'Tis the season to be kind

THE ELEMENT of surprise is what makes elections so endlessly fascinating. On June 17, the Slovak voter, this perplexing creature that politicians have been trying to dissect to learn its secrets, prepared several surprises for the political contestants.

Indeed, one of the most frequently used words following the announcement of the results of the parliamentary elections in Slovakia was "surprise".

ROBERT Fico is now involved in the hardest task of his political career. After winning the parliamentary elections on June 17, now he is trying not only to shape the future ruling coalition, but also to determine who his opponents will be in parliament.

After the first round of talks, both the Slovak National Party (SNS) and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) were ready to rush into Fico's coalition arms essentially without posing any conditions.

Of course, the SNS has a notorious objection to forming any alliance with Hungarians. However, since the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) has said that it doesn't consider the vast majority of SNS boss Ján Slota's statements even worth responding to, the far-right SNS does not have to worry that the SMK will come knocking on its doors to join its union with Smer.

Fico could open the gates to the HZDS and SNS any time, but this would leave him a strong right-wing opposition bloc to face in parliament. The Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), the SMK and the Christian Democrats (KDH) all know how to make the life of ruling parties bitter.

These three parties, were they to enter opposition, would not only serve as a shadow government, but they would be eager and willing to return to power any time Fico stumbled or its partners forgot the lessons of coalition obedience. The popularity of the SDKÚ is likely to increase if it functions as a critical right-wing opposition, while Fico can definitely say good-bye to the popularity ratings his party has enjoyed over the past two years. There is only one thing worse for an unstable ruling coalition than having a strong and unified opposition: having a strong, unified and popular opposition, which the SDKÚ-SMK-KDH would certainly be.

The course of the talks on forming the ruling coalition also contained one of those fascinating moments in politics when the mice decide the fate of elephants.

The party that emerged the weakest from the parliamentary race, the KDH, with its slightly over eight percent of the votes, kept all the other parties waiting to hear whether it was willing to join the Smer-SNS ride, or if it preferred the Smer-SMK option, or just one more chance for SDKÚ Chairman Mikuláš Dzurinda. The SMK said it would join a coalition with Smer only if another right-wing party went along as well, most probably the KDH, since a Smer-SDKÚ coalition would no longer need the assistance of the Hungarians.

This is not to suggest that the KDH and SMK have a coalition record free of wrangles. SMK boss Béla Bugár can certainly recall tensions from when a group of Christian Democrats prepared a law to protect Slovakia's sovereignty during the first term of the Dzurinda government.

The first decision that the KDH is trying to sort out is whether it wants to be part of the next ruling coalition at all. If they do, then the dilemma of the partner needs to be solved.

While there are people inside the KDH who think that a Smer-KDH-SNS coalition might have a future, observers say that Slota represents a political risk that the KDH will not be willing to take.

Vladimír Mečiar is condemned to waiting. His party would have a much better negotiation position without the incubus of its leader. For the KDH Mečiar is an unacceptable partner, but the HZDS continues to insist that the party is in coalition talks with a full complement, meaning Mečiar as well.

When listening to the statements made by politicians after their negotiations over the future government, one had the feeling that the memory of politicians is strictly short-term.

Forgotten were their sharpest declarations and criticism regarding the programmes of the other parties.

Most leaders found a suspicious amount of common ground in party programmes, be they leftist or rightist.

KDH boss Pavol Hrušovský even told the Hospodárske noviny daily that the decision on whether cooperation is possible is a political one more than a matter of comparing programmes.

Fico has also lowered his voice on canceling the flat tax, while the Christian Democrats said that the Treaty with the Vatican on objections of conscience might not be as urgent as it was during the previous government. Dzurinda is no longer that eager to tell Smer that he thinks the party lacks economic experts, while Fico for now has swallowed his comments that Dzurinda's reforms were like experiments conducted on the population.

But this political kindness is not likely to last much beyond the time the Spectator goes to print.

By Beata Balogová

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