Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica on Wednesday told a coalition member to back the government or leave the ruling coalition, days after the party refused to support important legislation.
Threatening the stability of his government, Kostunica demanded that all officials from the Social Democratic Party resign from posts they hold in state institutions and that the party formally leave the ruling coalition.
But the Social Democrats refused and challenged Kostunica to test whether his government would still have the support of a majority in parliament without the small party's two lawmakers.
In a statement, Kostunica lashed out at the rebellious coalition partner, which earlier this week refused to back a government law on restructuring and privatization of the state oil company.
"One cannot be both in power and in opposition," Kostunica said.
But, a Social Democrat leader and Serbia-Montenegro information minister, Slobodan Orlic, said Wednesday that "no Social Democrat will resign from the state institutions. Kostunica can only sack us."
Kostunica expressed confidence that it would gain parliamentary majorities for its future work. His government has so far survived, thanks in part to the support of former President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialists.
Orlic challenged Kostunica by telling him "to call a parliament session and check whether his government can pass a confidence vote" without the Social Democrats.
Without the left-leaning party, Kostunica's conservative-led coalition is unlikely to have a majority in the 250-seat parliament and could lose a confidence vote. That would trigger new elections in Serbia.
The split over privatization of the Oil Industry of Serbia, or NIS, was the biggest challenge for Kostunica, a conservative, since he came to power in March 2004.
Privatization of the state company has been requested by the International Monetary Fund, which has threatened to abolish a credit arrangement with Serbia over the issue.
But the Social Democrats sided with the opposition Monday in the parliament, withdrawing support for NIS's restructuring - a first step in the privatization process. The Social Democrats argued that the planned privatization was damaging for the company's workers.
Kostunica's government managed to push through the disputed proposal, winning a narrow majority in the assembly thanks to support from other parties.
In his statement, Kostunica said "it is clear now that one party from the ruling coalition no longer supports the government policies." He called the decision "legitimate," but said it should be followed by resignations.
The Social Democrats hold several important positions, including running the government body dealing with Kosovo and the information ministry, the AP reports.