Rudolf Schuster holds three jobs - he's mayor of Košice, a parliamentary deputy and head of the SOP party. He wants the presidency, too.
Three parties trying to form a coalition government last October agreed to support Schuster for president in return for Schuster's promise to join the government with his Party for Civic Reconciliation (SOP). After the deal was done and the coalition agreement signed, much grumbling was heard from government deputies, who asked why the choice of president - meant to be given to citizens in a direct ballot - had been a matter of backroom political bargaining.
Schuster's response to criticism of the way in which he received his nomination has always been "let the voters decide." A high-level communist official in former Czechoslovakia (he was chairman of the last communist parliament in 1989) and currently mayor of the eastern Slovak town of Košice, Schuster has challenged his opponents to match their public service records with his own.
The Slovak Spectator met Schuster in parliament in mid-April to discuss the presidential race.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Numerous parliamentary deputies from the ruling coalition [from the Christian Democrats (KDH), Democratic Party (DS) and Democratic Union (DU) factions of the SDK party] did not support your candidacy, despite the fact that the coalition agreement signed after the September elections stipulates that you are the common presidential candidate of the entire coalition. What is your opinion of the decision made by these deputies? Do you consider it a violation of the coalition agreement?
Rudolf Schuster (RS): Everything is in the hands of the electorate anyway, as this is going to be a direct election. But I think that every one [in the ruling coalition] who did not support my candidacy has to ask himself about the reason for his decision and has to know the answer, at least for himself.
Obviously, these deputies want to support some other candidate, but I don't want to judge that situation now. Concerning the fulfillment of the coalition treaty, we regularly evaluate whether or not the treaty is being fulfilled, and we will evaluate the situation after [the elections]. Of course, we will take a look at possible breakdowns in the agreement, not only concerning our Party of Civil Reconciliation [SOP], but also regarding the other three coalition member parties. We'll see who has trespassed against the treaty, if ever, and to what extent.
I don't want to say anything more as this really is a matter for all four partners, and the time for evaluation will come.
TSS: Do you think that this split in parliament could somehow cost you potential voters?
RS: I think we should not overestimate [the power of] what the coalition says. In the end, the citizens will have the final word, so I do not think the attitude of the coalition is decisive. What I worry about, though, is the moral aspect of this problem, because once I have signed a treaty I do everything to keep to it.
TSS: Do you think the divided support for your candidacy indicates some sort of tension within the coalition?
RS: I believe problems like this happen everywhere. It's like in a family, there are always tensions, no happy days all around. I do not think, however, that the problems we have should be impossible to solve. They are minor things that we have managed to solve so far. It is by no means a question of "to be or not to be" for the coalition. And naturally, we wouldn't like to go so far as to have to ask this question.
TSS: Many of those who did not support your candidacy said that for them you are not the most suitable, or even an acceptable candidate, due to your political activities in the communist regime. What is your reaction to these voices?
RS: These people should have thought about this before they agreed to sign the coalition treaty. If they did not mind then that we are former communists, if they did not mind then, when they were happy that we actually managed to sign the treaty, they should remember that now.
I personally think that the gentlemen who say these things about me should look in the mirror and become a bit more critical about their mistakes for the past nine years, and look at what have they actually done for Slovakia and for the people. In these areas I would like to compare myself to them to see the difference in concrete figures. Most of them have been sitting in this parliament for a long time, many of them have privatised [former state property] in the first, second or the third [independent Slovak] government, so I think that bringing up my past again and again is of no use.
I must say I am proud of my past, of what I have done and where I have done it, and I don't think I should be ashamed of it at all. As a person, I stand behind it because I would still do the same today as I did years ago. I think that I have nothing to fear. Quite the opposite, I would love to be compared with [any politician who criticises me] in terms of my work and behaviour.
Our party was the first to come to terms with the past, and I have done so too. [Harping on the past] is usually the problem of those who have not made a thick line between the present and the past, and in moments of trouble they keep going back to those past times to find excuses.
If [the right-wing government factions which criticise me] were as good as they wished to be, they would not need to form a government with the SOP as a centre-left party because they would have won the elections outright. But they did not, and they know very well that they will not be victorious any time in the near future.
TSS: Many deputies I spoke to think that due to the large spectrum of political opinions which exist today, an opposition candidate might stand a very good chance in the second round of presidential elections [Slovakia's presidential elections are set for two rounds - if no one scores over 50% of votes in the first round, the top two candidates advance to a second-round runoff].
RS: I have been saying from the beginning that Mr. Mečiar would join the race, and I am glad that he did, because now we will see, with everyone taking part, who has the support of the citizens.
But I think that anyone who follows this race with his eyes open has noticed who has, against the rules, already started their campaign, which is supposed to last for two weeks only. Some candidates have been running their campaigns for two months now, doing nothing but going to meetings, universities and all different places.
