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EXAMINING POLITICAL PARTIES' DEVELOPMENTS TODAY HELPS ILLUMINATE TOMORROW

Parties learn lessons

IN 2004, the Slovak Republic acceded to the European Union and joined NATO. Becoming full-fledged members of both organizations marked the completion of an important stage in the democratization of the country.
While Slovakia is irreversibly past the conflict between regime and democracy, the actors in this fight - the authoritarian and democratic forces - are still present in contemporary political life.

IN 2004, the Slovak Republic acceded to the European Union and joined NATO. Becoming full-fledged members of both organizations marked the completion of an important stage in the democratization of the country.

While Slovakia is irreversibly past the conflict between regime and democracy, the actors in this fight - the authoritarian and democratic forces - are still present in contemporary political life. Today, Slovakia is confronted with the task of increasing the quality of its democracy and the efficacy of its government. By examining the country's political developments over the past year, we can get a better picture of the challenge ahead.

Several basic features characterize Slovak politics in 2004. These include the stability of our constitutional institutions; the minority status of the ruling coalition in parliament; the success of the ruling coalition, especially the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), in gaining support from independent MPs; the cabinet's focus on social and economic reforms; the opposition's failure to block cabinet-proposed legislation; and a certain firming of the conservative-liberal coalition.

The ruling coalition's fall from majority to minority status in parliament is particularly interesting. Comprised of the SDKÚ, the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), and the New Citizen's Alliance (ANO), the ruling coalition has not changed its form since October 2002. Nevertheless, the departure of several MPs from the SDKÚ and ANO caucuses caused the coalition to lose its footing.

Encouraged by what looked like a fatal weakening, Slovakia's opposition parties, consisting of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), the Slovak Communist Party (KSS), the Slovak National Party (SNS) and Smer, initiated a referendum on early elections. The goal was to cut short the cabinet's term. The effort ended badly for the opposition: Slovak voters ignored the referendum altogether.

At the start of 2004, the KDH and SMK tried to incorporate a new party, Free Forum, into the ruling coalition in order to renew its majority position in parliament. Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda was not inclined to the idea, since Free Forum was made up of former SDKÚ party members who had left because of Dzurinda. Rather than backing the efforts of the KDH and SMK to incorporate Free Forum into its ilk, Dzurinda focused on creating ad hoc alliances with the independent MPs, most of whom were former members of the opposition parties. Coalition partners criticized Dzurinda for "moral relativism" and complained that the informal agreements he struck with independents were unclear. Despite the disapproval of his coalition peers, Dzurinda managed to push through the cabinet's reform policies and get the 2005 state budget approved.

The lesson is that, in a fragmented party system such as Slovakia's, a minority government can triumph without cooperating with the opposition.

The opposition's weakness, namely its inability to offer an attractive alternative to the conservative-liberal ruling coalition, is not entirely to blame for the success of the minority cabinet. For the most part, ruling coalition parties ruled together throughout the term.

Although misunderstandings prevailed among individual cabinet members, especially in non-economic issues, the ruling coalition pragmatically pushed these to the background when necessary. The coalition did everything it could to steer away from open conflicts, which could have considerably destabilized and endangered the coalition government.

Coalition politicians seemed acutely aware of the boundaries surrounding their mutual conflicts. Paradoxically, the cabinet's minority status and the increased risk of impotence played a stabilizing role.

There has been little change in the political configuration of Slovakia since the 2002 parliamentary elections. Despite a decrease in voter support as a result of some unpopular social-economic measures, the ruling coalition has managed to maintain its electorate and can expect to count on them in 2006.

That is not to say that movement has not taken place. The left part of the political spectrum, for example, has increased its strength. Three small left wing parties - the Democratic Left (SDĽ), the Social Democratic Alternative (SDA) and the Slovak Social Democratic Party (SDSS) - dissolved in order to join Smer, which certainly gives the opposition a more favourable position. The unification of left-wing parties helps Smer broaden its voter potential as well as court favour with international socialist and social-democratic organizations, such as Socialist International and the European Socialists Party.

Meanwhile, the second strongest opposition party - HZDS - has continued to lose its voter support by demonstratrating a more moderate position towards the ruling coalition and stressing the pragmatic character of Dzurinda's policies. The tactic is to increase its coalition potential.

However, the HZDS, led by Vladimír Mečiar, shows little sign of real change, and thus its coalition chances remain relatively low. But this could change in the future, as a part of the current ruling coalition appears willing to pay the price of a possible alliance with the HZDS if it would help the coalition maintain power.

This possibility is much more likely if Smer fails to change the way its leader, Robert Fico, chooses to communicate with representatives of other political parties. Fico's lack of diplomacy is at the heart of the party's inability to forge political alliances.

It is premature to make a prognoses on the country's political development after the next parliamentary elections in 2006. Plenty of factors are at play which could influence Slovakia's political system, such as the results of the cabinet reforms, the situation inside individual parties and the country's ability to use EU funds wisely.

To a certain extent, regional elections in December 2005 will be a test of how Slovakia's political parties will interact in 2006, providing insight into the extent to which the different parties will form alliances.

Grigorij Mesežnikov is the president of Institute for Public Affairs think tank.

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