, the SDK's main partner in the coalition. The SDĽ had insisted that state ownership of certain utilities be guaranteed by law.

SDK radicals - again, mostly DS members - refused to brook anything less than full privatisation, and by press time, six deputies had refused to support the compromise law favoured by the rest of the SDK.

Nor was SDK unity helped by Dzurinda's decision on September 6 to return to his mother party, the right wing Christian Democrats (KDH), who under their leader and Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský have always advocated dissolving the SDK as a party and returning to a five-party coalition with other SDK founders.

The internal turmoil within the SDK has recently brought angry outbursts from the SDK's coalition partners. Deputy Prime Minister Pavol Hamžík, chairman of the SOP party, said on September 13 that he was dissatisfied with the state of relations in the coalition, and warned that the government must work hard to avoid losing the trust of voters.

Hamžík explained that communication between coalition members was poor. He put most of the blame on the SDK, which he said "today is far from showing the strength we need to move the coalition forward, because it is losing strength within its own party."

SDĽ vice-chairman Peter Weiss echoed Hamžík's disappointment. "When we evaluated this government's activities over almost 12 months, we realised that we have really achieved a great deal," he said. "But this fact has been overshadowed by long-standing conflicts within the SDK, mostly with the Christian Democrats. The government has also been weakened by the radical stance of the DS towards its other coalition partners. This SDK infighting has given the impression to the public, and unfortunately not only the domestic but also the international public, that the government is unstable. The time has come for the DS and the KDH to realise that they carry responsibility for the entire country."

Mindless of the disapproval of other coalition members, however, SDK member parties are moving ever closer to dissolving the largest government bloc. Four of the SDK's members - the KDH, DÚ, DS and the tiny socialist SDSS - have said they favour returning to a coalition and disbanding the SDK as a party. The KDH has gone even further, deciding at a September 11 congress that it would contest 2002 elections under its own banner.

"I think that this transformation [of the SDK from a party to a coalition] should have happened a long time ago," said SDSS Chairman Jaroslav Volf. "If transformation occurs, and if it is finally made clear who has what powers and what role the SDK plays in deciding policy, relations within the SDK deputies club will finally be clarified."

Under the Slovak parliamentary system, each party has a deputies club to which all its MP's belong. The SDK deputies club, for example, is supposed to set policy for all its members, guidelines which are to be followed in parliamentary voting. Custom, although not law, dictates that deputies follow club policy.

The SDK deputies club, however, has not functioned according to Slovak political custom for some time, according to its members. DÚ member Ján Budaj explained the situation thus: "The SDK parliamentary club already functions as if the party were a five-member coalition. It bears no resemblance at all to the parliamentary club of a unified party."

KDH deputy Vladimír Palko agreed. "We can't speak of an SDK deputies club, but of a joint club between the SDK and its five mother parties."

The DS' František Šebej, on the other hand, opined that the SDK club "in most cases takes decisions together," but conceded that the bonds of unity were wearing thin. "The question, of course," he said, "is who is willing to put his hand up [and vote] for something that is against his conscience."

All SDK respondents - Budaj, Šebej, Palko and Volf - said that it was premature to speak of the dissolution of the SDK deputies club. "The SDK club is so far stable, because no one has left it yet," said Budaj. "The club is not complicating the work of the coalition."

But were the SDK to return to a coalition of its five founding members, it might well lose the trust of the other three ruling coalition partners. The SDK's Volf explained that "it depends on their [ruling coalition partners'] good will. I think they will come to realise that they gain nothing by doubting the SDK's future as a coalition. They can't rule without us, so they'll have to come to an agreement."

But for the SDĽ's Weiss, it was unthinkable for the SDK to return to a coalition - and remain a reliable government partner. "That's really nice, what he [Volf] said, but the SDĽ signed a coalition agreement with the SDK," Weiss responded. "We simply don't want to revise the coalition agreement, because that would create huge problems on the Slovak political scene and in the functioning of the government. I have the feeling that in view of their falling voter preferences, our coalition partners from the founding members of the SDK have forgotten the higher principle, which is responsibility for the future of the Slovak Republic."

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