NATIONALIST Slovak politicians say the SMK has not changed its ethnic colours.
"The SMK is [still] perceived as an ethnic party because Slovaks react very sensitively to minority issues," said Bugár in a recent interview with The Slovak Spectator. Those who call the party ethnic "should read our [election] programme more closely", the SMK leader added.
Political analysts, however, say that while the SMK's programme for September 20-21 elections has embraced some issued of concern to the nation as a whole, its priorities remain issues of direct import to ethnic Hungarian voters in the south of the country.
Political scientist Miroslav Kusý spelled those priorities out. "The SMK's main concerns are the establishment of a university, or at least a faculty, whose teaching language is Hungarian, the [transfer of] land whose owners cannot be identified [to the control of municipalities, including those in the Hungarian south] and the question of a Hungarian self-governing region.
"While the party's programme has indeed opened itself to Slovak voters in some respects, I'm sorry to say that this has been an isolated step, especially when you look at the SMK's candidate list," Kusý added.
In drawing up the list of its candidates for the elections, the SMK required that the children of potential SMK members of parliament attend minority Hungarian-language schools. Candidates also had to use their Hungarian names, making the SMK's candidate list unlike that of any other party.
"The party was scared to open itself up and become a party [representing the whole] of Slovakia," said Kusý.
The SMK was formed in June 1998 after the merger of three smaller conservative and liberal Hungarian parties. Top representatives from these original parties remain in top positions on the current SMK candidates list.
Bugár, former chairman of the Hungarian Christian Democrats party, tops the list. The deputy speaker of parliament, Bugár has also been chairman of the SMK since its establishment.
At number two is Pál Csáky, deputy prime minister for human and minority rights and regional development, and former deputy chairman of the Hungarian Christian Democrats.
László Nagy, former head of the liberal faction, is at number eight, as is former liberal Lászlo Gyurkovszky at number four.
With opinion polls giving the SMK a chance of winning over 15 seats in the newly elected parliament, former conservative faction boss Miklós Duray at number nine also has a good chance of returning to the legislature.
Duray has repeatedly angered Slovaks with nationalist Hungarian outbursts, and is considered the leader of a tougher wing in the SMK opposed to Bugár's more moderate politics.
According to SMK policy, candidates in the first 30 positions on the list cannot hold local or regional government positions. This means that veterans of state-level politics dominate the top echelons of the party.
Among the first 15 candidates, seven have been members of parliament over the last four years.
Pál Csáky heads a group of SMK politicians active in the executive branch in the Dzurinda government, including Minister of Construction and Public Works István Harna at number 15 and Environment Minister László Miklós at 13. László Szigeti at number six is deputy education minister.
While the SMK faced almost united opposition to its participation in government in 1998, and was finally accepted largely to give the government a two-thirds majority in parliament and score points with western diplomats, Kusý said the party would likely have an easier path to government in 2002 - if it chose to take it.
"I can't imagine a situation, or a ruling coalition, which would now exclude the Hungarians from the game. I think SMK will have an open door to every coalition. The question is whether it will accept any offer," said Kusý.
For Bugár, who has retreated from some of the SMK's dearest goals to preserve coalitions peace from 1998-2002, the answer is clear.
"The SMK wants to be in government, but not at any price," he said.