Scandal Threatens to Derail Slovak Election Campaign

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Scandal Threatens to Derail Slovak Election
Campaign

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Just three months shy of
parliamentary elections, Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda
finds himself embroiled in a scandal that he believes is aimed at
“liquidating” him politically and at damaging the
credibility of his party, the Slovak Democratic and Christian
Union’s (SDKU).

The scandal, which has involved the presidents
of both Slovakia and Switzerland, follows a 4 billion CZK ($88
million) tender called in December 2001 by state-owned Slovak
Railways (ZSR). The steering committee, chaired by the prime
minister’s brother, initially awarded the contract to a
Swiss-Slovak consortium Stadler- ZOS Vrutky. Though France’s
Alstom offered a higher price, the committee justified its decision
on the grounds that Stadler was offering better conditions and
promising lower maintenance and operating costs. However, the
Transport Minister Jozef Macejko, a member of the SDKU, then
ordered ZSR not to sign the contract.

The problem first became public on 10 May when
the Slovak media reported that Swiss President Kaspar Villiger had
written to Slovakia’s President Rudolf Schuster complaining
about the “negative influence” the tender was having on
the country’s business environment. Schuster demanded an
explanation from Dzurinda. Speaking for the government, Macejko
argued that the contract had not been signed because the tender
committee had not chosen the best candidate.

Meanwhile, it emerged that several former senior
political figures–including had been lobbying Macejko on
Alstom’s behalf. Macejko denied any accusations and in May
asked Zilina University, which specializes in transport issues, to
make an independent assessment of both companies. On 13 June,
Dzurinda brought charges against Macejko for blocking the results
of the tender.

To placate his critics, Dzurinda dismissed
Macejko from his post on 16 June and then, on 21 June, took
Macejko’s name off the party’s electoral list.
“Macejko and a group of people from the transport
ministry” had, he said “influenced the tender in an
inappropriate way.” The transport ministry now faces a legal
challenge.

The situation is especially unpleasant for
Dzurinda, as those involved–including Macejko–are his close
friends. Macejko has been backed by Dzurinda several times
previously when questions had been raised about, for example, the
sale of state-owned land. Another friend linked to the scandal was
dismissed as transport minister in 1999 and was then put in charge
of the SDKU’s finances.

Other parties–both in the opposition and in the
governing coalition–accuse Dzurinda of making Macejko a scapegoat
in order to hush up the allegations about the source of his
party’s finances. Some commentators also argue that, after
acting too slowly, the prime minister is using Macejko to deflect
attention in order to avoid further damage to the SDKU.

The SDKU was formed in 1999 by Dzurinda, after
the collapse of the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), which won
the 1998 elections. According to recent opinion polls, SDKU has
between 8 and 10 percent of support among voters. This puts it well
behind the leader, the HZDS, which is headed by the controversial
former prime minister, Vladimir Meciar and would currently receive
29 percent of votes. The SDKU is also lagging behind Smer, a
populist party led by Robert Fico, which is polling 17 percent, and
is running level-pegging with a coalition of Hungarian parties (11
percent) and Ano, which was set up by a TV magnate, Pavol Rusko (9
percent). The political analyst Grigorij Meseznikov believes that,
given the stable nature of the electorate, the crisis should not
lead to a large drop in the party’s support.

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