Slovak PM turns up heat on coalition partner

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BRATISLAVA, Nov 23 (Reuters) Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico told his farm minister to quit or be sacked because of accusations of corruption in his department, a step that could break up the ruling coalition.

Fico told the minister, Miroslav Jurena of the centre-left Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), to take political responsibility for disputed land transfers that have opened new rifts in the fractious three-party government.

A break-up of the coalition, led by Fico's leftist Smer party, would strip the cabinet of its parliamentary majority at a crucial time in its drive to adopt the euro currency in 2009.

''I prefer solving this scandal at any cost, and I repeat at any cost,'' Fico told a news conference.

''Transparency and the cleanliness of this government coalition and this government is more important for me than maintaining the existence of this government.'' Fico said he would ask the president today for Jurena's dismissal unless he quit of his own accord.

HZDS deputies and leadership discussed yesterday whether to quit the coalition but left the final decision until the party's congress tomorrow.

''We stated that in several points the coalition agreement has been breached,'' party secretary Zdenka Kramplova told reporters. ''We will announce our definitive position after the congress,'' she said.

The scandal concerns a land administration agency, supervised by Jurena, whose acting boss approved deals returning land confiscated during the communist era which ended in 1989.

Local media reported that a company close to the HZDS then acquired the land for a fraction of its market value.

Jurena has said he did nothing wrong.

CLIMBDOWN EXPECTED Fico plans to step up diplomatic efforts to win backing for Slovakia to adopt the euro single currency in 2009, and a lengthy government crisis could harm the economic discipline needed for euro zone membership.

HZDS indicated it may still stick with the government in some votes even if it quits the coalition.

When asked if the HZDS would vote for the 2008 budget draft in parliament, Kramplova said the party would support it regardless of the outcome of the crisis.

Fico formed the coalition with the HZDS and the far-right Slovak National Party after a parliamentary election in June 2006. The next election is due in 2010.

A government collapse, which could happen if the HZDS and opposition parties joined forces for a no-confidence vote, would not automatically lead to an early election, as parties may try to form a new cabinet before polls are called.

Surveys show Smer is the most popular party with more than 40 per cent support, while support for the HZDS has been falling.

Analysts said HZDS chief and former prime minister Vladimir Meciar would likely back down now but try to regain ground later, threatening the coalition in the long run.

''The HZDS returned to the government after eight years and I do not expect its chairman to go for a radical solution and take the HZDS into the opposition,'' commentator Marian Lesko said.

The Slovak crown dropped to a one-month low of 33.600 to the euro from 33.450 on Wednesday, but traders said this stemmed from rising risk aversion rather than political tension.

REUTERS TB BST0558

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