Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda decided on September 6 to return to his former Christian Democrat (KDH) party. Although still formally chairman of the SDK, the largest ruling coalition member, Dzurinda's move has led some to question how long the SDK will survive.
Dzurinda said he had been moved to return to the KDH out of concern for how it was being run by a long-time political rival, Justice Minister and KDH Chairman Ján Čarnogurský. "I can no longer watch the KDH fall behind the Communist Party [in the polls]," he said.
Last week, an apparently spontaneous petition signed by 69 KDH members from eastern Slovakia expressed confidence in and support for Dzurinda, and criticised the party for contributing to tensions within the SDK.
In joining the KDH several days after the petition was made public, Dzurinda confessed he was abandoning his vision of turning the SDK into a "people's party" with popular support of over 40%. "I never intended to build the SDK into a separate party," he said at a press conference.
Political professionals said that in returning to the KDH, Dzurinda had effectively destroyed the SDK as a political force, despite the fact that he was still the leader of the party. "The SDK is now a Mercedes with the motor of a Trabant," said Luboš Kubín, a political scientist with the Slovak Academy of Sciences. "The party's leadership council now no longer functions."
The SDK, which was formed as a political party by five member parties in 1998 to contest national elections, has been the subject of an fierce internal struggle over the past 10 months as the founding members debate the virtue of remaining united over the attractions of resuming their former political identities.
Almost all of the SDK's member parties have recently said they favour dissolving the SDK as a sovereign party. The SDK's preferences in the polls plunged from 24.5% in May to 14.5% in August.
The other three members of the governing coalition - the Hungarian SMK party, the leftist SOP and the former communist SDĽ - have expressed fears that if the SDK splits up into its five founding members, the coalition agreements that the SDK signed as a party last November may be invalid.
The opposition HZDS party, while calling Dzurinda's return "an internal affair of the coalition," said the move "is evidence of instability in the governing coalition and broken pre-election promises on the part of the highest state representatives." HZDS speaker Marian Kardoš said that "we can't rule out early elections, especially if the disappearance of the SDK results in an anti-constitutional situation."
Taking KDH by storm
Dzurinda was accompanied in his return to the Christian Democrat fold by Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner and SDK deputy Branislav Orava. All men keep their membership in the SDK, but Dzurinda will not be eligible to hold a high position in the Christian Democrats because he already holds the leadership of the SDK.
KDH Chairman Čarnogurský, for his part, welcomed Dzurinda back to the KDH and said he looked forward to a "noble fight" for the leadership of the party, with a noble political outcome.
But other KDH stalwarts, like Čarnogurský hardliner and party vice-chairman Vladimír Palko, said he thought that in returning to the KDH, Dzurinda had sacrificed his political vision - the SDK - for a more secure political future with the Christian Democrats.
Although Dzurinda will be kept by KDH rules from personally challenging Čarnogurský for the KDH leadership at a party congress next April, the Prime Minister's close ally Ivan Šimko has not ruled out running against the Justice Minister himself.
"We want to modernize and open the KDH for co-operation with other parties," Šimko told The Slovak Spectator on September 8. "We believe also that the KDH should be clearer in its foreign policy priorities."
But Palko said he thought the Dzurinda KDH faction - which includes Šimko and Deputy Foreign Minister Ján Fígeľ - stood no chance of unseating Čarnogurský as KDH leader next April.
Kubín agreed. "The KDH is a conservative party, and this kind of ritual execution of Ján Čarnogurský isn't the way KDH members like to see things done," he said. "They prefer gradual change."
If Dzurinda and Šimko fail to take the KDH by coup next spring, the die appears to be cast, as the two would have little chance of reviving the SDK as a political force.
"If Dzurinda had told voters after elections last fall, when his approval ratings were high, that he was disbanding the SDK because it had been formed only to fight elections, he would have stood a far better chance of winning the KDH leadership," said Kubín. "But in fighting for a strong SDK, even after elections, he simply burned too many bridges with members of the KDH."
Palko seemed to confirm that verdict. "Frankly, I don't consider the SDK as a political force any more," he said, adding that the KDH was busy charting its own political course.