SDKÚ-HZDS deal mooted

IN A POLIITICAL reversal unimaginable six years ago, senior members of the ruling coalition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) party have said they could accept a coalition with an opposition party that, under its leader Vladimír Mečiar, was shunned by the international community for authoritarian excesses in the 1990s.

DZURINDA shares a moment with HZDS' Veteška.
photo: SME - Pavol Funtál

IN A POLIITICAL reversal unimaginable six years ago, senior members of the ruling coalition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) party have said they could accept a coalition with an opposition party that, under its leader Vladimír Mečiar, was shunned by the international community for authoritarian excesses in the 1990s.

In a January 24 interview, published in the current edition of SPEX magazine, Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš said that if it were the only way to preserve the reforms the current administration has launched, he would be "unequivocally" in favour of a coalition government with Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) after parliamentary elections scheduled for 2006.

Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan said February 4 that he, too, could "imagine" a coalition between the SDKÚ and the HZDS, although it would have to be without the controversial Mečiar, who "remains a memento of injustice".

Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, when asked by SPEX if he would accept Mečiar and the HZDS as political allies after the next elections, echoed Mikloš' emphasis on support for reforms as the deciding factor.

"If we are forced to look for allies, we certainly won't be interested in whether someone is tall or short, ugly or handsome, but in whether they will be team players on the path of continuity," he said.

On the one hand, these politicians' statements add context to the recent cooperation between the SDKÚ and HZDS in parliament, such as on calling for a special session to debate the domestic political situation, on defeating the recall of the SDKÚ-appointed Labour Minister, or on a change to a proposed amendment of the criminal code that forced the draft to be withdrawn (see cover story).

"So far we haven't seen any systematic cooperation [between the SDKÚ and HZDS], but the rhetoric on both sides has softened. There's no longer any aggression and both are focusing their attacks on Smer [opposition party that leads the voter preference polls]," said political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov. "We've seen a kind of ad-hoc convergence in voting."

On the other hand, the prospect of more formal cooperation between the two former political enemies poses fundamental questions for social mores and the future of Slovakia's democracy, said Mesežnikov.

"The moral dimension of this issue can't be ignored. The HZDS hasn't changed, and it's still led by a person who almost put Slovakia into international isolation, who oppressed the opposition, who evidently built a regime founded on authoritarianism and state corruption.

"We already went through a struggle for democracy and this struggle was won by democratic forces [in 1998 elections]. If the political parties that prevented Mečiar from continuing his authoritarian behaviour were now to offer the HZDS a chance to share power - especially after they lost the past two parliamentary elections and the past two presidential elections - I would say that would be unacceptable to a significant majority of the Slovak population."


While in power from 1994 to 1998, the HZDS-led government of Vladimír Mečiar violated democratic standards by thwarting a referendum on the direct election of the president, stripping MP František Gaulieder of his mandate for leaving the party, and concealing privatizations of public property from public view.

For these offences, as well as for a series of bizarre and unexplained crimes such as the kidnapping of the sitting president's son and the murder of a key informant on the kidnap case, Slovakia in 1997 was dropped from the leading group of candidates for entry to NATO and the European Union.

Neither the HZDS nor Mečiar have fully explained their roles in these events; as acting president in 1998, Mečiar even issued blanket amnesties to prevent the kidnapping and the referendum fiasco from being investigated.

The political history of the HZDS, and the authoritarian style associated with Mečiar's name, would make any cooperation between the party and the pro-Western SDKÚ "complicated", said Kukan.

"The name "Mečiar" is a priori regarded in a negative light abroad. There are so many infamous events connected to that name - the kidnapping of the president's son, authoritarian rule, the stripping of an MP's mandate against his will. It would be very bad for Slovakia if something like that [Mečiar's return to government] happened. Whether you like it or not, Mečiar is a symbol of bad things about Slovakia.

"Although I'm sure he has grown since then, that he's perhaps more realistic and has come to realize some things, it would still be very difficult to convince the international community that he was now good and pro-European. Were his name to be at the head of any government institution, it would complicate the good image that Slovakia has today.

"For our voters it would also be complicated," added Kukan.

But for Mikloš, regarded as the author of most of the post-1998 reforms in the banking, public administration, pension and healthcare sectors, the importance of preserving these reforms after a possible change in government in 2006 outweighs other considerations.

