The Deputy PM said he had "no idea" what the fuss was about.
Lawmakers cast only 60 votes in favour of the motion, well below the 76 needed for it to pass, after the national council of the Democratic Left Party recommended that members of parliament (MPs) representing the party abstain from voting. In the ballot, held after 1 a.m. February 14, 51 were against the motion and 24 abstained.
The SDĽ council's decision ended a week of political uncertainty concerning the future of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's government as well as the sale of a 49 per cent state share in gas utility Slovenský plynárenský priemysel (SPP). Politicians and diplomats had warned before the vote that if Mikloš lost his seat Slovakia's chances of joining the European Union and Nato could be spoiled.
Mikloš is seen by many western observers as the guarantor of reform in Slovakia, and a major pillar of the government's credibility. "The West respects Mikloš as a person, and his loss could seriously shake confidence in Slovakia and mean big problems for us at the Prague summit on Nato expansion," said Slovak ambassador to Washington Martin Butora, in parliament to watch proceedings.
However, comments by MPs for the Democratic Left and the Civic Understanding Party during nine hours of debate showed that while the government may have averted a crisis, it still grapples with serious internal dissent.
"I'm disappointed that in this country everyone who has a different opinion from Mikloš is automatically some kind of enemy of Slovakia or integration," said Ľubomír Andrassy, a deputy for the Democratic Left (SDĽ).
"The post of Deputy Prime Minister for Economy is one of the most important but difficult jobs in the cabinet," said Civic Understanding (SOP) member Marian Mesiarik. "I expected more from Mikloš. Economically speaking we're back where we were three years ago, in some ways even worse off. I think Mikloš has focused too much on privatisation and not enough on coordinating an economic revival."
The SDĽ and SOP had threatened to add their votes to those of the political opposition, which would have easily given the non-confidence motion the 76 votes it needed in the 150-seat legislature to succeed.
Before the vote Dzurinda had threatened to step down if Mikloš was dislodged, a promise he repeated in front of MPs as the debate began.
But after three hours of talks in a nearby restaurant, the SDĽ's senior body decided to advise party MPs, in the words of SDĽ Defence Minister Jozef Stank, to vote "responsibly".
SDĽ national council members would not say what had led them to their decision.
Meanwhile, the atmosphere in parliament slowly lost its initial tension.
"This is a classic battle over whether [three-time former PM] Vladimír Mečiar and his privatisers take over the government," said Dzurinda, the second of 23 politicians who had signed up to speak.
"Dzurinda must have bought those glasses of his on Wall Street or somewhere else in the United States," responded Ján Cuper for the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS).
Further responses to speeches brought guffaws from deputies, such as when former Culture Ministry spokeswoman Marta Podhradská, now an MP for the HZDS, had difficulty pronouncing the word "restructuralisation" in a criticism of Mikloš' bank sector reforms.
Many MPs left during the debate - some, like František Šebej, to walk their dogs and attend to domestic chores, others for drinks at a restaurant adjoining the legislature.
One opposition MP, after losing his parliamentary identity card and voting permit in the restaurant, bought a round for a group of journalists who had found the documents.
Asked what the fight over Mikloš was really about, Interior Minister Ivan Šimko told The Slovak Spectator: "It's a power struggle between the government and opposition, nothing abnormal, dangerous or destabilising. It has roots in the division of power that emerged from the 1998 election."
Šebej, vowing to return when the speeches were over, called the debate "political exhibitionism".
But Bratislava lawyer Ernest Valko, who represents the SPP gas utility and has defended Dzurinda's SDKÚ party before the Supreme Court, said he thought the struggle within the government was more related to the SPP sale, which is expected to generate as much as Sk150 billion ($3 billion) for the state when completed next month.
Mikloš is the head of the SPP privatisation commission which has a major influence on the sale. He has steadfastly refused attempts by the SDĽ to change the conditions of the tender.
"This infighting isn't just about money, it's all about money," Valko said.
Mikloš, who had spent almost nine hours in the chamber as MPs debated his future, said after the vote "I admit I don't really know what this was all about."