Slovakia faces crisis after mass defection from ruling party

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The Independent Online
SLOVAKIA'S government was close to falling yesterday after 10 members of the ruling party, including the foreign minister and the first deputy prime minister, broke ranks to form a new faction. The defections left Vladimir Meciar, the Prime Minister who led Slovakia to independence last year, with minority support in parliament, with the result that he may be forced into snap elections.

The crisis developed this week as a battle broke out for control of Poland's left-wing coalition government. A quarrel between the Democratic Left Alliance and the Polish Peasant Party, two parties with Communist roots which won a decisive election victory last September, led to the resignation of Poland's finance minister and one of his deputies.

The events in Slovakia and Poland underline that political instability, sometimes caused by little more than personality clashes and struggles for power, continues to hamper economic reform in the post-Communist states of Eastern Europe. The major exception is the Czech Republic, which under the firm leadership of Vaclav Klaus, the Prime Minister, has established a reputation for relative political calm and economic progress.

Hungary has kept the same government since its first post-Communist multi-party elections in 1990, but its political scene has grown increasingly fragmented in the run-up to the next elections, which are due on 8 May. Romania has had a minority government since late 1992, and the ruling Party of Social Democracy of Romania was recently forced to agree that a clutch of extreme nationalist and pro-Communist parties should join the government.

Poland has moved faster than most countries in switching to a Western-style economy, but the Solidarity-based parties in power from 1989 argued among themselves so often that the country had five prime ministers and four governments in the space of four years. The reformed Communist left is proving now to be equally prone to factious disputes. President Lech Walesa suggested this week that only strong presidential rule could overcome the political bickering.

Slovakia's crisis owes its immediate origins to a dispute over privatisation of state companies, but it is also connected to power struggles in the ruling Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and opposition parties. Falling living standards have caused public support for the HZDS to plunge since the last Slovak elections in June 1992. An opinion poll in October showed that 60 per cent of respondents would have voted against the break-up of Czechoslovakia if there had been a referendum at that time.

The Czech Republic's success should not disguise the fact that some economic reforms, notably bankruptcy legislation, have been delayed. Unemployment, now very low by Eastern European standards at about 3.5 per cent, is likely to pose a growing problem for Mr Klaus's government. However, the reformed Communists and other leftist parties are divided among themselves and have found it difficult to mount a coherent challenge to Mr Klaus.