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EDITORIAL

New political bedfellows? Testing, testing

Political scientists are not fond of the media's penchant for speculating on the results of Slovakia's 2002 elections, still more than a year in the future. They argue that such predictions, often repeated, may in the end lead to their own fulfillment.
With Vladimír Mečiar's opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) still well ahead in the polls, having occupied top spot since winning 1998 elections but being unable to form a government, it's easy to understand why these academics don't want the media to encourage fatalism among voters regarding a HZDS comeback. Were Mečiar to return, Slovakia's Nato and European Union accession dreams would evaporate, as would its promising foreign investment future.

Political scientists are not fond of the media's penchant for speculating on the results of Slovakia's 2002 elections, still more than a year in the future. They argue that such predictions, often repeated, may in the end lead to their own fulfillment.

With Vladimír Mečiar's opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) still well ahead in the polls, having occupied top spot since winning 1998 elections but being unable to form a government, it's easy to understand why these academics don't want the media to encourage fatalism among voters regarding a HZDS comeback. Were Mečiar to return, Slovakia's Nato and European Union accession dreams would evaporate, as would its promising foreign investment future.

Nor does the HZDS have a lock on the 2002 elections. While the Dzurinda government remains in power and controls the budget strings, one can expect a concerted attempt (ie highway construction) to convince the public that the last three years of economic austerity have finally given way to better days. There's also the influence of foreign diplomats to consider, and if recent months are anything to go by, 2002 will bring some pretty bald statements about the consequences if voters elect to return 'the forces of the past' to power.

But it's clear that no one has actually mentioned any of this to government politicians, whose dalliance with the opposition in parliament suggests some are probing room for cooperation with their former sworn enemies.

The first parties to cross the floor of the legislature were the former communist Democratic Left (SDĽ) and the left-leaning Civic Understanding (SOP), who teamed up on July 4 with the HZDS to thwart an important and long overdue cabinet reform.

The SDĽ was rewarded according to its deserts last week when right wing parties in cabinet pushed through a raft of tax cuts over the objections of the socialists. When asked, HZDS members of parliament said they would happily support the cuts, as citizens could only benefit.

Where this all is going is unclear. With the amount of dissension currently between ruling coalition parties, the government may need the support of at least part of the opposition to have its 2002 budget draft approved. That doesn't augur well for fiscal responsibility in the coming year, nor for elections 2002, as it may prove another testing ground for SDĽ-HZDS-SOP cooperation.

It's also difficult to know how much of a hand Vladimír Mečiar has in all this. In an interview recently published in the daily paper Pravda, Mečiar rejected the non-parliamentary Smer party as a possible post-election partner and tipped the SDĽ, right wing Christian Democrats and even Dzurinda's Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) as tolerable political allies - albeit minus Dzurinda, "that little man". But one has to remember that Mečiar changes his potential government guest list seemingly every month.

Against this background of fluid political allegiances, the ruling coalition's response to its Hungarians partners' challenge - make regional reform meaningful or we quit - will be an important test of how far down the road to a HZDS government we really are. If the Hungarians get a fair shake, the Dzurinda team may hang on just long enough to start promising people their salaries will be doubled (again). If not, and the Hungarians leave, the longevity of this government may be entirely up to the HZDS to decide.

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