Frešo still chief after tense SDKÚ congress

THREE deputy chairmen along with the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union’s (SDKÚ) treasurer and general secretary have resigned in response to party members opting not to oust chairman Pavol Frešo at the party’s special congress.

THREE deputy chairmen along with the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union’s (SDKÚ) treasurer and general secretary have resigned in response to party members opting not to oust chairman Pavol Frešo at the party’s special congress.

Now hovering around the all-important 5 percent threshold in the polls, earlier this year SDKÚ saw two of its founders – Mikuláš Dzurinda and Ivan Mikloš – also leave the party.

Of 223 delegates, 160 voted for Frešo’s dismissal on September 27, while only 48 delegates voted against the sacking and two votes were invalid. Frešo survived thanks to the strict party statutes, which require at least a three-fifths majority of all delegates invited to vote for the dismissal of the chairman in order to remove the boss of the party.

Despite the feeble support Frešo does not plan to resign and suggested that it is actually good that some of those who initiated his recall have resigned from their posts.

“The fact that only over the past week there have been three serious candidates for the post of the chairman and three different teams who want to become the top of the SDKÚ indicate that this is a power struggle,” Frešo told public-service Slovak Radio and Television (RTVS).

Viliam Novotný, Ivan Štefanec and Martin Fedor resigned from their posts as deputy chairmen amid a tense atmosphere, with some people shouting and appealing to Frešo to give up his post, according to the SITA newswire.

However, after the failed dismissal attempt, the delegates started to leave the congress and thus Frešo found himself looking at a half-empty room.

“The departure of five deputies from the SDKÚ deputy club and what has been happening over the past couple days is not the beginning of the end, but the last stage of this end,” said former prime minister Iveta Radičová, in an interview with the Hospodárske Noviny daily.

Štefanec says that the only solution for the party is the voluntary resignation of Frešo, adding that a mere 24 percent of the delegates supported Frešo, who is now saying that the next step is to elect new leaders to the vacant posts.

Yet, political analysts and observers say that personnel changes will not be enough to resuscitate the party.

As of now, Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), does not see a team within the SDKÚ that would be ready to push through reforms, but rather people who have been on a longer term of expressing dissatisfaction with the situation in the party and “now on the occasion of the congress they will try to accomplish their plans”.

“I admit, so far it is not clear to me what should be the programme which would internally revive the party and return to it its preferences,” Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator before the congress.

Some members of the SDKÚ managed to name the problems of the party realistically, but the question remains whether they are able to actually address these problems: “here I would be more skeptical”, said Pavol Haulík of the MVK polling agency.

As to the question whether personnel changes would be enough to get the SDKÚ out of the crisis, Haulík suggested that “Frešo is a good example that even a desired change in the party’s leadership might not be enough to guarantee any success”.

The SDKÚ dropped in importance after the 2012 election and its already slim parliamentary caucus lost some of its heavyweights along the way, among them former justice minister Lucia Žitňanská, who recently joined another centre-right party, Most-Híd. Žitňanská ran for chairmanship along with Frešo while she was viewed by many as the last chance for the aching party to revert its popularity decline.

Before the congress

Ahead of the party congress, a group of people around Ondrej Matej, a former MP and erstwhile advisor to Radičová, had a clear idea of whom to blame for the negative developments within the party and were set to challenge incumbent SDKÚ Frešo.

Matej, who relied on support by heads of the SDKÚ’s regional bodies from the Košice, Banská Bystrica, Prešov, Nitra and Žilina regions, claimed that the party has got so entangled in its internal problems that voters no longer understand them.

In a surprise move, long-term head of the most popular private radio station Radio Expres, Eva Babitzová, has joined the SDKÚ, claiming that the party which “has taken Slovakia from the hands of [Vladimír] Mečiar”, deserves to survive: “It is now in crisis, but we believe it can return to the political map of Slovakia”. Babitzová resigned from her job shortly before she announced her intentions to join the SDKÚ.

According to Haulík, the eventual membership of Babitzová suggests that political parties now strongly resemble businesses, and that they are seeking managers from areas that do not have any direct basis in politics.

“In this way, those problems cannot be really addressed,” Haulík told The Slovak Spectator, adding that for the SDKÚ it would be necessary to gain some more strength also through local leaders.

The Sme daily in its September 24 issue reported that Matej allegedly made the comment that even the bank to which the SDKÚ owes money is interested in a change of leadership, while avoiding naming the bank. Several SDKÚ members have since confirmed this information. Matej, however, responded that he “in no way said it that way”. Sme reported that the SDKÚ owes €1.7 million to the Privatbanka, which belongs to the portfolio of Penta.

Nevertheless, Matej finally decided not to seek the candidacy for the top post after Sme reported on September 26 that a loan taken out for the party in late 2011 could be indirectly guaranteed by loans from the firm of tycoon Vladimír Poór and Dušan Repák, who is lawyer for the businessman Ivan Kmotrík.

“Life in politics is difficult,” said Matej, before he left the congress early, as quoted by the TASR newswire. “Several things have occurred that I wouldd like to explain soon.”

Former defense minister Martin Fedor, who intends to run for the chairman post, believes that Frešo will eventually step down, suggesting that the voting at the congress should be seen as a clear signal to Frešo, TASR reported.

Labour Minister Ján Richter of the ruling Smer party also commented for the RTVS on the developments within the party, suggesting that several representatives have not mastered the art of quitting at the right time.

Meanwhile, SDKÚ deputy faction head Ľudovít Kaník also suggested that the party needs to come up with a new team of people who are not affected by the power struggle. According to Kaník, if the party sticks to values such as freedom, democracy and the protection of the interest of middle class, it would keep the right direction in its political life, SITA reported.

“The fate of the party cannot hinge on one man only,” Kaník said.

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