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SLOVAKS REMAIN GRUMPY; ANALYSTS SAY COALITION MUST NOW CONCENTRATE ON IMPLEMENTING REFORMS

Coalition mid-term outlook is rosy

THE MID-term progress reports are in. Despite having a minority position in parliament, the ruling coalition has made good on a big chunk of its campaign promises. The consequence is that early elections are unlikely.
Meanwhile, various mid-term polls tracking public perception of the cabinet's performance indicate that most Slovaks are unhappy with the nation's economic outlook.
Still, with many of the coalition's planned reforms passed and partially implemented, analysts agree that Mikuláš Dzurinda's right-wing cabinet will probably serve its proper four-year term.

THE MID-term progress reports are in. Despite having a minority position in parliament, the ruling coalition has made good on a big chunk of its campaign promises. The consequence is that early elections are unlikely.

Meanwhile, various mid-term polls tracking public perception of the cabinet's performance indicate that most Slovaks are unhappy with the nation's economic outlook.

Still, with many of the coalition's planned reforms passed and partially implemented, analysts agree that Mikuláš Dzurinda's right-wing cabinet will probably serve its proper four-year term.

Soňa Szomolányi, a political analyst and director at Comenius University's political science department, described the first two years of the Dzurinda cabinet as "a resolute enforcement of the cabinet programme in a series of reforms".

She continued: "Although the ruling coalition suffered internal conflicts that later led to the loss of its parliamentary majority, the will of the parties was not inhibited."

Apparently, the coalition's will does not align with that of the people. According to the Polis Slovakia poll, 65 percent of respondents are unhappy with the cabinet's performance.

Szomolányi thinks that negativity is an appropriate response, particularly because the reforms passed by the current cabinet (pension, healthcare and tax reforms) result in "an increase in the social and economic expenditures" of the average person.

"As a norm, people in general think from the point of view of the family budget. They are less inclined to look at the long-term perspective of the reforms," the analyst said.

Szomolányi noted, however, that pessimism was a typical Slovak trait, a fact born out by several recent international polls.

A survey of the CEORG institute, published in Brussels on October 11, reported that Slovaks are more negative about their economy than any other V4 nation [Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic]. Nearly 70 percent of respondents assessed the economic situation in Slovakia as "bad", with just 2.5 percent stating the opposite.

Another poll, this one by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, showed that pessimists prevail over optimists in Slovakia. Compared to other Europeans, Slovaks as a whole are less happy with their lives.

Grumpiness and dissatisfaction aside, Slovaks continue to support the ruling parties. Popular support is largely comparable to what it was two years ago.

One exception is the NewCitizen's Alliance (ANO) party, whose leader, Pavol Rusko, is blamed for destabilising public support with his inflammatory behaviour.

Support for ANO has plunged to less than 5 percent, which is the threshold for entering parliament. To combat weak ratings, the party recently launched a new programme catering to the middle class called "Modern Society". ANO has pledged to fulfil the programme during the term's second half.

Apart from ANO, where slipping public support has triggered the establishment of new programmes, Szomolányi believes that the other parties will stay on track.

"The experienced ruling coalition parties know that [to maintain public support], they must concentrate on implementing their reforms in the next two years."

She added that different issues will be important to voters in 2006, when the four-year term ends, compared to the issues that captured public support in 2002 and 1998.

In the 1998 national elections, the first Dzurinda cabinet was a direct, oppositional response to the authoritative PM Vladimír Mečiar regime. In the 2002 elections, the second Dzurinda cabinet won on its reform and EU/NATO integration platforms.

Two thirds of Slovaks said that entering the EU in May 2004 was the biggest success of the current cabinet. Equally appreciated was Slovakia's joining of NATO, followed by the cabinet's fight against organized crime and the strengthening of the Slovak crown, the Polis poll showed.

According to think tank director, Grigorij Mesežnikov, who oversees the Institute for Public Affairs, political disputes between parties of the ruling coalition have contributed to the sliding popularity of the entire ruling coalition.

Mesežnikov argues that these fights, including a verbal brawl between the liberal ANO party and the conservative Christian Democratic Movement, and splits in Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union and ANO, all of which led to the loss of its original 76-seat parliamentary majority to its current 68-seat minority, have had a negative impact on the cabinet's popularity.

But Szomolányi disagrees with Mesežnikov's opinion, saying that reforms, not political squabbles that attract the attention of political pundits, are responsible for the cabinet's falling popularity.

"There are perhaps 5 percent of people who watch the political developments closely, and these are the political commentators and elites. But for the common people, it really is the impact of reforms that make them unhappy with the cabinet," she said.

Szomolányi also noted that, historically, ruling parties are rarely popular in Slovakia. She said that the Slovak media is misleading when it suggests that the next two years will be merely a forum for the parties to prepare for the 2006 elections.

"There are plenty of things left to do - drafting school reform measures for instance. Or take healthcare reform. Remember, it was just passed. Its implementation is a major process that awaits completion," Szomolányi said.

Meanwhile, Dzurinda said in a recent interview with TV Markíza that he was thankful to Slovak citizens for making it possible for his cabinet to carry out their reforms.

"Our citizens showed major strength and morale, and I hope that the coming months and years will prove that [the sacrifices] are right for tomorrow," he said.

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