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NON-CONFIDENCE VOTE IN PM FAILS FOR SECOND TIME IN TWO MONTHS

Different vote, same result

PRIME Minister Robert Fico has survived a second attempt to have him fired after an all-night session of parliament.

PRIME Minister Robert Fico has survived a second attempt to have him fired after an all-night session of parliament.

Seventy-eight ruling coalition MPs voted for him to keep his job, a comfortable margin over the 55 opposition MPs who voted against it on January 23 at 11:00.

The vote followed a marathon parliamentary session that lasted for 11 hours.

This was the second time in less than two months that the opposition parties tried to have Fico removed. Like their December attempt, this move was based on the government's under-reaction to the land transfer scandal, they said.

Former agriculture minister Miroslav Jureňa of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) was recalled over the controversial transfers in November?

The opposition MPs demanded that Fico explain how he acquired a lucrative vineyard in Bratislava, for which he paid much less than its market value. And they raised the issue of Fico's flat in a Bratislava suburb. The prime minister has not explained how he paid for the flat for his mother, or how much it cost.

"Whether you like it or not, the ownership status of constitutional officials and the prime minister have to be transparent," said Mikuláš Dzurinda, chair of the opposition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), during the debate. "The less (Fico) wishes to speak about it, the more suspicion grows that it was not acquired in a transparent way."

"I paid a certain amount for my mum's flat," Fico told the opposition MPs. "Whether it was 300, 400 or 500,000 crowns - what do you care?"

The opposition also said the PM should step down because he didn't take a strong enough stance in favour of democratic values, and he made negative and arrogant statements towards journalists and the opposition.

The MPs particularly took offense to Fico's statements at the Smer party congress on December 10, where he accused the opposition of crimes, treason and lies. He said opposition MPs should be happy that "nobody is searching their past, and that they are not in jail".

Fico said that by proposing his removal, the opposition showed how weak it is.

"The special session only confirmed that the opposition is not able to keep up with the unbelievably active government, and that it simply has no alternative to the current leadership, so it tries to hamper us with various special sessions like this one," he told the media immediately after the vote.

During the debate, Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák of Fico's Smer party told the opposition MPs that the whole idea of removing Fico was nonsense.

"You are just in withdrawal over your lack of power," he said. "You have the impression that by summoning sessions all the time aimed at recalling the prime minister, you might be able to improve your state of internal frustration."

Speaker criticised

Opposition MPs and many political observers said Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paška ignored the opposition by scheduling a night-time debate for the proposal. He did the same thing in December, the last time there was a recall vote on Fico.

"Signs of an authoritarian and totalitarian way of pushing through power have begun to show here," MP Pavol Hrušovský of the Christian-Democratic Movement (KDH) told journalists on January 23. "We will prevent the notion that one political party should be identified with the whole state."

Grigorij Mesežnikov, the president of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), a non-governmental think tank, told The Slovak Spectator that Slovakia has not witnessed such a massive restriction, or decline in, democratic values since 1998.

The time scheduled for the debate on Fico's job and the fact that coalition MPs practically ignored the discussion contradict the spirit of democracy, he said.

"It can be agreed that the ruling coalition is progressing in an authoritarian way," Mesežnikov said. "This ruling coalition will not manage to remove democratic mechanisms, but that it has been trying to limit them and make them dysfunctional is obvious."

Representatives of the ruling coalition are confusing parliamentary democracy with a dictatorship of the parliamentary majority, Mesežnikov said.

"And this is wrong, as in parliament there are also representatives of the opposition, and they have the same legitimacy as the ruling coalition - except that they do not have a share of the executive power," he said. "This is the same approach as during (HZDS chair and former PM) Vladimír Mečiar's reign from 1994-1998."

Political scientist Juraj Marušiak agreed that the ruling coalition offended the opposition, but said it didn't limit their rights. He does not consider a debate at night to be a breach of parliamentary law.

"After all, if the opposition MPs wished, they did not have to prolong the discussion until morning, as the reasons they wanted to remove Fico are already infamous," Marušiak told The Slovak Spectator. "Also, it is not mandatory for the ruling coalition to take part in the session."

Mečiar, who got into a heated conflict with Fico over the land transfer scandal, did not vote confidence in Fico. He did not come to parliament for the vote.

"Traffic problems on the way from Trenčín probably made him miss the vote, as the whole session only lasted for several minutes," HZDS MP Katarína Tóthová told journalists.

Mesežnikov thinks it could have been a silent demonstration of disapproval towards Fico from Mečiar's side.

"Why would he come to vote? So that he could demonstrate his solidarity with Fico?" Mesežnikov said. "The hatred between him and Fico is famous."

However, Mesežnikov said Fico and Mečiar are political allies, as they share a common interest in preserving the current coalition. So a rupture within the ruling coalition is not imminent in the near future, he said.

Not all bad news for opposition

Mesežnikov does not think the attempt to recall Fico was a lost cause.

"The opposition has a legitimate right to point out everything it does not like in the government's activities," he said. "In this situation, the opposition has acted quite adequately."

Political analyst Samuel Abrahám told The Slovak Spectator that with its attempt to voice non-confidence in Fico, the opposition forced Fico to talk to them and address their opinions.

"And that is worth it, even if it was the only way to make him face a confrontation," he said. "Let the opposition confront him every week."

The vote also let the opposition make itself more visible to the public, Marušiak said and such an effort could also be perceived as a signal towards the HZDS that the opposition would welcome a change in the balance of power in parliament, which could disrupt the relations within the coalition, he added.

"And of course, initiatives like these are aimed at tiring the ruling coalition and causing tension," he said.

No political analysts expect Fico to fall from power in the near future. His popularity has not slipped, even after two years in power. According to the latest poll from the Statistics Office's polling institute (ÚVVM), conducted in early January, 35 percent of respondents support Fico.

Mesežnikov says it's not just Fico's popularity that helps him. It is also the fact that on the current political scene, there is no other leftist party that could be an alternative to Smer.

"I think Fico has a chance to survive until the end of term; and then we will see if he has coalition partners to create a coalition government," Mesežnikov said.

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