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EDITORIAL

Slovak politics: Looking neither left nor right

The most frequent criticism of the current ruling coalition is that its member parties are too diverse in their political philosophies. A government made up of avowed socialists and free market conservatives, pundits say, will never be able to survive intact four years of tough economic choices.
This observation would be valid if Slovakia's parties really pursued traditional political platforms in keeping with their supposed position on the left or right of the political spectrum. But the closer one looks, the more arbitrary the designations 'socialist' and 'conservative' seem in this country.


Slovakia has put a man in space, but not with nearly as much panache as it would have, had the HZDS won September elections. Pictured above - HZDS stalwart Augustín Marián Húska.

The most frequent criticism of the current ruling coalition is that its member parties are too diverse in their political philosophies. A government made up of avowed socialists and free market conservatives, pundits say, will never be able to survive intact four years of tough economic choices.

This observation would be valid if Slovakia's parties really pursued traditional political platforms in keeping with their supposed position on the left or right of the political spectrum. But the closer one looks, the more arbitrary the designations 'socialist' and 'conservative' seem in this country. If the Finance Minister can be a respected economist from the reformed communist party, if the conservative Justice Minister can propose that the country's former leader be amnestied if it turns out he broke the law - if, quite simply, political behaviour cannot be predicted from party allegiance - then why shouldn't cabinet socialists and conservatives co-exist for four years?

Take, for example, a joint statement signed in the second week of February by the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and the far-left Communist Party (KSS) in protest of an agreement that will permit the US Air Force to use Slovak training facilities. In most countries, communists and fascists are sworn enemies, but not, it seems, in Slovakia.

Take also the example of Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová, a member of the SDĽ former communist party, who is moving the country towards a functioning free market economy almost as fast as even the IMF could wish. If Schmögnerová is a left-wing politician, then who remains on the right? Caligula?

Much of this confusion is due to the nation's political youth. Until very recently, there existed no propertied or wealthy 'ruling class' in Slovakia whose needs had to be served by right wing parties, nor a disenfranchised or alienated body of labourers whose rights had to be protected by social democrats. Since communism, the game of politics has been about something completely different than in western countries - it has been a matter of deciding "who gets what" in the chaotic and murky business of privatisation.

This fact has made no small difference to the nature of politics and parties. For the past six years, the nation's strongest political force has been the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), an ideologically amorphous group of kleptocrats and rogues. For the HZDS, ruling the country was not about making or keeping promises to voters, nor about conceiving a coherent political philosophy; it was about cheating citizens out of as much of their collective property as possible.

Under the influence of the HZDS, two of the nation's potentially most radical parties - the SNS and Ján Luptak's Workers' Party (ZRS) - abandoned any thought of ideology, and simply joined in the looting of public coffers. The parties which formed the political opposition also gave up the idea of fighting elections on the basis of platforms. Their political raison d'etre was to defeat Mečiar by any means possible in September 1998, and having done that, to return the country as quickly as possible to a relatively normal state.

It is not surprising, then, that few Slovak parties currently practice a standard brand of politics. Nor should anyone be amazed that supposed conservatives and ex-communists can cooperate to shape an austerity package praised in international financial circles.

This harmony cannot last long, of course. As the 2002 elections approach, both the government and the opposition will have to sort out which issues should be the ideological property of which party.

To some extent, this process has already begun - witness Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský's astonishing decision not to support his own government's programme last November because three Catholic Church demands were not included in the package. Catholic Bishop Rudolf Baláž, the Chairman of the Slovak Bishop's Conference, told The Slovak Spectator in December that he had begged Čarnogurský to place the stability of the coalition ahead of the Catholic demands "because if the coalition falls, all the demands of the Catholic Church will fall with it and die under its ruins." In pushing ahead so aggressively with the Catholic issue, Čarnogurský was trying to establish his party's claim to that political turf in the minds of voters.

The same 'wide elbow' tactics have been practised by the former communist SDĽ party, which has used anti-Hungarian rhetoric to steal support from the HZDS and SNS. Strange behaviour for a social democratic party, perhaps, but something that promises to pay dividends as elections approach.

It is significant, however, that few coalition squabbles have so far been over economic issues despite the nation's dire situation, leading credence to the notion that if the ship of state founders, it will not be on the rocks of political disunity over the economy, as so many analysts have predicted.

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