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EDITORIAL

Communists in government: Now, as then, a mistake

Established western democracies follow a kind of political routine - governments spend several years carrying out their programmes, and then for 12 months abandon leadership for populism in what is known as an election campaign. Most countries survive the ordeal, which says more about the stability of their societies than about the virtues of their politicians.
Slovakia, however, is far from an established democracy. Slovak society is volatile, subject to 'bank runs' of confidence in everything from democracy to NATO to minority rights. What it needs more than anything else is a government that will spend its entire four year election term hauling the nation back to prosperity and political sanity without constantly worrying about how voters are taking it. In short, it needs the very quality most rarely found in politicians - leadership.


The SDĽ has hitched its wagon to state control of utilities and natural monopolies. Party leader Jozef Migáš believes that politicians make the best jockeys, and intends to prove it in 2002.
photo: Ján Svrček

Established western democracies follow a kind of political routine - governments spend several years carrying out their programmes, and then for 12 months abandon leadership for populism in what is known as an election campaign. Most countries survive the ordeal, which says more about the stability of their societies than about the virtues of their politicians.

Slovakia, however, is far from an established democracy. Slovak society is volatile, subject to 'bank runs' of confidence in everything from democracy to NATO to minority rights. What it needs more than anything else is a government that will spend its entire four year election term hauling the nation back to prosperity and political sanity without constantly worrying about how voters are taking it. In short, it needs the very quality most rarely found in politicians - leadership.

What the country definitely does not need is parties like the former communist SDĽ. As a member of the governing coalition, the SDĽ has done much to brake economic reform and foster political conflict. It has done these things with an eye on 2002 elections and the nationalist, working-class voters it hopes to steal from the opposition HZDS party of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. It has, quite simply, been on the campaign trail since election results were tabulated last September.

Here is a brief catalogue of the SDĽ's activities in government so far.

The only positive contribution the SDĽ has made to ruling the country was in supporting the election of President Rudolf Schuster in May. Given that Schuster is himself a former high-ranking communist, however, the SDĽ may be excused that momentary departure from campaign politics.

On the negative side of the scoresheet, the party has consistently provoked senseless conflicts with the Hungarian minority party. Last October's 'doubts' about the wisdom of having Hungarians in government were followed by libel charges filed against Hungarian leader Béla Bugár in January and by an attempt to scupper the minority language law this summer. Last week we saw more of the same, a petulant refusal by eight SDĽ members to support a government colleague (a Hungarian) who was facing a parliamentary vote of non-confidence initiated by the opposition. The reason advanced for the most recent display of boorishness was that Pál Csáky, the embattled Hungarian government official, had insulted the memory of the Slovak National Uprising. No one seemed to find it curious that a pack of former communists, who still address each other as 'comrade,' are now parading as defenders of the nation's memory.

The party has shown the same hypocrisy on the economy. SDĽ members of cabinet include Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová, Labour Minister Peter Magvaši and Agriculture Minister Pavol Koncoš. With such important portfolios, the party has known since last year that Slovakia's economy is in a perilous situation. In spite of this, SDĽ politicians have slowed economic reform to a crawl, have watered down austerity measures to the point that they scarcely deserve the name, and now threaten to gut the most important laws on the calendar - bank restructuring and large-scale privatisation.

The party says it opposes selling off state monopolies, utilities and other firms to private investors. The reasons advanced: it's against the constitution; it's against the coalition agreement signed last fall; it's against the national interest; and the money that the state gets from the sales will wind up in politicians' pockets rather than in the state treasury.

These spurious arguments obscure the truth - that the average Slovak citizen, whom the SDĽ claims to represent, will be far worse off in five years if state companies are not privatised now. If the state insists on keeping a majority share in banks, for example, then bank sector restructuring will be an expensive failure and any spare capital in the economy will continue to be misallocated to inefficient, undeserving firms - meaning falling living standards, higher unemployment and more pain to come.

State ownership of banks and important utilities is a twentieth century phenomenon born of the need to organise production on a national level to fight our two world wars. It has proven to be a very poor form of economic organisation in peacetime, however; experience has shown that politicians tend to abuse state-owned banks to give loans to their friends, and to use state-owned companies to funnel money into party coffers. Slovakia is a textbook example of this trend.

This, of course, may be the real reason the SDĽ wants to keep state companies under government control. SDĽ-appointed directors sit atop energy utility SE, and state bank SLSP. In keeping with the SDL's campaign trail mentality, these party 'possessions' may prove a valuable source of funds come 2002 - even if such practices are against the same constitution, coalition agreement and national interest the party now claims to be defending.

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