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SOP makes strong political debut

When the roll call of Slovakia's new Parliament is taken in late September, it may include some fresh faces from the newly-formed Party of Civil Understanding (SOP): party leader and Košice Mayor Rudolf Schuster, and his two lieutenants - former Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavol Hamžík and Banská Bystrica Mayor Igor Presperín.
Much has been made of the fact that the SOP still has no concrete political program, and that its electoral pitch to the common man less than convincing given the elite origins of the party's leadership. Despite these shortcomings, the SOP has won a cautious welcome from both government and opposition SDĽ deputies. The only real holdout has been the strongest opposition bloc, the SDK, whose members have said they distrust the SOP's declared intentions.


Key to the kingdom. Košice mayor Rudolf Schuster is the leader of the newly-established Party of Civil Understanding (SOP), which hopes to lure voters disgruntled with existing political parties.
Peter Brenkus

When the roll call of Slovakia's new Parliament is taken in late September, it may include some fresh faces from the newly-formed Party of Civil Understanding (SOP): party leader and Košice Mayor Rudolf Schuster, and his two lieutenants - former Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavol Hamžík and Banská Bystrica Mayor Igor Presperín.

Much has been made of the fact that the SOP still has no concrete political program, and that its electoral pitch to the common man less than convincing given the elite origins of the party's leadership. Despite these shortcomings, the SOP has won a cautious welcome from both government and opposition SDĽ deputies. The only real holdout has been the strongest opposition bloc, the SDK, whose members have said they distrust the SOP's declared intentions.

Hamžík described his party as "slightly to the left," but added that "there is support for our aims and politics and views from the business community." The SOP's central aim, continued Hamžík, was to promote social and political reconciliation in Slovakia. "Citizens are dissatisfied with the strong polarization of society and confrontational politics," he said. "It is high time to find a way out."

However, with a surprising 14 percent of voter support in the first poll after its March creation, the route that the SOP will choose on its way in to Parliament rather than out of social confrontation has become the country's hottest political topic. The fundamental question is whether the party will swing towards post-electoral cooperation with the HZDS, or make common cause with the current opposition.

As Hamžík put it, "[the SDK] are still possible partners for us, as is the SDĽÉbut we won't be prepared to enter a coalition with political parties that were not able to push through the interests of the state and the citizens, by which I mean today's [governing] coalition parties."

But the SOP's political philosophy struck a chord in the breast of at least one government deputy, HZDS Vice-Chairman Arpád Matejka. "I think that the establishment of the SOP was needed, and was a logical step toward solving the problems of Slovak society, problems which cannot be solved by the present political parties," he said. "It is a brave attempt."

Soft and fluffy

Matejka's gentle words aroused the suspicions of Milan Ftáčnik, SDĽ Vice-Chairman. "I know some HZDS leaders have been talking to the SOP, but we already have one HZDS. The SOP can't be just a softer version."

But Hamžík would not extend an olive branch to the current opposition, and reproached the SDK for its antagonistic political program. "They have accepted confrontation and simplified their program to fight against Mečiar's policies," he said, "and citizens are satisfied with confrontation for only a short time."

František Mikloško, chairman of the KDH deputies club, said that the SOP's airy talk of 'reconciliation' served to obscure rather than clarify the electoral choices facing voters. "In post-communist Europe, a huge vacuum exists in values and ideas, so it's very easy to step up with easy solutions," he argued.

Unfortunately for the SOP, Mikloško's criticism is on the lips of most political analysts, who say that the party's lack of a concrete electoral or political strategy is its Achilles heel. The party's five-page "program" contains vaguely-worded paeans to EU and NATO integration, lower unemployment, environmental protection, press freedoms and, above all, civil understanding. What it does not contain is any clue as to how the party would address issues like privatization, foreign investment and the moribund capital market if elected to Parliament.

"One hears a lot of talk about the SOP's program," retorted Hamžík. "It is a good program, and will be the basis of the election program we are working on. But this election will not be so much about programs." Instead, Hamžík predicted, voters would be looking for politicians who seemed able to find solutions to Slovakia's political deadlock. Besides, he added, "when the program of the coalition is to keep power in any way possible, and the program of the opposition is to fight Mečiar, to speak about our program is a little funny."

Hamžík's faith in politics without programs did not impress Ftáčnik. "You would expect a new political party to somehow tell you what they are going to do, not only in these elections but in the next five or ten years," he said. "Serious political parties are based on certain values, and I'm not sure that the SOP is able to say what values they endorse."

Restraining egos

Another charge that has been leveled at the SOP is that its leaders are former members of political elites, and that they are driven more by personal ambition to reenter national politics than by a strong desire to represent the interests of the average Slovak citizen.

"It doesn't matter what you do, people's ambitions always play a role," conceded Hamžík. "But in the case of Mr. Schuster and myself, they do not prevail."

Schuster was chairman of the last Communist Parliament in 1989, and then Czechoslovakia's ambassador to Canada from 1990 to 1992. Hamžík, a career diplomat, was Slovakia's Ambassador to Germany from 1994 to 1996 before assuming the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Mečiar government.

Hamžík resigned his Ministerial post after the May 1997 referendum fiasco. "I had nothing prepared, I was on the street from one day to another," he recalled, adding that he later turned down the post of Slovak ambassador to the United States. "I felt whatever was important would happen here and not in Washington," he said.

What had brought him back to politics, Hamžík explained, had been "the ambition first of all to help normalize the [political] situation, to help our country become a standard country which knows what its interests are and how to fulfill them."

Matejka said that Hamžík's sacrifice had not been in vain. "I may be speaking a little bit against myself, and against the HZDS, but I really think that there is a need for this political party to enter the political scene decisively, even if it is unfortunately at the expense of the HZDS," said Matejka, who announced on April 16 that he would not run as a HZDS candidate in September's national elections, and was "not considering" running as an SOP candidate.

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