Hungarian Party (SMK) leader Béla Bugár (left), at a press conference September 7 with SDĽ party head Jozef Migaš, charged the ruling coalition with ignoring SMK demands and threatened to abandon the government.
The SMK has charged the other government parties (Slovak Democratic Coalition - SDK, Party of the Democratic Left - SDĽ, and the Party of Civic Understanding - SOP) of ignoring Hungarian special interest priorities which had been included on the list of this year's 22 cabinet priorities.
SMK head Béla Bugár said that the party's voters were fed up. He added that local SMK officials may demand party leaders abandon the coalition if demands are not met before a scheduled October 7 meeting of SMK leaders.
"We don't want this [to pull out of the coalition]," Bugár said on September 7. "But if we are going to be able to argue in favour of staying, we need some concrete results to show our voters."
Noting that the Hungarians have heightened their threats to leave less than a week after President Rudolf Schuster announced the referendum on early elections, political analysts said that the coalition had been forced into a corner, and that getting out would require appeasing the SMK.
Miroslav Kusý, a political analyst with Comenius University in Bratislava, said the escalating situation was "an act of pressure from the SMK, an act which now carries more weight because of the nearing referendum and because they [the SMK] are refusing to support the revised draft of the constitution which will be discussed in the parliament in early October."
The Hungarians have said they will not support the draft constitutional revision because they feel the preamble should focus less on ethnicity and more on the civic aspects of being Slovak.
Kusý said that the coalition would be forced to listen to the SMK because the possibility of their departure would be "a major loss for the coalition," a loss it could ill afford in the tense lead-up to the referendum. He added that the SMK would probably react "responsibly and reconsider leaving the government. But the coalition should consider its stance carefully."
Some members of the coalition reacted bitterly to the SMK's statements, saying that the SMK was trying to blackmail the government during a politically sensitive time. Other critics said that Bugár was being bullied into action by nationalist members of the Hungarian party.
Bugár himself admitted that the party nationalists were applying increased pressure. In an interview for the Slovak weekly paper Domino fórum, he said that the SMK's inability to have their demands met "strengthens that other [nationalist] part of the SMK. They are saying that we [the SMK] can't work with them [the coalition], and that we should leave the coalition."
However, Kusý downplayed the issue, saying that Hungarian politicians noted for their nationalist sentiments actually wielded little power. "There are movements within the SMK," he said, "but Bugár took the leadership from [Mikloš] Duray - the more nationalistic representative of the SMK. That nationalism is now not extreme at all."
Bugár said that the party had four main demands, the most controversial of which involves public administration reform - redrawing the country's regional borders and devolving power to newly created regional governments. The SMK wants the country's regions to be redefined to create a 'Komarno County' in the south of the country where the majority of Slovak Hungarians live. According to Bugár's vision, Komárno County would be so drawn as to make Hungarians the ethnic majority there.
Bugár said that the SMK's suggestions on the reform had been ignored for the duration of the discussions, which started a year and a half ago. "Nobody negotiated with us about the reform," he said. "The coalition has not been taking our suggestions seriously. The SMK stance on this matter will be firm."
Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of Institute for Public Affairs think tank in Bratislava, said the dispute transcended public administration reform. "It's more than that," he said. "The SMK has always supported this coalition through the hard times, and there has always been an imbalance between the reliabilty of the SMK and other coalition parties like the SDĽ."
Other SMK demands include the passing of a law on the transfer of land of unidentified owners to the responsibility of municipal authorities. Many of the authorities affected lie in Slovak Hungarian areas. The proposal was refused by Agriculture Minister Pavol Koncoš (an SDĽ member) in early 2000, even though it was included on the government's official 1998 programme declaration. A special commitee has since been established to resolve the matter, but no results have yet been reached.
"The SMK also wanted a decent law on the use of minority languages passed," continued Mesežnikov. "But the law was so poorly prepared that in the end they abstained from voting. Again, their priorities were pushed to the side by their coalition partners."
The last SMK demand was for the creation of a special faculty at Nitra University which would train elementary and secondary school teachers in the Hungarian language. This, too, has yet to be resolved.
Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, who has said that he doesn't understand the SMK's complaints because "at least 50% of their demands have been met", held a meeting with Bugár on September 11 to discuss the problem. That night on Sito, a political debate TV show, Bugár said that no results had been achieved at the meeting. "We agreed that we will meet again," he said with a shrug.
But the SMK and observers warn that if future meetings fail to satisfy the Hungarians, they may walk. Remarked analyst Kusý: "The coalition can't tell the SMK forever that there are more important things to deal with, that they should just wait and be reliable, stable coalition partners."