Mečiar’s end was a matter of time

GIVING the chair in Slovakia’s future parliament to the leader of Most-Híd, a party running candidates of both Slovak and Hungarian ethnicity, would send a strong signal to ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia, said Tim Haughton, a political analyst from the University of Birmingham in England in an interview for The Slovak Spectator which took place in one of Bratislava’s cafés a day after the official election results were published. He believes Slovakia’s centre-right parties can form a coalition that can stick together but that they will have to work hard for such cohesion. Haughton came to Slovakia a week before the June 12 election after visiting the Czech Republic where he witnessed the election victory of the rightist parties there and he saw a similar election result unfold in Slovakia just a couple of weeks later.

GIVING the chair in Slovakia’s future parliament to the leader of Most-Híd, a party running candidates of both Slovak and Hungarian ethnicity, would send a strong signal to ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia, said Tim Haughton, a political analyst from the University of Birmingham in England in an interview for The Slovak Spectator which took place in one of Bratislava’s cafés a day after the official election results were published. He believes Slovakia’s centre-right parties can form a coalition that can stick together but that they will have to work hard for such cohesion. Haughton came to Slovakia a week before the June 12 election after visiting the Czech Republic where he witnessed the election victory of the rightist parties there and he saw a similar election result unfold in Slovakia just a couple of weeks later.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Do you see many similarities between the Czech and the Slovak elections or are they two different stories?

Tim Haughton (TH): There are differences but there are also some similarities. In the Czech case you had the Fischer technocratic caretaker government, whereas obviously in Slovakia it was about the governing parties and the opposition parties. That’s an obvious difference. Having said that, we can clearly see in the election campaigns that there were significant individuals, [Jiří] Paroubek in the Czech case and [Smer leader Robert] Fico in the Slovak case, that were in the centre of the campaigns. ‘Do we want Paroubek? Do we want Fico? Yes or no?’ That was a very important factor in a lot of votes.

TSS: Did the results for Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) surprise you?

TH: No, it’s not a surprise at all. From the 1992 election onwards, the party has followed a slow, gradual decline in its popularity. So, in some respects the question was always ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ it was going to fall below the threshold and out of the parliament. That was no surprise.

Because what is the rationale for this party? Why would you as a Slovak vote for this party? If you say that it’s because of the national theme (Mečiar as ‘otec národa’ – the father of the nation) and so on, there are other parties that have pushed these national themes even more strongly, such as [the Slovak National Party] SNS or even Fico. You could say that for the success of HZDS in the 1990s there was a Christian pillar to their support, never that strong but it was there, it was important. But yet if that was important to you, you would find that a party like [the Christian Democratic Movement] KDH would be a happier home for you.

If we look at another point about HZDS’ support over the years, in the 1990s it was about managed transition, about more gradual transformation. But you can argue in more recent times that Fico and Smer have catered for that kind of audience very well. So what are you left with is the kind of voters who just hang on, because this is how they have always voted in free elections. And those voters are attached to Mečiar as an individual. And Mečiar in the 1990s was clearly the most charismatic politician in Slovakia; but this is a man who has lost a lot of his charisma from many years ago. And if you like, it’s a party that is going beyond its shelf-life. It already has gone beyond its ‘best before’ date and now it’s kind of beyond its ‘last consumable’ date.

TSS: So the end of the party in parliament is the end of HZDS in general?

TH: You could say that. What was important for HZDS in 2006 when they already got a small percentage of the votes was that it went into government. That mattered because it could control ministries which were important for the links between those backers and supporters of the party and the party leadership. But what can the party offer now? It can’t even offer to its backers a voice in parliament. I’m not suggesting it will die tomorrow as a party, but it’s clearly on a downward trajectory, as it’s been since 1992.

TSS: Do you expect the leader, Mečiar, to personally withdraw from public life?

TH: This is a man who since he left office as PM in 1998 has actually not been that prominent. Apart from the first few years after the 1998 election when he decided to run in the presidential election, then of course he was prominent for a while. I would imagine he would now go to his villa Elektra and retire. What matters to him is that he doesn’t want to be investigated for anything that could still be investigated from the time when he was a PM. If that is acceptable, then I think he’ll go to retirement. After all, he is in retirement age.

TSS: Is the number for Smer so high thanks to former supporters of SNS and HZDS who switched to Smer? Did the number surprise you in any way?

TH: A little bit. I think it’s worth saying that if we go back four years and we’d say to Fico that in 2010 his party would get in the mid-30s he might have been very happy. It’s actually quite a good result if we think about the global economic difficulties. It’s a good result but obviously not good enough because of the failure of the coalition partners. Where have the Smer voters come from? I think the party has taken support from HZDS and SNS. For instance, some of the former HZDS voters clearly see Fico as a kind of Mečiar of this era. And what was also very striking in the last few weeks was that the nationalist messages seemed to be much stronger coming out of Smer. Especially when they started to say ‘we have to stop a coalition with [the Hungarian Coalition Party] SMK’. That nationalist card was played quite strongly and that could have taken some voters from HZDS and SNS, too.

TSS: Would you say after this election that nationalism is still so important to Slovak voters?

TH: It’s still important. If we buy the argument that Smer has taken support from SNS and HZDS in part because it managed to use the nationalist card, then we’ll see that the party that has used the nationalist card has gained 35 percent of the vote. So we should be cautious on the one hand to suggest that this is good news for Slovakia.

On the other hand, what could be a significant point is what is happening on the Hungarian side: the fact that SMK didn’t get into parliament and the fact that Most-Híd was successful. I think Most-Híd is a very significant, interesting party, because it’s explicitly built on bridging divides between Slovaks and Hungarians. And I think how Most-Híd performs over the next couple of years, whether it manages to stick together, whether it shows its cohesion – that could be very significant.

The nationalist factor in Slovak politics is always going to be important. Because of the government in Budapest and history some tensions in Slovak-Hungarian relations are going to remain. On the one hand you could argue that with SMK out of the government and the fact that the ethnic Hungarian voice will be represented by a Slovak-Hungarian party we have grounds for optimism.

But on the other hand you could say that if the stronger Hungarian voice is not represented in parliament, that might increase the radicalism of some ethnic Hungarians who feel excluded from the political mainstream. Not necessarily SMK, but some of the voters who have voted SMK. I’m not sure whether SMK not being in the parliament is necessarily a bad thing or a good thing, but it’s something that we should watch very carefully.

The nationalist theme is not going away in Slovakia because of its history and don’t forget that of course Slota and his SNS are still in parliament. So the success of Most-Híd provides grounds for optimism, but let’s not get carried away.

TSS: Smer promises to be a tough opposition for the centre-right government. What effect could the time in opposition have on the party?

TH: The government is going to have to make some difficult, unpopular decisions. Fico is a politician who is very good at exploiting those sorts of things. He will also try and divide those difficulties amongst the coalition partners and he could play that game quite effectively. So on the one hand, Fico is not necessarily in such an awful position. He could be in a position in which he could help engender the premature end of the coalition; slightly unlikely, but still possible.

On the other hand, I don’t know how much Fico will enjoy being an opposition politician. Former prime ministers don’t enjoy being anything else than being prime ministers. And the other question is about the backers of Smer and the people within Smer. There are some people within Smer on the left of politics that we can describe broadly as social-democratic. But there are also people within Smer who are there because they thought this was the most important vehicle for them to see their interests pursued. Now the longer that Fico is out of power and the more it looks like that he isn’t going to return to power quickly, then maybe some of these interests will move.

There are certainly lots of people and lots of business interests and the like in Slovakia who jump on a bandwagon when they think it’s going somewhere. And if that bandwagon then appears not to be going somewhere, they will jump off and look for the next one to get on. If they don’t see that Smer is going to be an effective vehicle for them then they will choose another vehicle.

So I think the next year could be crucial for Fico. If he can keep the focus on attacking the governing parties and he can run an effective campaign against the coalition then he could be in quite a strong position in a year’s time. If he doesn’t do that and the longer the coalition seems to hold and the longer he’s out of power, then it could become more difficult for him to move forward.

In some respects it’s going to be just as interesting to watch the developments in Smer as it is to watch developments in the coalition. Because if the coalition falls apart, the big player in Slovak politics will again be Smer just because of its number of seats.

TSS: What are the chances of the four centre-right parties to form a stable coalition and stick together for the next four years?

TH: The history of Slovak government coalitions shows that even quite diverse coalitions can stick together. They can implement quite tough packages, but yet stick together even if they might say quite nasty things about each other in public. But they can stick together.

On the other hand, let’s look at the parties. It’s going to be essentially a centre-right government, so there is some ideological cohesion there. Nonetheless there are some divisions over some social issues between SaS and KDH for example. Secondly, two of the parties entering the coalition are new parties. Most-Híd is an interesting phenomenon with a very charismatic, experienced leader. The vote for the party was driven much by its leader, Béla Bugár, more than anything else. But what really keeps the party together? Is it Bugár? Who are the people who will show cohesion? There are different groupings within it, such as the four [Civic Conservative Party] OKS politicians who all will be a part of it. So you have Most-Híd as a party where there are some more liberal-minded individuals mixed with some more conservative, some Christian, some moderate Hungarians and some Slovaks. It’s a big question how this party will function.

And secondly, SaS. This is another party formed relatively recently with a lot of young activists, a lot of new people in politics. We don’t know how they will cope with the rigours of government. We have these four people from the bottom of the SaS list who were bumped up because of preference voting who aren’t even members of the party. Comments from them suggest they will support the coalition and have reached agreement with Sulik, but going into government can place great strains on political relationships.

So I think if we look at the numbers, they are quite good for central Europe – 71 and 79. But if we look at the history, as Kevin Deegan-Krause and I have argued in a couple of academic articles, new parties tend to find entry into government quite toxic. The cohesion of those two parties is going to be quite important for the cohesion of the whole government. And the third party, which is a not a new party, that will have to deal with some interesting internal dynamics, is of course SDKÚ. Dzurinda was the leading figure in its creation – and he now has to take a back seat (or at least a much less prominent seat) with the lady who might become prime minister.

So there are some difficult times ahead, all the members of the coalition will have to work hard to keep their party members happy and keep the coalition together. They could do it, but it will be hard.

TSS: As for SDKÚ, there were rumours that Dzurinda could get the post of foreign affairs minister. Would it be ok for the party to give Dzurinda an important post?

TH: Dzurinda is a man who is not popular with a lot of voters. It could be difficult. It might depend on what position he would be happy to take in the government. There is an argument to make for him to be a foreign minister. He is obviously experienced in the international level, he has many contacts. He, of course, might find it quite difficult being foreign minister with Radičová being prime minister. He has to accompany her on many visits and be a side-kick, quite difficult for him. In many respects this could be the first tough decision of the SDKÚ and the assumed incoming government: what to do with Dzurinda. I think he has to be given some kind of role, but what role I don’t know.

TSS: Týždeň weekly suggested that perhaps Bugár would be a good choice for foreign affairs minister to deal with Slovak-Hungarian issues.

TH: I actually think that it’s important for Bugár to be given a quite significant post. Bugár has never had ministerial office. I would actually make him speaker of parliament. That sends out a very strong signal to ethnic Hungarians that essentially one of the top three important constitutional positions in Slovakia is held by an ethnic Hungarian. The danger of giving Bugár something like the foreign affairs ministry is that these ministers have to travel a lot. And it is not best for a party leader to be a foreign minister because that might limit the contact with the party. Moreover, Bugár doesn’t speak English very well. Slovak foreign policy is more than just about relations with Hungary. For a small state like Slovakia fluency in English needs to be a prerequisite for the person holding the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

If I were Bugár I would push for chair of parliament. It would be symbolically good for Slovakia. As for the foreign ministry, I think it would be great to have one nominee from Most-Híd, maybe not as foreign minister but maybe a state secretary to help deal with the Hungarian issue.

TSS: Did the election turnout surprise you? Why do you think it was higher than the polling agencies expected?

TH: I think the campaign in the last few weeks made the choice in front of the voters in Slovakia quite clear. The opposition parties tried to push the message to the voters that it was quite an important election this time, that it’s a chance to make a change. And I think as well there were some voters who maybe were prevaricating about whom to vote for and they decided they would vote for a party around the 5-percent threshold, just to ensure a party like Most-Híd for instance would get into parliament. They might not love those parties, but at least it was a chance to ensure there was a change in the government.

And the second factor which is important was internet mobilisation, which can be illustrated mainly by the SaS vote that came largely from the young. And maybe some of the turnout was actually SaS. I’ll be honest with you, I expected SaS to get less. I thought that when push came to shove, when the voters were in the voting booth, they might go for more of a known quantity, but they did not. Some of them stuck with SaS.

So yes, I think it’s the centre-right parties, especially SaS and maybe Most-Híd that perhaps made the difference.

TSS: Does SDKÚ still deserve the title of a leader of opposition, or future governing coalition, given its numbers?

TH: It’s close but SDKÚ still came second. I think the future development of SaS over the next few years could be extremely interesting. If we draw from examples from recent Slovak history, I wouldn’t be very optimistic about the chances of SaS holding on to its support. It’s got a lot of vote from the young, first-time voters. There are tough decisions ahead and to go back to speculations about posts, Sulík is likely to be the finance minister. The Finance Ministry is not a ministry that tends to make you popular. And some people may become a little bit disillusioned with SaS. The party will have a job on its hands to keep its popularity levels high. If we don’t have to see the repeat of the past, which is possible, SaS could hold onto support, but they will have a tough job ahead of them.

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