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EDITORIAL

Šimko's bid a long shot

THERE are three groups whose support is crucial for Ivan Šimko, former vice-chairman of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), to make his political project succeed in the long run: the parties of the ruling coalition, internal party critics of the current SDKÚ leadership, and - most importantly - the public. For the time being, the support of all these groups seems very unlikely, as does Šimko's success.

THERE are three groups whose support is crucial for Ivan Šimko, former vice-chairman of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), to make his political project succeed in the long run: the parties of the ruling coalition, internal party critics of the current SDKÚ leadership, and - most importantly - the public. For the time being, the support of all these groups seems very unlikely, as does Šimko's success.

Two parties of the four-member ruling coalition can be expected to stand behind Šimko - the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) and the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH). They share a common interest in seeing PM and SDKÚ boss Mikuláš Dzurinda weakened, which would add to their own influence.

Dzurinda alienated both parties when he hooked up with the New Citizen's Alliance (ANO) to recall Ján Mojžiš, head of the National Security Office (NBÚ), despite their opposition. Dzurinda's SDKÚ and the ANO combined hold nine seats in the cabinet, while the SMK and the KDH hold only seven.

Although the cabinet's competency is limited, it is expected to make several important decisions in the upcoming weeks, including the election of a new NBÚ boss. The position of intelligence service head Ladislav Pittner is also shaky, and if he is replaced, the cabinet will pick the successor.

Finally, the cabinet will also choose the Slovak EU commissioner. Both the SDKÚ and the KDH have presented candidates.

Šimko would therefore well serve the interests of the KDH and SMK. Considering his animosity towards Dzurinda, it seems improbable that once in government Šimko would be on Dzurinda's side. And it would have to be Dzurinda who gives up a ministerial seat for a representative of Šimko's group once it starts to intensify its claim on one. That would give the SMK and KDH more manoeuvring room to push through their interests.

Collaborating with Šimko is a much better alternative for the KDH and SMK than taking a new coalition member on board, because the policy of the government would not have to be revised.

However, KDH members are known for their long memory, and it is thus unlikely they can forget, or forgive, that it was Šimko, a former KDH vice-chairman, who nearly ruined the party by leading a large group of defectors who formed the SDKÚ.

So if there is anything the KDH has an interest in, it is a divided and paralysed SDKÚ represented by a weak Dzurinda and a weak Šimko, as many of their former supporters will return to the KDH.

If Šimko wants to build a party, he will need more than just the backing of six or seven MPs. Moreover, it now seems questionable whether he can even fully rely on those. Intense negotiations are allegedly going on between members of Šimko's group and their former colleagues from the SDKÚ caucus. It cannot be ruled out that some will change their mind and abandon Šimko.

Though Šimko claimed to have backing in the regions, the truth is that regional SDKÚ offices have remained silent so far, waiting to see how events develop.

Perhaps the toughest job for Šimko will be convincing the public that it is not just vanity that is driving his actions. Currently, the public seems to see him in a slightly better light than Dzurinda, but that may not last long.

According to a survey done by the Dicio agency, whose results were released on December 7, 47 percent of Slovaks do not trust Dzurinda or Šimko, while 15 percent trust both equally. Šimko enjoys more confidence from 32 percent of respondents, while only 5 percent trust Dzurinda more.

In order to get good ratings in the future, Šimko has to stay in the spotlight. When the group of 11 MPs led by Vojtech Tkáč left the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) shortly after the 2002 parliamentary elections, they too were the centre of media attention for quite some time.

When Tkáč decided to leave the HZDS, he used arguments almost identical to those we are hearing from Šimko today. He claimed the HZDS was authoritarian, had no room for dissenting opinions, and the party leadership was unable to attract voters. He too formed his political party - the People's Union (ĽÚ).

Tkáč's party now has zero support, he rarely appears on television, and all that's left for him to do is to try to get the most out of the fact that if everything goes well, he has about three more years in parliament to think of a way to form some sort of an alliance that will get him back there again.

Šimko has the advantage of being on the ruling, rather than the opposing, side. One way he can get points with the public is to come up with a clearly defined policy and force the coalition to vote in favour of it in parliament.

However, it would be nearly impossible for him to come up with a programme that would clearly distinguish him from other coalition parties, especially considering he co-authored both SDKÚ's election programme and the government's manifesto.

Any drastic shift will be extremely difficult to explain or even come up with. This has been painfully visible over the last week, as he has continued to speak only of vaguely defined "values" that needed to be returned to politics.

The other road to popularity is to have a high-ranking official who gets sufficient publicity and manages to do a good enough job to attract voters. A ministerial seat is ideal for that, and few other positions meet the requirement, so it would make perfect sense for Šimko to reconsider his refusal to take a cabinet seat.

The heads of both the NBÚ and the intelligence service should ideally not be in the newspapers at all, so if Šimko agrees to take either of those, he will either have to make sure there continues to be enough controversy around them, or will just not get what he wants.

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