Three's a crowd. President Michal Kováč, due to leave March 2, listens to Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar explain the next steps in Slovakia's delicate political game, as Parliamentary Speaker Ivan Gasparovíč looks on.
Fresh from a stinging reversal in the chamber, where its coalition allies, the SNS and ZRS, had refused to support a proposed law on social security for the army, HZDS deputies were in the mood to drop a bombshell. "I talked to the Prime Minister about my intention [to officially propose Mečiar for the Presidency]," said Tibor Cabaj, head of HZDS's parliamentary club, "and got his agreement."
But after seven days of frantic speculation about the legal nuances involved in Prime Minister Mečiar becoming President Mečiar, the man himself said that he would not seek the Presidential post. "To tell the truth, I really don't want [the Presidency]," Mečiar confessed on February 20.
The biggest unanswered question remains why the HZDS spent the week of February 13 to 20 insisting that their leader was a serious Presidential candidate if the Prime Minister didn't want the job of President in the first place. Opposition sources said that the HZDS had simply been testing political waters to assess Mečiar's chances of capturing the Presidency, and that he had withdrawn when it appeared unlikely that he would be elected. Government deputies, for their part, insisted that Mečiar remains their "number one" choice for President, while the Prime Minister himself has said that his party could not afford to lose him so close to Parliamentary elections.
Mečiar, himself a lawyer and one of the authors of Slovakia's young constitution, is well aware of the legal issues involved if he were to run for the Presidency. "When we talk about my candidacy, it's an open question in the sense that technically I could become President of the Slovak Republic," said Mečiar on February 18 during his regular "What's next, Mr. Prime Minister?" spot on STV. "[But] there is an incompatibility of functions [when the Prime Minister is also the President], and I would have to step down and appoint someone else to organize a new government...[and] a new government program to lead the party into next September's democratic elections. That's the first price the government coalition would have to pay."
Mečiar went on to say that were he to be elected President, conflict between central state organs and political groups would not be lessened, and that his party would also have to find itself a new chairman.
Only a few votes short. Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar's aspirations for the presidency are still on hold.
"I think this is all part of a big political game that is going on in Slovakia," said Štefan Markuš, Research Secretary of the Slovak Academy of Science and himself a Presidential candidate nominated by the opposition SDK coalition. "The constitution says very clearly that [Mečiar] would have to give up any other political functions the minute he was elected President. But would he do so? That's the question."
The section of the Constitution to which Markuš referred is Article 103, paragraph 4. "In cases where the President-elect is a member of the National Council of the Slovak Republic," the law reads, "[or] a member of the government of the Slovak RepublicÉhe must resign from his previous office on the day of his election."
Political analysts said that if Mečiar ran for the Presidency and won, he could actually claim that he was legally unable to resign his position as Prime Minister. Current President Michal Kováč's term in office expires on March 2, and according to the constitution, only a sitting President can "appoint and remove the Prime MinisterÉand accept [his] resignation." If Mečiar, as President-elect, decided indefinitely to put off being sworn into office, he would be unable to exercise his power as President to accept his own resignation as Prime Minister.
"The Constitution says nothing about when the President has to take office following his election," explained Robert Fico, legal expert for the SDĽ. "This really gives rise to incredible possibilities."
Testing the waters
Many observers questioned the seriousness of Mečiar's candidacy after the February 13 announcement, saying he was unlikely to win election, and that the HZDS had only wanted to get a feel for the issues involved in nominating Mečiar.
The HZDS would need 90 Parliamentary votes to have Mečiar elected as President, and given the fact that the governing coalition comprises only 81 members, and that only 4 independent deputies normally vote with the government, analysts like SDĽ deputy Milan Ftačnik were sure that Mečiar's candidacy would never succeed. "He will never get 90 votes in this Parliament," Ftačnik predicted.
But Mečiar kept opponents guessing throughout the week by claiming that he would be able to secure the necessary support. "According to individual interviews with deputies from opposition parties, this obstacle can be surmounted," he said, "as long as everybody votes."
Cabaj also told the daily Sme that he was counting on the support of 92 deputies, explaining that they would be found "somewhere among the 150 deputies in Parliament," and suggesting that some opposition deputies would defect.
Opposition parties met the threat head on by resolving not to participate in any Parliamentary elections in which Mečiar was a Presidential candidate. Eduard Kukan, the DU chairman, explained this strategy to the weekly Plus 7 Dni. "If [some opposition deputy] is counting on the fact that his vote [for Mečiar] would not be noticed during the secret ballot, I have to disappoint him," warned Kukan. "The entire opposition, including the SDĽ, has agreed not to participate in the [March 5] elections. In the case that some opposition deputies, let's say, accepted a ballot form, they should be aware that in that moment they would have to accept responsibility for everything that would happen in this state afterwards."
Cabaj, for his part, said that the HZDS would not nominate a candidate for the third round of voting on March 5, but that "for us, Vladimír Mečiar is still our number one candidate." The government still wanted to find political consensus in Parliament, he said, and would use the interval before a possible fourth round of voting for preparation.
26. Feb 1998 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson