FIVE left-wing nonparliamentary parties have announced they will join forces to give left-wing voters an alternative to the Communist Party (KSS) and Robert Fico's populist Smer.
The Democratic Left Party (SDĽ), the Party of Civic Understanding (SOP), the Social Democratic Alternative (SDA), the Social Democratic Party of Slovakia (SDSS) and the Left Bloc (ĽB) announced their plans to begin the integration process at a joint press conference on December 5.
"The integration process has certain stages. The first is communication, then comes cooperation and finally institutional integration. So far, we don't know what exact shape things will have and who the leader will be," SDA chairman Milan Ftáčnik told The Slovak Spectator.
"The institutional questions will have to be resolved in the first half of 2003 because we would like to run together in the elections for the European Parliament in June 2004 and you need some time to introduce a new party," he said.
Ftáčnik said integration seemed a natural next step for the parties.
"The idea has been floating in the air since the parliamentary elections [in September]. All the parties came to the conclusion that we should proceed in the process of integration," he said and added that the new political entity aims to provide social democratic alternatives to measures proposed by the current centre-right ruling coalition.
Experts say low public support may have driven the former competitors to unite.
"They need [to unite] because the last elections showed them they are much weaker than they imagined," said political scientist Miroslav Kusý from Commenius University in Bratislava.
The SDĽ gained more than 14 per cent in the 1998 elections and was the second-largest coalition party during the 1998 to 2002 administration. But the departure of the popular vice-chairman Robert Fico in 1999, whose Smer party currently leads opinion polls, weakened the party significantly.
The SDĽ received a further blow in the spring of this year, when a group of former SDĽ members led by Ftáčnik and former SDĽ chair Peter Weiss established the SDA. The SDĽ tried to save the situation by allowing SDSS and SOP representatives to run on its ballot, but they won just 1.3 percent of the ballot. The SDA, formed only in April, did not do much better, gaining just under 1.8 per cent.
The Left Bloc, another party launched in the election year, gained 0.2 per cent of the vote in the national elections.
These figures show that simply uniting may not be enough, as the sum of the five parties' votes in the last elections is well under the 5 per cent minimum required to get into parliament.
"They have to come up with a good programme, which could first of all unite them and second of all work with the voters, because the left as a whole is undergoing a crisis. The old communist slogans [of the KSS] have lost their meaning and [Smer's] policy of being in the middle is very unclear," said Kusý.
But there may be significant obstacles on the road to unification. The ĽB is headed by Jozef Kalman, who was vice-chairman of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) until he left the party in April of this year. Kalman was the Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration in Vladimír Mečiar's 1994 to 1998 administration, which nearly disqualified Slovakia from EU and Nato integration processes.
However, the SDĽ, SOP and SDSS are now ready to collaborate with the man, with the hope it will win them more votes in future elections.
"They are desperate to find broader support," said Kusý.
When asked whether he personally has a problem with Kalman's past, Ftáčnik replied: "To be honest with you, I would rather not comment on that."
The new party will fight for voters with the politically isolated KSS and it will have to define its relationship with Smer, which after the elections started presenting itself as a left-wing party. So far Smer doesn't seem to be interested in a closer partnership with the smaller left-wing parties.
"We can not allow people who lost all confidence of the voters, such as [SOP chairman Pavol] Hamžík or Weiss to become a parasite on Smer," said Smer vice-chairman Boris Zala.
Ftáčnik sees such statements by Smer representatives as a sign of fear. "They don't want to have a competitor and they are a little nervous now they see that they might have one," he said.
"I don't think we could be competitors, because a party with 1 per cent [support] can't compete [with Smer]," replied Zala.
International recognition is one area in which the small parties could help Smer if they were to form an alliance. The SDSS and SDĽ are all members of the Socialist International (SI), the worldwide organisation of social democratic, socialist and labour parties, which currently brings together 141 political parties and organisations, including the British Labour Party and the Social Democratic Party of Germany.
"It is a prestigious matter to be a member of the SI, so it is something everyone strives for [including Smer]. Naturally, not everyone can become a member," said Kusý.
The representatives of the small parties are presently hesitant to support Smer's membership in the SI.
"We think it is positive that Smer wants to become a social-democratic party, but we feel that it has not become one yet. There are also certain objections voiced by partners from the SI," said Ftáčnik.
Smer representatives claim the issue is not of key importance for the party.
"Smer will become an observer in the SI in March next year, but it is in no hurry to become a full member. Problems at home must be solved first. SI membership is a question for the future," said Zala.
For the time being, Zala, who himself previously headed the SDSS and was involved in numerous similar integration efforts throughout the 1990s, sees only one way of collaborating with other left-wing leaders.
"They can dissolve their parties and become members of Smer. But they will not be offered any positions in the party as a reward. That is an acceptable model for us," he said.