MIKLOŠ, with ousted Transport Minister Jozef Macejko in background, has promised to investigate.
Deputy PM for Economy Ivan Mikloš on June 26 was named the country's new Transport Minister by President Rudolf Schuster. With less than three months to go before September parliamentary elections, Mikloš, 42, vowed to investigate the affair, which implicated the SDKÚ in corruption in the purchase of 35 lightweight trains for a state rail company for almost Sk5 billion ($111 million).
After an hour-long meeting with then-Transport Minister Jozef Macejko on June 24, Schuster had agreed to Dzurinda's demand the minister be fired for what the PM called "interfering" in the tender on behalf of the losing bidder, the French trains maker Alstrom.
The SDKÚ, in an evening meeting of party leaders later that day, also removed Macejko from the party's list of 150 candidates for elections, on which he had occupied seventh spot.
The party also banished MP Peter Kresánek from its ranks for writing a letter leaked to the press two weeks ago in which he seemed to indicate the SDKÚ would profit from the rail tender.
While saying the country would have to wait for the next opinion polls to find out how much the scandal had damaged the SDKÚ's political support, political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov with the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs think tank argued that Dzurinda's response to the scandal had at least minimised its impact on the party's voter base.
"I think his reaction was adequate, and certainly he would have faced greater criticism had he not reacted so firmly," the analyst said.
The SDKÚ, now at around eight per cent in polls, has lost ground in recent years to start-up parties that have lured voters disappointed with the SDKÚ's perceived softness on corruption and its inability to push through promised reforms.
Calling the scandal "the most difficult two weeks in the history of the party," Dzurinda told members of parliament, before whom he appeared on June 20 to explain the background of the case, that it had been "a plot and an attempt to politically destroy me".
The affair began when a copy of Kresánek's letter to Dzurinda was leaked by senior Transport Ministry officials to the press. In the letter, Kresánek alerted Dzurinda to the fact that the December 2001 tender winner, the Swiss firm Stadler AG Bussnang in consortium with the Slovak ŽOS Vrútky, had submitted a bid that was Sk800 million more expensive than Alstrom's.
Kresánek then wrote he had spoken of the matter several times with SDKÚ treasurer Gabriel Palacka, and had come away with the impression that "the background for the party is the same" whichever bid won.
Asked whether by "background" Kresánek had meant financial gain for the party from the train tender, Interior Minister and SDKÚ General Secretary Ivan Šimko said "I don't know what else he could have meant."
Dzurinda cited the letter, which he said contained "a deep double entendre", as his reason for expelling Kresánek from the party.
Criticism from the SDKÚ's political allies has been muted, with all four other members of the ruling coalition government vowing not to support a parliamentary non-confidence motion in Dzurinda scheduled for July 3. The vote had been demanded by 37 members of the opposition HZDS.
However, František Šebej, head of the integration committee in parliament, said the PM had not shown good sense in allowing his brother, a section head at the ŽSR state rail firm, be appointed head of the tender commission to decide the bids.
"Every politician has to make a little sacrifice, and members of his family should not be in positions where they decide about public money," the right-wing government politician said.
The scandal has so far not touched off any serious dissent within the SDKÚ either, although a local party council in eastern Slovakia's Humenné sent an open letter to Dzurinda attacking the PM's handling of the affair.
"It's not clear to us what you've done to increase transparency of the whole tender selection process, apart from accusing everyone else, including the head of the Supreme Audit Office and the media," stated the letter, signed by Jozef Rídzik, a member of the local SDKÚ leadership.
Macejko, the letter said, had been a "sacrificial lamb" punished for alerting the public to "a disadvantageous selection made by a tender commission under the leadership of your brother."
Prešov city mayor Juraj Kopčák actually resigned from the SDKÚ, saying on June 26 that "the events of the past few days have convinced me that the party is not going in the direction that we set when we founded it [in 2000]. It does not have a Christian orientation."
However, noted Mesežnikov, Dzurinda's support within the party's central organs remained "very strong".
Slovakia's anti-fraud police and the Attorney General's Office are investigating the tender, and have promised to present their findings as soon as possible. Attorney General Milan Hanzel said on June 27 that no evidence of crime had been discovered so far.
Meanwhile, officials with the ZSSK and with the Transport Ministry have expressed conflicting views over whether the tender will he scrapped, or whether the contract with the declared winner will be signed.
Stadler Bussnang representative Peter Jenelten, betraying obvious frustration, said in Bratislava that "in the past few weeks we have seen many politicians turn into railway experts, and it's been very interesting. I hope that after [September parliamentary] elections this will continue, because in that case your railways have a great future."
1. Jul 2002 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson