THE INCOMING government that expects to be confirmed October 16 is the best that Slovakia has had since its 1993 independence. It's so good that, after years of Vladimír Mečiar kleptocracy and Mikuláš Dzurinda stalemate, it's almost an anticlimax.
The reasons that the cabinet is the best possible are three. First, it combines four parties with similar centre-right programmes that have recognised the need to launch pension, school and health-care reform, or in other words to rid these money-devouring sectors of the last vestiges of communism. Second, three of the four government parties have been credited with turning around Slovakia's international isolation and making it a top contender for European Union and Nato entry. Finally, the cabinet does not involve the Smer party of Robert Fico, whose loudmouth populism and dubious financing had promised a return to "non-transparent" (ie beholden to your sponsors) politics.
Many of the accolades to the incoming cabinet can be reduced to phrases such as "stability" and "continuity", expressing comfort that statesman like PM Mikuláš Dzurinda, new Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš and Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan are hanging around for another kick at the can.
But some of the best aspects of the next administration are its newest members.
Incoming Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic, 29, may be the youngest cabinet member in Slovak history, but he's also the only one with a Harvard education, and just the man to tackle the nation's corrupt, timid and largely communist-appointed judiciary. He's been tough in his criticism of curious rulings by judges these past four years as head of office at the ministry under his outgoing boss Ján Čarnogurský, but can be expected to fill his predecessor's shoes, if only because he knows how to use a computer. He's also no friend of senescing Slovak President Rudolf Schuster, a relationship that should produce some needed fireworks next year when it comes to replacing a compromised Schuster buddy, Supreme Court Chief Justice Štefan Harabin.
Another promising appointment is new Health Minister Rudolf Zajac, who ran as an independent on the Ano party ticket of media bully Pavol Rusko. Zajac has for years written for the Slovak press as an expert on reform of the health care sector, which he calls a "socialist self-serving system" that "invites corruption" and in which "the patient is not the boss but a degraded slave". He has been the scourge of clueless Health Ministers to date. Go get 'em, Rudolf.
Then there's Ivan Mikloš as Finance Minister, who will not only remain the architect of much reform to come (through his pal Ľudovít Kaník at Labour) but will also hold a needed whip over government spending. Foreign markets trust him, Dzurinda depends heavily on him, and he's one of the few people ever to have quit smoking and lost weight at the same time. His discipline will be needed at a ministry led for years by populists, connivers and socialists.
The final major area of improvement promises to be the Education Ministry, inherited from the socialists by the socialism-hating Christian Democrats and their nominee Martin Fronc. Two of the first items on the agenda are to introduce university fees and do away with entrance exams for secondary school, a major source of corruption. The result should be to give more students access to university study in a country where almost 75 per cent of higher education applicants are turned away because state-funded schools can't afford the free education they are bound to provide.
Perhaps the only bad choice has been made in Culture Minister Rudolf Chmel, the former Czechoslovak ambassador to Hungary. Chmel is the nominee of Rusko's Ano party, in other words of the man who still claims he has never abused his Markíza TV station to get himself into politics. Given that the Culture Ministry has jurisdiction over the nation's media, it clearly shouldn't have been given to a party whose boss has a track record of defying state media watchdogs and encouraging biased reporting. Chmel himself has said that "if you get into politics you can pretend to be [clean as] a lily, but it's basically about getting a share of power. Voters have to realise this. As Machiavelli said, whoever fears for his soul should not get involved in politics." 'Nuff said.
The four parties also seem to have ignored the Roma, having assigned the task of figuring out how to educate, employ and protect the minority to a speechless Chmel at Culture (from 1994-1998 Roma issues were handled by the Labour Ministry, and from 1998-2002 by Deputy PM Pál Csáky). Given that the European Union has criticised Slovakia's Roma record in its report on the country's readiness for EU membership, one would think the incoming cabinet could have at least pretended an interest in cleaning up Slovakia's act.
On a lighter note, Miroslav Beblavy, a 25-year-old civil servant who used to write for this newspaper, has been nominated as Deputy Labour Minister. Beblavy, however, following an audit of the civil service he led in 2000, recommended the deputy minister posts be eliminated to make government cheaper and more efficient. The press has rather unkindly noted the discrepancy, and is waiting to see what the new Deputy Minister says on his premature return from PhD studies in the US. It's a tough old world, Miro.
Overall, though, the new government and its programme aims are the best possible news for Slovakia. Above all, it goes against the trend in this part of the world for reform cabinets to be followed by anti-reformers, and hastens the day when living standards and public administration will be on a par with the norm in Western countries.