Ivan Mjartan (left) was delighted to recruit Milan Čič for his party.
"Both the Democratic Centre and Direction are the results of the high ambitions of individual politicians who weren't patient enough to move up the ladder within their former parties," said Luboš Kubín, a political scientist with the Slovak Academy of Sciences. "It reminds me of Kremlin-style politics, which are dominated by 'power parties' based on the popularity of individual politicians. I have no faith in such parties."
Kubín's criticisms are clearly not shared by the Slovak public, which has a history of electing newly-formed parties to parliament. In 1992, the previously unknown HZDS party of Vladimír Mečiar captured over 34% of the vote; in 1994, the new Worker's Party of Ján Ľupták took 6.3%, while in 1998 the six-month old SOP party of Rudolf Schuster took 8%.
"In Slovakia, 10% to 15% of voters typically choose a party which is neither government nor opposition," said Kubín. "We will need another five or six of these non-standard parties until people learn they should put their faith in established parties."
On the surface, Fico and Mjartan are both establishment figures, with Fico having been a member of parliament for the former communist SDĽ party since 1992 and Mjartan having served as Slovak Ambassador to Prague from 1993 to 1998. Fico broke with the SDĽ in 1999 after becoming fed up with what he called a "lack of support" from his party mates; Mjartan broke with the then-ruling HZDS following his return from Prague in the spring of 1998.
Since the launch of his Democratic Centre party in August, 1999, Mjartan has languiushed in the polls (the most recent survey, carried out in December by the respected Markant agency, gave him 1.4% support), primarily because he was not able to recruit recognised figures or carve out a clear political platform. But with the appointment of outgoing Constitutional Court Chief Justice Milan Čič as the party's vice-chairman on January 22, and Mjartan's ardent pursuit of former central bank governor Vladimír Masár, the Democratic Centre is beginning to take shape in voters' minds.
Mjartan told The Slovak Spectator on January 26 that some current members of parliament had indicated they would like to co-operate with his party, and although he couldn't name names, "they come from across the political spectrum." He has talked also of possible marriages with leftist and centrist parties like the ruling coalition SOP party and the tiny Social Democratic Party (SDSS), as well as the Democratic Union faction of Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan. Kubín, for his part, doubted that any MP would abandon a parliamentary party for a start-up like the Democratic Centre.
As far as policy statements go, Mjartan has been careful to emphasize his 'centrist' ideals, as well as his orientation towards economic issues. "I see the Democratic Centre as a party aimed at solving economic troubles and concerning itself with Slovakia's economic development until the year 2010, while 'Direction' is more leftist," Mjartan said.
Fico's Direction has enjoyed better voter support since its foundation in October, 1999 largely as the result of the charisma and enduring polpularity of its leader (Markant's December poll gave the party 7.8% support). Fico has made it clear he wants no former or current politicians in Direction, and according to Kubín, is running the party as a "one man show."
Direction's programme is not yet clear - "we are neither leftist nor rightist nor liberal" said Fico at the party's first rally on November 11 - although its leader's recent statements on Slovak Romanies have been criticized by government officials as bordering on racist sentiments. Fico has also come out in support of a death penalty in Slovakia, as well as restricted access to social benefits. He has said he would like prisoners to pay for their upkeep in Slovak prisons.
"Fico is a charismatic populist who doesn't need to rely on a strong political programme to attract the support of a significant part of the Slovak population," said Kubín.
One issue that has united Direction and the Democratic Centre is the issue of party financing, which is currently under review by the government after a messy scandal involving the ruling Christian Democrats last year.
Fico has declared that Direction's budget for this year is 13.5 million Slovak crowns, and has promised to inform the media of party financing every six months. Mjartan told the Nový Čas daily paper that his party's average annual budget would be seven million crowns, rising to 30 million in an election year.
Another question that has drawn similar responses from both parties is that of relations with opposition parties, particularly the HZDS of Vladimír Mečiar. Fico met Mečiar in person on January 19, and while he has said the HZDS has a "zero coalition potential" (meaning it would by impossible for the party to find a coalition partner), the HZDS still had "great voter potential," and that he would be willing to discuss potential co-operation with Mečiar only after the 2002 elections.
Mjartan, who met Mečiar on January 20, said he would not sign a pact with the opposition mainly because of the presence of the nationalist SNS party. The Democratic Centre's Čič, meanwhile, declared support for the HZDS's goal of forcing early elections, saying on January 23 that "early elections would guarantee, in this changed political situation, a more correct division of political power."
31. Jan 2000 at 0:00 | Daniel Domanovský