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OUTSTANDING REFORM ITEMS FORCE RULING COALITION PARTNER TO DRUM UP OUTSIDE SUPPORT

KDH woos opposition

THE CHRISTIAN Democratic Movement (KDH) is determined to push through reforms prepared by its cabinet ministers despite insufficient support from its ruling coalition partners.

THE CHRISTIAN Democratic Movement (KDH) is determined to push through reforms prepared by its cabinet ministers despite insufficient support from its ruling coalition partners.

Although two KDH-appointed ministers recently had to withdraw their draft reforms from parliament for various reasons, KDH chairman Pavol Hrušovský said his party would not give up easily.

The outstanding reforms on the KDH's agenda include an extensive revision of the Criminal Code prepared by Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic and an education reform bill prepared by Education Minister Martin Fronc.

The KDH's situation is more problematic than that of its ruling partners. Unlike the KDH, the other coalition parties passed their important reforms (such as the flat tax and pension reform) before the coalition lost its parliamentary majority at the end of 2003.

The only exception is Health Minister Rudolf Zajac's health reform bill. Appointed to the post by the ruling New Citizen's Alliance (ANO), the health minister managed to pass his reform in 2004, after the ruling coalition was already down to 68 from 76 original members of parliament.

The ruling KDH's Lipšic withdrew his extensive revision of the Penal Code because he felt that change made to the draft in parliament would make life easier for the mafia and organized crime in Slovakia. Surprisingly, an MP from the KDH's ruling partner - the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) - proposed the change.

When Lipšic withdrew the draft, he caused a stir by accusing those MPs who supported the change of creating "a mafia Eldorado" in Slovakia. After tempers cooled, the ruling partners sat down to hash out the situation. Minister Lipšic thus started renegotiating support for his draft, which he hopes to get passed soon.

The Justice Ministry's spokesman, Richard Fides, told The Slovak Spectator that Minister Lipšic was talking with the opposition party Smer in order to secure sufficient support for the Penal Code reform bill.

On February 21, Smer Chairman Robert Fico confirmed that his party would back Lipšic's draft in parliament. In turn, Smer expects the KDH to support Fico's law on the origin of property, which is aimed against those with illegal assets.

Cooperating with the opposition Smer party is necessary to get the Penal Code passed, said KDH officials.

"The ruling partners cannot give us their full support by the mere fact that they are weakened," said Pavol Minárik, KDH's deputy chairman.

"Another point is that, in some cases, they do not really identify with our reforms," he added.

One such case is Education Minister Fronc's university reform bill. His plan to introduce tuition fees for university education met with major criticism not only from left-wing parliamentary opposition parties such as Smer and the Slovak Communist Party but also from the ruling Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK).

The SMK refused to back the reform unless the minister incorporated "an adequate compensation scheme" into the reform to protect access to education by students for impoverished families.

Fronc has withdrawn the reform from parliament several times already. Just recently he pulled it from the cabinet when the SMK demanded that the money collected from tuition fees be redistributed to students in the form of social and motivational stipends.

SMK Vice-Chairman László Szigeti, who is also the Deputy Education Minister, said recently that introducing tuition fees one-and-a-half years before elections was not an ideal situation, according to the TASR news agency.

As elections draw near, governments are less eager to pass unpopular reforms. In addition, several polls confirmed that fees are a contentious issue.

Nevertheless, Fronc will submit his education reform that calls for tuition hikes to parliament again in March 2005.

The March session will be a "serious test for the coalition", according to KDH Chairman Hrušovský.

KDH Deputy Chairman Minárik says his party is ready to continue talking to opposition parties to gain needed support for its reforms. "In the current situation in parliament, it is unavoidable," he said.

If the KDH reforms fail again, however, some fear a cabinet meltdown. But analysts see little chance that the KDH - or any ruling party - would risk leaving the cabinet so soon before national elections.

Grigorij Mesežnikov from the Institute for Public Affairs thinks that the KDH's reforms will pass parliament successfully. Soňa Szomolányi, a political analyst with Bratislava's Comenius University, told The Slovak Spectator that the ruling parties had "no other choice than staying together until the end of the election term".

For the KDH, reform passage remains crucial.

"Slovakia will suffer most if the reforms don't get passed," Minárik said February 21.

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