Defending Schmögnerová: Much risked for little gain

No offence to Brigita Schmögnerová, but what did Prime Minister Dzurinda gain from defying the wishes of the Finance Minister's SDĽ party that she be canned? Why was the PM apparently so loath to see Schmögnerová go?
It couldn't have been fear of upsetting the financial market. The last time Schmögnerová herself threatened to resign the crown didn't even flinch, rather embarrassing for the minister despite claims it was actually a sign of confidence in the country's fiscal record.
Nor was it due to any personal warmth between Schmögnerová and Dzurinda. The PM put his only female minister's back up in 1999 by not telling her she was being vetted for a top UN job, and one got the feeling she never quite forgave him for costing her the position. Nor did he always delight in her animosity towards the rich, business people and tax cuts.

No offence to Brigita Schmögnerová, but what did Prime Minister Dzurinda gain from defying the wishes of the Finance Minister's SDĽ party that she be canned? Why was the PM apparently so loath to see Schmögnerová go?

It couldn't have been fear of upsetting the financial market. The last time Schmögnerová herself threatened to resign the crown didn't even flinch, rather embarrassing for the minister despite claims it was actually a sign of confidence in the country's fiscal record.

Nor was it due to any personal warmth between Schmögnerová and Dzurinda. The PM put his only female minister's back up in 1999 by not telling her she was being vetted for a top UN job, and one got the feeling she never quite forgave him for costing her the position. Nor did he always delight in her animosity towards the rich, business people and tax cuts.

On the other hand, the PM was risking a great deal by blocking the SDĽ on Schmögnerová. On the same day the SDĽ leadership voted to recall the Finance Minister, it also approved a plan to revise the sale of the SPP gas utility, the most important privatisation in the country's history. Even though a tender for a 49 per cent stake is in the final stages, and the government has already decided what it will do with the some $3 billion the sale could fetch, the SDĽ is still vowing to change the rules of the game and sell only 24 per cent in SPP.

While the party doesn't have the strength in cabinet to block the sale, it could conceivably muster enough support in parliament to pass a law on SPP's privatisation, sufficient to ensure the company would not be sold under the current government, and that the country's investment reputation would be shot.

Given the huge impact of any changes on SPP, it is difficult to see why Dzurinda would provoke the SDĽ by refusing to accept the party's demand Schmögnerová be fired, especially since by agreement each party in the coalition government controls certain cabinet posts. One would have expected a compromise, with the country's leader agreeing to the dismissal in return for a promise not to rock the boat with SPP.

In the end, none of the main actors in this latest political drama were saying why Schmögnerová had to go or stay. Dzurinda declared that he "did not arrive at the conviction" her replacement was necessary. Schmögnerová's party boss Pavol Koncoš said "she never really worked out, politically speaking", although he did not fault her professional talents. Schmögnerová herself said she agreed to quit because she didn't want to be left holding "the black Peter", a reference to an unlucky playing card that not even her Slovak listeners understood.

If Dzurinda achieved anything it was to humiliate the SDĽ and its leader. The Prime Minister's flat refusal to cooperate with Koncoš allowed Schmögnerová to leave freely and in style. It also underlined the deep divisions in the party between the Koncoš communist hardliners and the Schmögnerová 'new left' wing, with Dzurinda successfully calling Koncoš' bluff to take the SDĽ out of government and force early elections. Finally, it highlighted Dzurinda's determination to press ahead on reform without the SDĽ, which under Koncoš has promised to oppose all changes that prove "unpopular" with the electorate.

If the results of Dzurinda's actions were what he originally intended, then the Prime Minister deserves criticism for playing a game whose stakes the country cannot afford. The SDĽ is not the political force it was in 1998, but nor is it toothless. Emotions in the party are now running high, brought to the boil by Dzurinda's pointless display of political muscle. With the SPP sale in its final stages, and with Vladimír Mečiar sailing along atop the polls eight months before elections, Slovakia does not need such outbreaks of political emotion.

Perhaps the only winner was Schmögnerová, who emerged with popular sympathy and encomiums from foreign observers. This is as it should be; she was brave in criticizing the absence of reform in health care, pensions and schools, and she oversaw the crucial process of bank sector restructuring and privatisation. She was outspoken on the corruption that permeates her party (except on the issue of Devín banka), and was an elegant and convincing advocate for Slovakia abroad. Whatever Dzurinda intended in coming to her aid, Schmögnerová deserved a dignified exit from a government she has helped to save from itself.

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