One week before Easter Sunday, a new political gladiator entered the Slovak arena - the Party of Civil Understanding (SOP). At a Bratislava press conference, Košice mayor Rudolf Schuster was crowned chairman, while Banská Bystrica mayor Igor Presperín and former Slovak foreign minister Pavol Hamžík were installed as his deputies.
The SOP declared that its main philosophy was one of conciliation. Political bickering between the government and the opposition, Schuster said, had created serious social divisions, wounds that the SOP was now setting out to heal. The SOP's "founding congress working document" calls for an end to black-and-white approaches to complicated issues, for greater respect for the law, for morality and for democracy, for an end to divisive politics and for a meaningful dialogue between the government and the opposition.
It seems almost unsporting to be skeptical of such fine-sounding goals. Who can deny, after all, that Slovakia's politics have rent the country's social fabric, while its politicians have forsworn any hint of compromise? And who could possibly be against democracy, morality and "civil understanding"?
But before casting their lots in with the SOP, citizens would be well to bear in mind the fact that the SOP has yet even to register at the Interior Ministry as a political party, for all that elections are only six months away. Hard questions must be asked of their political platform, when it is finally announced in detail.
At least two of the top SOP figures have political pasts that invite speculation as to their current motives. Rudolf Schuster held the post of Parliamentary Chairman in the last Communist government, and was supported in his candidacy for the Košice mayor's office four years ago by the HZDS. Pavol Hamžík was the Mečiar government's Foreign Minister until he resigned after the referendum fiasco in May, 1997.
Although Schuster has said the "SOP has nothing and will have nothing to do with the HZDS under the leadership of Vladimír Mečiar," he has been very careful not to rule out cooperation with the HZDS per se. During previous elections, Mečiar's strategy has been to form new parties that appeal to the same part of the electorate as existing opposition parties, thus drawing off some of their voter support. Given that the first March opinion poll after the formation of the SOP showed an 8.9 percent drop in preference for the opposition SDK coalition, some commentators have claimed to see a smirk at the corner of Schuster's mouth whenever he has publicly vilified Mečiar.
On the other hand, the SOP's lower cadres are full of figures from across Slovakia's political and cultural spectrum - Presperín has ties to the opposition SDĽ party, SOP delegate Jozef Holdoš has links to the governing coalition SNS party, while Slovak opera star Peter Dvorský and private TV Markíza station chief Pavol Rusko have both publicly promoted the cause of the SOP. If the party is really serious about forging a new national consensus, then it has certainly set a good example with the disparate but consensual nature of its own membership.
Two last points are worth considering. Slovakia's opposition has always suffered from the lack of a tough and charismatic leader who could match Mečiar blow-for-blow on the hustings. Now, with the SOP, Slovakia suddenly has an opposition party that is chock-full of ambitious and well-known characters who are itching for a chance to climb in the ring with Mečiar. Indeed, this access of ego may be their greatest weakness - a source close to the SOP recently described his bosses as intelligent and resourceful political climbers who had grown weary of life out of the national spotlight. How much noise the SOP will make about civil understanding after September's national elections is anyone's guess.
Finally, the fact that two of the top three SOP positions are held by Slovak city mayors may prove to be a key source of strength. Schuster is immensely popular in eastern Slovakia, where the HZDS has traditionally been weak, while Presperín hails from Mečiar heartland in central Slovakia. While not particularly popular with voters, the Banská Bystrica mayor's local connections may leave him with a few tricks up his sleeve. What is more, both mayors have mastered the art of populist politics, which may allow them to measure up to Mečiar's demagoguery come campaign time.
It is still far too early to do more than raise questions about the SOP, a fact that Mečiar gleefully seized upon at his HZDS party's monthly rally in Pasienky Sports Arena on April 2. "Their platform doesn't exist," he cried. "They broadcast propaganda through Markízâ[but] they haven't done anything yet. They are only against me, wanting a truce and some chairs for celebrities in Parliament." 'Twere well for the Prime Minister that he could be as dismissive when the SOP program finally emerges in detai.