WHAT SOUNDS like a special ID for members of Slovakia’s largest ethnic minority, or a strange card game, or even a menu full of goulash, paprika-rich specialities and tokay, is in fact a unique political phenomenon, ever-present in Slovak public life. The “Hungarian card” is played whenever Slovak politicians are in need of a scapegoat, or just want to score a couple of points with nationalist voters. Rarely has it been used as intensively as before the second round of this year’s presidential election.
Anti-Hungarian sentiment has been present in Slovakia throughout modern history. Nationalists like to speak of a “millennium-long oppression” allegedly suffered by Slovaks at the hands of Hungarians. Even many Hungarians acknowledge that “Magyarisation”, an attempt to forcefully assimilate various ethnic groups - including the Slovaks - living under Hungarian rule, which started in the second half of the 19th century and in various forms continued until World War I, was not their finest hour. On the other hand, many Hungarians remain dissatisfied with the division of Europe that resulted from the post-World War I agreements, which was reconfirmed after World War II. This left large Hungarian minorities living in neighbouring countries such as Czechoslovakia and Romania, and revisionism is still on the agenda of extremist ethnic-Hungarian political forces on both sides of Hungary’s borders. The fear that Slovakia’s own minority is disloyal, and is striving to gain independence and then reunite with Hungary, or even that it is Hungary’s ultimate goal to regain all of its former territories, including Slovakia, is at the heart of the “Hungarian card”.
“Do we want a president, who gained the support of the Hungarian Coalition Party in exchange for a promise of autonomy, or a president who defends Slovakia’s interests? Slovaks, let’s vote for Ivan Gašparovič – a Slovak president!” reads an ad paid for by the Slovak National Party (SNS), which is part of the governing coalition. This piece of hard-core nationalist propaganda is not only sadly reminiscent of the central Europe of the 1930s, but it is also based on a lie. Gašparovič’s opponent Iveta Radičová has never promised anyone autonomy. The incumbent president, who in 2004 ironically defeated Vladimír Mečiar in large part thanks to the votes of ethnic Hungarians, has not condemned the attacks.
All previous elections in Slovakia have had their leitmotif – the country’s independence, Vladimír Mečiar’s autocratic tendencies, EU and NATO membership, or right-wing reforms to name the most important. The presidential election of 2009 has turned into a test of Prime Minister Robert Fico’s popularity. And of the strength of the Maďarská karta.