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EDITORIAL

The more things change...The story of a weak ruling coalition and disjointed opposition

EXPLAINING the political situation in Slovakia to the foreign community has always been challenging. Where to start the story of a weak ruling coalition, disjointed opposition and numerous groups of independent deputies lurking in the wings for the best political bargain?
In a story that changes with each new statement, however, the pattern remains the same: the country lacks a single, strong, pro-reform and pro-democratic party that does not have to rely on coalition partners of different stripes to push through its agenda.

EXPLAINING the political situation in Slovakia to the foreign community has always been challenging. Where to start the story of a weak ruling coalition, disjointed opposition and numerous groups of independent deputies lurking in the wings for the best political bargain?

In a story that changes with each new statement, however, the pattern remains the same: the country lacks a single, strong, pro-reform and pro-democratic party that does not have to rely on coalition partners of different stripes to push through its agenda.

The departure of the New Citizens Alliance (ANO) from the ruling coalition and the coalition's inability to kick start the parliamentary session after the summer recess greatly heartened opposition leader Robert Fico of Smer. He is loudly and earnestly calling for early elections.

Fico is no doubt motivated by election poll results that show his party high on popularity charts. But Fico has overestimated election preferences twice already. Prior to the last parliamentary elections in 2002, polls indicated that his victory was almost certain. Fico ended up with no more than 13 percent of the vote, however.

Most journalists consider Fico a populist and he is branded as such by the international community. The politician has not managed to wash off this political stain. Only a very few trust that the Smer chairman's campaign to stop all privatization projects is motivated by honourable intentions. Analysts are pretty sure he wants to stall privatization so they can proceed under his baton.

It also remains unclear with whom Fico would rule if he managed to win parliamentary elections. Former Economy Minister Pavol Rusko, who parted on bad terms with his former coalition partners, might be willing to unite with Fico, but that union would certainly not elevate Fico's credit, at least among his peers.

The Slovak National Party, which has seen its constituency growing, might be a willing assistant if it meant sharing power. However, the political biography of SNS leader Ján Slota, known for his offensive statements against the Roma and Hungarians, would not curry favour with the foreign community.

Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda says that Fico's call for an early election is the culmination of the Smer chairman's hunger for power.

Dzurinda hates the idea of early elections. Even though the prime minister's party, the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), performed much better during the 2002 elections than the polls at the time suggested, Dzurinda has little confidence in a repeat performance.

Although Fico might get the spotlight for calling for early elections, in fact it was Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) leader Béla Bugár who got fed up with parliament's verbal games. "Let's go for it," he said.

Bugár knows that he will get out the Hungarian vote even if he does not move a finger. The SMK voters are disciplined: they make sure that the party has support from 10 to 11 percent of the population, nothing more, nothing less.

Indeed, Bugár scared the parties who were only crying wolf to put pressure on the cabinet.

The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), which had tentatively supported early elections, changed its rhetoric, saying it would be willing to talk about other options if it was allowed access to the cabinet, for example.

HZDS Chairman Mečiar has been surprisingly quiet. Likely he fears losing further votes by being supportive of Dzurinda. His party does not really have reason to want early elections, with its current voter support between 12 to 13 percent.

Like the SMK, the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) has a solid electoral base. For now, the KDH is happy because Dzurinda met their request to get rid of Rusko. In return, the KDH is keeping relatively passive about early elections, maintaining that the prime minister simply needs to find support among the independent MPs to keep parliament rolling.

The Communists say they are up for early elections. Based on polls, however, their prospects for parliamentary representation are not rosy. It is not such a great loss: Communist MPs are only good for entertaining the public with flashbacks to old Communist times.

Independent deputies are in fact against early elections because it would put an end to their roaming political career. They need to attach themselves to a political party to get reelected to parliament. Many have few parties left to turn to.

But reconstructing the cabinet and opening the doors to the opposition - an idea supported by the HZDS - is something the current government can hardly accept. It would, in fact, result in an even deeper political schizophrenia for Mikuláš Dzurinda. He would have to function with figures that have been criticizing his reform efforts for years.

Slovakia experienced early elections 11 years ago and it had grave consequences for the country.

The crisis was at that time initiated by the departure of an economy minister, a member of the Slovak Nationalist Party. It also led to a party splintering, the disintegration of the SNS deputy faction supporting the Mečiar government. The decaying process within the HZDS resulted in Jozef Moravčík leaving the HZDS and being expelled from the party. Moravčík strongly criticized Mečiar for his autocratic rule.

The situation resulted in President Michal Kováč delivering his most critical speech in parliament, in which he named Mečiar and his style of rule as the origin of the political decay. Finally, the parliament expressed no confidence in the government of Mečiar, who had to resign.

The president charged Moravčík with constructing a temporary cabinet, which instead of ruling until 1996, opted for early elections in September 1994. The early elections resulted in Mečiar's reelection and an era of international criticism and isolation.

Despite some similarities, we are living a different story. Let's hope that this one will have a happier ending.

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