Slovakia's political scene is beginning to resemble a professional sports league, with its bogus expansion teams, calculating free agents and endless doping scandals. In politics, as in sport, no one really pretends they're doing it for the public any more.
We already have a government which is composed of 11 distinct parties. Prime Minister Dzurinda, who captains the cellar-dwelling SDK, has proposed the establishment of a new party - the SDKÚ - to which he would jump ship with most of the SDK's biggest names. By doing this he may get rid of some political enemies within the SDK, but he is turning his back on those voters and coalition parties which put their faith in the SDK in 1998.
Two other new parties have joined the scene, Ivan Mjartan's uninspiring 'Party of the Democratic Centre' and Róbert Fico's abrasive 'Direction.' The newcomers are snuffling around for free agent politicians and sensing they might profit if Dzurinda's bonehead play gets the government in trouble.
And in the wings is the opposition - Vladimír Mečiar's HZDS and the nationalist SNS, a group of racist throwbacks to a more primitive political era. The HZDS has promised to launch a petition drive for a referendum on early elections, with SNS approval. Mečiar has also been sounding out Fico and Mjartan to see if he could count on their support if the HZDS were ever again asked to form a government.
If this sounds like a curious amount of activity in what would normally be an off-season, politically speaking (the second year of a four-year term in office), one must remember the impact that Slovakia's economic hardships are having on politics.
Voters learned this past week that Slovakia's unemployment level last December exceeded 20% for the first time in the country's history. The national labour office expects the number of unemployed people to peak at between 570,000 and 600,000 this spring, and then again in the fall, meaning the jobless rate may climb as high as 23% before the year is out.
Figures such as these are usually regarded as critical by economists, as well as by political scientists. Few governments can withstand the social pressures created by such high unemployment for long, which is precisely why Mečiar - and Mjartan, and Fico - have chosen this moment to leap onto the political stage with tears, complaints and solutions. Time is doubly important for Mečiar, whose elderly supporters are dying every year and being replaced by first-time voters who reject the HZDS. If he can't force an early election in 2000, the HZDS may no longer be a significant force by 2002.
The government, too, feels that time is of the essence, for if the country can just survive this year without undergoing some kind of social upheaval, the first fruit of economic reform may appear in 2001 and 2002. With this in mind, Dzurinda has used the new SDKÚ to sideline his critics and consolidate his supporters - a risky strategy that could cost him his post, but which, if successful, will give him the support he needs to keep the government united through the next year.
So far, there is little support among the public for early elections. In a poll conducted by the IVO think tank between January 19 and 25, 57% of respondents said they disagreed with the idea of holding early elections while 38% were in favour - roughly the same ratio recorded between government and opposition voters in the 1998 elections. And even if by some miracle the results of a referendum did support early elections, parliament would still have to pass a decree supporting this by a two-thirds majority, unlikely when the government controls 92 of 150 seats in the house.
And yet, as The Slovak Spectator wrote last November, the threat that Mečiar may return to high office cannot be ignored. While Fico said recently that the "coalition potential of the HZDS is nil", he has at least met Mečiar face-to-face and has said he neither supports nor opposes the early election referendum. Mečiar, for his part, has said that "it's in our interest that [Fico's party] gets more than one or two percent support," and that "I trust Mr. Fico and I trust he won't disappoint me, as others have." Certainly, with his anti-Romany, demagogic statements in early January, Fico has given Mečiar no reason for displeasure.
Mjartan's case is rather different, as his 'Democratic Centre' party has so far been focused on attracting personalities rather than on setting out a clear programme. And yet, the appointment of former Constitutional Court Chief Justice Milan Čič to the position of vice chairman of the new party arouses suspicion that Mjartan's crew may have a more positive view of the HZDS's "coalition potential." Cič, the last Justice Minister under the communist regime and chairman of the short lived 1989-1990 Slovak government, is famous for claiming to have neither seen nor heard Mečiar's vulgar attack on a Czech journalist in 1999 - despite press photos showing him standing almost within arm's length of the irascible former Prime Minister. Mjartan, a former HZDS member, has said that it is the SNS rather than the HZDS which represents a barrier to his cooperation with the opposition.
Were new elections held tomorrow, the joint HZDS-SNS bloc might get no more than the 36% support they captured in 1998. But given the pathetic state of the SDK, many voters may turn to Fico and Mjartan in desperation, perhaps giving Mečiar yet another chance to form a coalition government. So the abiding question remains - what, short of sticking their heads in the sand, are the parties of the current ruling coalition going to do about Mečiar?