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Learning when to bow out

IN THE early nineties, a certain Slovak politician was put in charge of the country's tracks, trains, roads and highways.

IN THE early nineties, a certain Slovak politician was put in charge of the country's tracks, trains, roads and highways.

It was in 1994, when former prime minister Vladimír Mečiar lost a no-confidence vote and Jozef Moravčík was selected to lead the coalition. Moravčík chose this person to serve as transportation minister for a couple of months.

This person then co-founded an alliance of Christian Democratic factions to challenge Mečiar, who had pushed Slovakia to the brink of international isolation by the late nineties. He promised to sink Mečiar and his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia into political oblivion and declared the end of the Mečiar era was near.

This person was Mikuláš Dzurinda.

His alliance kept its promise, defeating Mečiar in 1998, which made him prime minister. He stayed so for eight years. During those years he cleansed his party several times, conveniently always whenever someone posed a serious challenge to his spot on the top.

And he had some other colourful moments.

In 2003, Dzurinda invented a new political soubriquet, "skupinka", to describe a small group of people that he said was conspiring to weaken the governing coalition.

Businessmen, politicians, journalists, spies and even some people who had been spied on were included in this "skupinka".

Then there was the time Dzurinda's knees started shaking because the media discovered that some people on the SDKÚ's donor list had never donated a crown to the party.

But Dzurinda quickly recovered, and just kept walking. For many who couldn't bear to see Mečiar or Fico become prime minister, Dzurinda was still an acceptable compromise.

It's no surprise then that when Dzurinda toyed with letting Mečiar into the governing coalition, it proved too hard for many to swallow.

Last summer, the SDKÚ was defeated by Fico's Smer party in the parliamentary elections and it seems that Dzurinda has still failed to reinvent himself as an opposition politician.

This is how a condensed, unsolicited history of Mikuláš Dzurinda's political career would read if it had wound down by now.

The SDKÚ's regional branch in Bratislava wants Dzurinda, as well as the rest of the party leadership, to step down. The call comes only a couple weeks after former defence minister Juraj Liška, who resigned in 2006 in the wake of the tragic An-24 military aircraft crash that killed 42 soldiers and crew, suggested that Dzurinda should retire.

Liška eventually softened his criticism after party leaders verbally disciplined him and the Bratislava branch has since been suspended from the party pending an expulsion hearing.

SDKÚ vice-chairman Ivan Mikloš said that Dzurinda's 14 critics from the branch have been conspiring with Smer and that influence at the Bratislava Transit Company, where many of the critics serve, is what's truly on their mind.

"Some people have been involved in creating pro-coalition employment unions," Mikloš told the SITA newswire. "These unions were mobilising upon Fico's order."

The media has also been questioning the motivation behind the Bratislava branch's concerns about the party's future.

The leaders of Slovakia's political parties have neither learned the art of timely retirement nor the necessity of creating a line of succession, which is as life-saving as an infusion to a wounded body.

But just as party leaders are guilty of wanting to bathe in the intoxicating glow of power longer than is justified, their critics are guilty of waiting too long to oppose them, or of doing so for the wrong reasons.

No one objected to Dzurinda turning into a political Methuselah while they were being appointed to their plum government posts. Also, if the party leadership was to be changed, or the party itself reinvented, it should have happened after the loss in the 2006 polls.

The reality is that neither Dzurinda and his SDKÚ nor the other opposition parties have figured out how to respond effectively to the Fico government's leadership style. It is hard to say whether the SDKÚ under different guidance would have figured that out.

In the words of political scientist Michal Horský, standard political parties win an election and then proceed to rule, but parties of Smer type simply never end the fight.

"Smer is in a permanent election fight," Horský told the TA3 news station.

It fought for years as a member of the opposition and now it acts as though it knows no other way to rule, Horský said, adding that parties and analysts have failed to understand this.

Yet, as Fico constantly appeals to his voters, just as populist politicians always do, opposition parties can hardly respond to him effectively if they are torn by internal fights.

And so Fico is definitely the one who benefits the most from the SDKÚ's strife.

Regardless of the motivations behind the petition for a change in the SDKÚ, it is a warning sign that Dzurinda cannot ignore. Perhaps in some other country he would have been appointed to a position in an international organisation, allowing him to serve his country with honour, yet make way for alternative leadership within his party.

And perhaps at some point Dzurinda will need to learn how to bow out gracefully, so that he doesn't end up a mere shadow of his former self, as is the case with another of Slovakia's former prime ministers.

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