"What decides things in the SDĽ is the political opinion of a narrow group of people. They trample on other opinions."
Former SDĽ member Brigita Schmögnerová
Former Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová and SDĽ founder Peter Weiss explain their decision to quit the former communist party.
Schmögnerová and SDĽ founder Peter Weiss resigned their memberships in the SDĽ January 31, citing the party's "flirtation" with the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), its "incomprehensible" policies, and the hard-line approach taken by new leader Pavol Koncoš. The pair also faulted the SDĽ's dismissal of Schmögnerová from the Finance Ministry chair last month, and its outspoken criticism of the government it helped to form in 1998.
While the parliamentary roll-call may need time to adjust to the recent defections, Schmögnerová herself took what she called "a much needed weekend off" and is now weighing whether to start a new party or take a finance job with the United Nations.
"There is definitely a future for the left, otherwise I can't imagine what our democracy would look like," she told The Slovak Spectator February 5. "I have two alternatives - either start a new social democratic party, or try to modernise the existing social democratic party (SDSS). The question is whether we still have enough time before elections in September 2002 to mobilise the five per cent of voters we would need to win seats in parliament."
The former macro-economic scientist said she was also considering taking a job with the UN or another international body. Schmognerová, named Finance Minister of the Year by Euromoney magazine in 1999, was considered by the UN for the post of executive head of the European Economic Committee but did not make the shortlist after Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda and Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan failed to tell her the UN was interested.
Schmögnerová said she had left the SDĽ mainly because it had become impossible to advance her more moderate and pragmatic brand of socialism against the opposition of a hard-line party executive.
"What decides things in the SDĽ is the political opinion of a narrow group of people. They trample on other opinions," she said.
She also said she had given up trying to fight the corruption which she said had permeated SDĽ ranks.
"External financing of political parties by companies or entrepreneurs usually ends up being the most expensive for the country. This doesn't explain the whole situation with the SDĽ, but it's at least part of the story."
While Schmögnerová's departure from the party came as little surprise after she was pushed out of her ministerial post last month, few had expected to see Weiss leave at her side.
The SDĽ's 1990 founder and its first chairman, Weiss also voiced disappointment with the policies the party had followed since the election of Jozef Migaš to the leadership in 1996.
"When I decided 12 years ago to lead a group of people out from under the hammer and sickle and towards the rose of socialism, I was deadly serious," he said.
Schmögnerová and Weiss have won cautious support from the SDĽ ranks, especially in Trnava and Žilina regions. "I have definitely been encouraged, because it means whatever decision we make we will be followed by our supporters," said Schmögnerová. However, top members of the party's moderate wing such as Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik and parliamentary caucus head Ladislav Orosz seem unlikely to bolt the party.
Ftáčnik said: "I have my measure of responsibility for the stability of the government and for fulfilling the programme with which I took this post."
"I guarantee you, he's not thinking of leaving" said SDĽ leader Koncoš of Ftáčnik. "We've seen that the departure of Schmögnerová and Weiss was not a policy conflict but a matter of personal interest."
With the SDĽ at an all-time low in the polls, and the left wing of the political spectrum already choked with small parties, political analysts said the pair's defection could mean political oblivion for all involved.
They added that leaving the SDĽ was unlikely to help Weiss and Schmögnerová in the way it had former SDĽ vice-chair Robert Fico.
Fico, who left the SDĽ in 1999 to start the non-parliamentary party Smer, still has over 15 per cent voter support, and is expected to be a key member of any government to come out of 2002 elections.
"Even when I left it was clear that if the SDĽ didn't make basic changes to its policies the process I started would continue," said Fico.
"But there's a big difference between leaving at the height of your fame, like I did, and leaving when the ship is sinking."