"In the future our responsibility will be to create the best government from the alternatives available," he said. "These alternatives will include those that allow us to continue with what we believe to be good, such as reforms and the development of the knowledge economy. We won't rule out cooperation with anyone except the Communist Party. Time passes, and while I'm not saying we'll change our minds about what happened from 1994 to 1998, the HZDS has also had a history after 1998. They supported several key things, such as EU and NATO entry, sending soldiers to Iraq, and our position on the EU Constitution. Those are important things, and the most important is the avenue it opens up for the future.

"To be more concrete, if Fico's Smer insists it will revise reforms [if it gets into power], such as the pension or tax reforms, and at the same time Mečiar's HZDS has no problem maintaining these reforms, I would unequivocally support a coalition with Mečiar, and with Mečiar's HZDS. I say this completely openly, because I would regard that as the best solution for the country," Mikloš said.

But Mesežnikov asked how the HZDS could be a guarantor of reforms given its hitherto opposition to the government's programme.

"Ivan Mikloš probably looks at it from his position as one of the authors of Slovak reforms, and for him the survival or continuance of reforms is probably worth the possible costs of cooperation," he said. "I understand the desire of reformers to protect what they have achieved, but the HZDS remains as difficult to read as it was in the past, and while working together might bring some short-term advantages in maintaining reforms, the long-range implications could be quite different.

"For example, it could bring instability into the system, and disappoint a significant share of democratically-oriented voters who might look at such cooperation as a denial of certain values and a negation of what was achieved in 1998. It would be apparent that, in the interests of staying in power and maintaining reforms, the SDKÚ had given another chance to the people who were responsible for the anti-democratic excesses of the past.

"I don't think this kind of compromise is appropriate for democratic politicians.

"Another question is whether, given the nature of the HZDS electorate, the reforms that have been made to the social system would be sustainable. HZDS MPs have criticized these reforms in parliament. Are their opinions going to change just because they join the government? What guarantees of unity on reforms will exist? How can you preserve reforms by working with a party that is fundamentally against reforms?" Mesežnikov said.

Whither justice?

As a coalition between the SDKÚ and HZDS is a new prospect, none of the actors involved seemed to have set ideas on the form or impact of such cooperation.

"I don't know what the situation will be in 2006, but I can already imagine a coalition between the SDKÚ and the HZDS without Mečiar. The HZDS has some capable people, in my opinion, some economic thinkers, some centre-right thinkers, and I don't think it would be a problem to arrange [cooperation]," said Kukan.

Mesežnikov, however, pointed out several risks, especially to ongoing police investigations of political and economic crimes in the 1990s. "For me, this [police investigations] explains why the HZDS is trying for closer cooperation with the SDKÚ. This cooperation creates personal ties on cases that haven't yet been investigated. I don't mean to doubt the independence of the police or the courts, but the presence of a party in the ruling coalition that was responsible for certain distortions in criminal prosecutions in the past obviously will influence how these cases are perceived, and will not likely lead to the investigation of these cases.

"If the HZDS joins the coalition, I think these cases will be forgotten to an even greater extent than at present."

Bringing Mečiar back into government would also mean politically rehabilitating him and resuscitating the HZDS, which is "on its last legs, on its way to the grave," the political scientist said.

"If Mečiar gets back into power, he might consider it a vindication and try to excuse his past political career, especially those aspects of it that are unacceptable in a democracy," he said.

"Our surveys show that the public, following the fairly successful launch of reforms and the failure of various disaster scenarios to become reality, is more ready to accept unclear or non-transparent behaviour from politicians. As if people were saying, 'if you guarantee us stable living conditions, we're prepared to forgive you various political sins.' That's a disturbing trend, and raises the question of how long the public will continue to support the most pro-reform politicians."

For now, a SDKÚ-HZDS government remains a cloud on the horizon, a product of the fact that the ruling coalition parties are continuing to poll around 35 percent voter support combined, short of what they need for victory in 2006.

"What's at play here is the political survival of part of the ruling coalition and its ability to retain its grip on power," said Mesežnikov. "It's clear that not only the SDKÚ but also other ruling coalition parties such as the Christian Democrats have no problem at least considering cooperation with the HZDS."

Rather than root out possible new partners, he added, the government parties should "try for good election results by being more open and communicating reforms to the public".

Dzurinda promised just such an approach. "There's a long way to go before elections, and my main goal as the head of the SDKÚ is to ensure that we get a good result," he said.

"If I want continuity, I have to do the necessary," added Dzurinda.

But low voter preferences and the continued avowals by Smer to turn back key reforms are clearly taking their toll on politicians like Kukan, who twice turned down offers of the Foreign Minister's post from Mečiar in the 1990s, but now can't bar the door to possible cooperation.

"In politics you can't rule anything out absolutely," he said.

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