TSS: The independent candidates [not endorsed by any political party] complain that they are at a disadvantage in the presidential race in comparison to the nominees of political parties, as the party-backed candidates are active in public life in their jobs, so the public is more or less regularly informed about their activities.
RS: I would say they [the independent candidates] have an advantage. I think they have more time for campaigning, which some have been doing for the past two months now. I am a mayor, which means I have to fulfill my duties in this post; I am the chairman of the SOP party, which means I have to attend coalition meetings, and I am a deputy who has to be in parliament. So I am asking, what advantage do I have?
Support from fellow deputies is uncertain, as you have mentioned yourself. I think it is rather interesting to see them expressing such critical opinions about [the SOP] now that they have their ministry positions and so on, whereas before they would not say anything. We all knew that only a coalition of four parties was going to be able to face the election situation, and [the other government parties] should not forget this. We are full-time members of the same coalition, not united only when they need our support.
TSS: What are your plans as a would-be president?
RS: Of course, I have a plan like everybody else. I already have prepared a programme, which has been published, outlining the basic principles and relationships that I wish to follow concerning the presidency, government, contacts with representatives of foreign countries. It also emphasises being a non-partisan president for everyone, not only for the coalition, who is willing to communicate with and help everybody, including the people at the very bottom. Using my life experience from the sphere of local administration, I want to meet the people and help to realize the projects spoken about before the general election, the promises and committments entailed in the government programme. I will not mention NATO or the EU because everybody is talking about it.
But above all I would like to grind down the sharp edges between the opposition and the coalition so that there will be a better relationship between the two, not a life or death struggle as it is now. This will be a long and gradual process, we all know that. But we absolutely have to make a decisive shift by looking more into the future rather than the past, because [focussing on the past] only perpetuates the differences among us.
I think there will be plenty of things for a president to do, since we have not had one for quite a long time [since former President Michal Kováč ended his term in office on March 2, 1998], and I believe that the president's life experience and skill in handling similar situations will be invaluable to him, as well as his natural authority. Therefore I think that the president should be a person with life experience, one able to give advice and to compare current situations with what he knows and what he has already been through, having knowledge of life and people. I think that these are the criteria that people will consider when choosing their candidate.
TSS: Do you feel threatened by any other candidate?
RS: No, I say that the more candidates, the better. Whether it is [former actress Magda] Vašáryová, /former President Michal] Kováč or [former Prime Minister Vladimír] Mečiar, I will congratulate whoever wins. For me, it is not a matter of victory - the people will decide who they favor most - and for me it's not a tragedy to lose. I have plenty of things to which I can dedicate myself, as a party leader, mayor and a deputy. I am glad that I could contribute to the direct election by coming up with the proposal, and I derive satisfaction from being able to see direct elections actually taking place.
I must say again, to all who say that I am a party or coalition candidate, that I do not feel I have an advantage. On the contrary, I really believe that the advantage is on their side. Take Vašáryová - a beautiful woman, a popular former actress... she has an enormous advantage compared to me.
Citizens do not always listen to what the government says, because the vote is their decision and therefore they want to choose the person they like most, regardless of what party leaders say. Many people forget that I am not a new person on the scene. If I dabbled in politics just to gain the presidential seat, which is often the objection against me, I would not engage in politics at all but instead I would be waiting, hidden behind the curtain, and only recently have come forth as an independent candidate, having better chances to succeed in the election.
You know my party past. I was a communist, that is true, but I worked on the National Committees [regional state administration offices], and you should know that National Committees did not serve the party, but worked for the people on the local level, taking care of education, culture, housing, everything from A to Z , you name it. And if I ask myself, what the difference is between what I did then and what I do now, I find that everything is the same. Only the system has changed. And everyone who has worked [on National Committees] has the advantage of knowing how life works and how certain things function in regional administration. I like real life, down to earth life and life close to the people, and I will not see it as a tragic loss if I do not win the presidency.
TSS: So you feel that you are a non-partisan candidate at heart?
RS: I think it is in my blood to be non-partisan. I have never been the ardent communist; I have never been fanatic about any party, and people in Košice know this, because many of them remember me as a communist. I do not like to be judged by people who know nothing about me save for the fact that I was in the communist party, and who think they can tell that I am a bad candidate according to this. Look at today's politicians. Many have already belonged to several parties - how independent can they be? I left the communist party after the revolution and did not join any party then; I launched a new party, because I thought it important, and therefore I do not have any problems in being independent. Since 1990, I have not been a member of any party... it has only been during this last year that I have been in the SOP.
Also, tell me how an inexperienced person expects to lead negotiations among parties, who does not know even what it means to be a member of a party? This takes years of experience in the area. Of course, if the people decide otherwise, I will accept this decision, but I have already mentioned that.