Loss of Bugár a blow to politics

IT MAY take years for the full impact of the departure of Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) leader Béla Bugár to hit Slovak politics, but in the sum of its parts the fallout will outweigh the defeat of any other party chairman save possibly Vladimír Mečiar.

IT MAY take years for the full impact of the departure of Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) leader Béla Bugár to hit Slovak politics, but in the sum of its parts the fallout will outweigh the defeat of any other party chairman save possibly Vladimír Mečiar.

Bugár's loss to rival Pál Csáky at the SMK's March 31 congress was a shocker, not least because Bugár had led the party and its predecessor for 16 years, and had become a fixture in post-1989 Slovak politics. Csáky, meanwhile, had been the permanent lieutenant, the forgettable face at Bugár's side. While Bugár brought principle and restraint to top politics - the principle that the survival of a government should be placed above narrow party interests - Csáky was more pragmatic, which is to say his will o' the wisp politics had few principles. While Bugár was a unifying force, Csáky, in allying himself with the radical Miklós Duray, ultimately became a generator of conflict.

Of course, some measure of conflict is necessary to politics, and it would be strange indeed if a party that had been voted out of government after eight years - leading to the wholesale ejection of SMK friends and family from warm posts in the state administration - did not indulge in a little blood-letting. But the frustration and discontent that was said to be choking the SMK's lower ranks was not related to a failure of leadership - it was the petty anger of bureaucrats who will now have to work for a living. Bugár's head was the price set on the loss of these perks; Csáky, however, is not the man to win them back.

For starters, with Duray now the SMK's deputy chairman for strategy, the party may start pushing autonomy for ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia, as that has been Duray's personal political strategy for over a decade. Csáky can deny it as much as he wants, but he owes too much to Duray to be able to sideline him.

Perhaps the worst implication of Csáky's victory is the fillip it will give to the forces of Slovak nationalism, not just in the far-right Slovak National Party, but also in the nationalist wing of the ruling coalition Smer party, and the more bigoted elements in the opposition. Even if the SMK does not immediately change its tune and declare a Slovak Kosovo in the Nitra region, the perception that Duray now has a major voice in policy will cause plenty of trouble.

The other consequence will be for the SMK itself. Bugár's moderation had won the party a small following among Slovak voters, and these will now be lost; it will be far more interesting, however, to see how many ethnic Hungarian voters start supporting a 'Slovak' party now that the Csáky/Duray wing is in charge.

These relatively minor shifts in voter support could have a huge impact on the country's political future. With Smer now polling around 40 percent, a stronger SNS would give the two parties easily enough votes in 2010 to form a nationalist government on their own, while with the HZDS they might have a constitutional majority. It's a scary thought that a party led by a boozer who has always called for the SMK to be banned might gain the power to amend the Constitution.

For the opposition, a diminished SMK would limit the choices available. Until now, with its regular 10-11 percent in elections, the SMK was always a solid makeweight in Dzurinda's coalitions, and gave the right wing a political weight it did not really have among voters. But the SMK's voters are predominantly rural, and if a more radical party leadership convinces them to take their support elsewhere, they are as likely to vote HZDS as SDKÚ, or socialist as conservative.

Bugár managed to marshal the many different political currents among Slovakia's ethnic Hungarian minority and put them at the service of Western-oriented, reformist and principled politics. His departure threatens to fragment support for this brand of politics, and indirectly to encourage its antithesis: nationalism, intolerance and opportunism. He will be missed, but probably more sorely tomorrow than today.

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