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SDĽ jockeys for power with coalition partners

Slovakia's newly formed coalition government has been in power less than 50 days, but rifts within its ranks continue to open.
During the second week of December, it was the turn of the reformed communist SDĽ party to rock the government boat. As the second strongest party in the four-member coalition, the SDĽ used tensions within the ruling SDK party to portray itself as an anchor of political stability.
The SDK cast the first stone on November 23, when Justice Minister and SDK deputy Ján Čarnogurský voted against his own government's programme. The vote divided his party against itself and raised the possibility of a redistribution of coalition power in favour of the SDĽ.

Slovakia's newly formed coalition government has been in power less than 50 days, but rifts within its ranks continue to open.

During the second week of December, it was the turn of the reformed communist SDĽ party to rock the government boat. As the second strongest party in the four-member coalition, the SDĽ used tensions within the ruling SDK party to portray itself as an anchor of political stability.

The SDK cast the first stone on November 23, when Justice Minister and SDK deputy Ján Čarnogurský voted against his own government's programme. The vote divided his party against itself and raised the possibility of a redistribution of coalition power in favour of the SDĽ.

"Changes in the government [power structure] are developing, for sure," said Robert Fico, an SDĽ deputy. "The government majority is strong enough to survive for the next four years, but the reconstruction of the government is a must."

"The SDĽ wants to dominate the Slovak political scene during the next four year parliamentary term, and is preparing to win the next election [in 2002]," shot back František Mikloško, an SDK deputy. "They feel they are supported by the left-wing wave in Europe, and would like to gain back the position they lost after [the anti-communist revolution in] 1989."

The greatest source of tensions within the government lies between the SDĽ and Ján Čarnogurský's Christian Democrats, a faction within the SDK that styles itself as one of Slovakia's oldest political forces.

"There are only two strong parties in Slovakia," said Mikloško, himself a Christian Democrat: "the SDĽ, which has its [communist] roots back in the century, and the Christian Democratic Movement, which also has a firm place on the Slovak political scene this century. These two parties will be the two decisive political powers in Slovakia."

The two parties are old ideological foes as well, with the Christian Democrats promoting a free-market platform and the SDĽ firmly wedded to a classic socialist doctrine.

On December 8, these ideological differences flared anew when Čarnogurský's KDH backers announced the formation of a breakaway wing of the party which would lead it further to the right and away from its SDĽ coalition partners.

"The new inititiative is to become the main non-socialist power on the Slovak political scene, because only if it is strong can it counter-balance the socialist forces headed by the SDĽ," said Peter Stach, spokesman of the new initiative.

"If there is some new platform created within the Christian Democrats, it will always be a right wing one, and if they criticize the SDĽ, it's just natural," said Fico. "It's also good for the 2002 elections - to have right, center, and left wing parties. This is what Slovakia lacks."

Strange bedfellows

The SDĽ-Christian Democrat scrap might indeed be a healthy political exchange were it not for the fact that the two combatants are partners in an increasingly fragile coalition government.

As a measure of their mutual loathing, the Christian Democrats and the SDĽ have both flirted with the notion of cooperating with the opposition HZDS party of former Premier Vladimír Mečiar, which with 43 seats is the strongest single party in parliament. Čarnogurský and his Christian Democrat supporters voted in support of a HZDS proposal on December 2, while the SDĽ has since been accused by coalition deputies of conducting clandestine negotiations with the HZDS.

Béla Bugár, chairman of the coalition Hungarian SMK party and deputy speaker of the parliament, confirmed that his SDĽ allies had been in contact with Mečiar's colleagues. "I can't tell you who told me that , but it came from inside the SDĽ," he said. Sergej Kozlík, vice chairman of the HZDS, supported Bugár's claim, adding that "talks are being held only on an unofficial level."

But Jozef Migaš, SDĽ chairman and speaker of the parliament, denied the allegations. "It's a lie," he said. "The SDĽ is not a party that would question the governing coalition in any way. Nobody, neither an SDĽ deputy nor an expert group, has been told to negotiate with the HZDS."

Despite the latest ruckus, the SDĽ and the Christian Democrats swear they are committed to political cooperation. Vladimír Palko, an SDK deputy and a Christian Democrat, said that "we don't want to see any changes in the current government. If the SDĽ is talking about changes, it reflects their sense of political responsibility."

Migaš, too, seemed to be burying the hatchet over the Čarnogurský defection on December 9 when he said that he would not propose Čarnogurský's recall from the post of Justice Minister. "It was wrong of him, but it is not a reason to recall him," he said.

The Christian Democrats' Mikloško admitted that if the SDĽ pressed its case against Čarnogurský, "up to 14 SDK deputies could leave the party," meaning that the SDK would fall and the SDĽ inherit the Premiership and coalition leadership. "But I don't think anything like that will happen," Mikloško continued, "because now, when we're trying to get into western structures, nobody can allow such a risk."

Untamed passions still abound, of course. Ľubomír Andrássy, at 25 years old already a parliamentary deputy and vice-chairman of the SDĽ, said that if the SDK imploded, his party would "have to re-assess all coalition agreements and negotiation results, because that would be a totally different situation."

But Fico put his young colleague firmly in his place. "I won't comment on this immature statement," he said, adding that the friction within the coalition was "a test of the stability of the current government. It's a kind of reminder that once we have entered this governing coalition, we can't go against it."

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