Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 6
14 February 2000

Bratislava CastleS L O V A K I A:
Čarnogurský vs. Dzurinda
Michal Frank

The strongest government party in Slovakia is falling apart. Politicians are arguing bitterly and everything is playing straight into the hands of Vladimír Mečiar - the man who the Slovaks sent into political retirement after the 1998 elections, even if only for a time. What is causing such a problem for the government? The answers can be found by looking at the origin of the party.

The Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) began its rise to power in 1998. Mečiar's ruling clique had adopted a voting law that discriminated against political parties in coalition. As a result five opposition parties - the Christian Democrat Movement (KDH), Democratic Union of Slovakia (DU), Democratic Party (DS), Slovak Social-Democratic Party (SDSS) and the Slovak Green Party (SZS) formed a single party, the SDK. These parties had worked already together before. First, an informal grouping of centre to right-wing parties arose (KDH, DU, DS) - the so-called "Blue Coalition". This was then joined by the Social Democrats and Greens, two small parties who owed their presence in parliament to a coalition with the post-Communist Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ). This grouping, initially known as the "Rainbow Coalition", changed into the SDK - at first a coalition, and then, before the elections, a political party with 150 members (i.e., candidates to become MPs).

The problem at that time was who would take on the post of party chairman - a leader willing to go up against the charismatic Vladimír Mečiar. The most favoured candidate was Mikuláš Dzurinda (KDH), sometimes called "Little Mečiar". But this was particularly displeasing to the KDH Chairman Ján Čarnogurský, a former dissident and leader of the government, and an unpopular politician in Slovakia. Initially, then, the SDK had five leaders (the chairmen of the constituent parties). Mikuláš Dzurinda began as party spokesman, then became leader, and finally became head of the SDK after it changed into a full political party.

The elections were successful for the SDK. While it is true that it ended up with one seat less in parliament than Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), it relatively easily formed a government that has a statutory majority in the Slovak National Council (NR SR). It was joined in coalition by the Party of the Democratic Left, whose chairman Jozef Migaš became Leader of Parliament; by the Party of Hungarian Coalition (SMK) and by the Party of Civil Understanding (SOP), whose chairman Rudolf Schuster soon became President of Slovakia, the successor to Michal Kováč, and the first person to be elected in direct presidential elections. There was also a place in the new government for Ján Čarnogurský, who became Minister of Justice.

Immediately after the approval of the Governmental Program the argument began again over the name SDK. It is worth bearing in mind that at the time this grouping of parties enjoyed considerable popularity with the people of Slovakia, as did Mikuláš Dzurinda. Ján Čarnogurský began the offensive when he started to promote the name of the KDH and demanded that the SDK return to the five-way coalition. Mikuláš Dzurinda did not agree with this. After many words and deeds the representatives divided into two camps: one promoted the SDK as a coalition, the other as a union. Amongst the pro-coalition faction was Čarnogurský's part of the KDH and the conservative DS; amongst the "unionists" were Dzurinda's part of the KDH and the majority of the liberals from the DU. The Social Democrats were (and are) such marginal parties that their position was of no importance.

It was from this situation that the first compromise was born - joint membership (in the SDK and the "parent" party). This suggestion crossed all factions. The biggest struggle was expected in the KDH. The division within the party was shown up in the Christian Democrat parliament as Dzurinda's faction moved slightly ahead. But a compromise was reached which played directly into Čarnogurský's hands: yes to joint membership, but under the condition that the "joint member" may not be a KDH official. This resolution only delayed the problem of the SDK, and even though it was constantly in the media (with greater or lesser intensity) there was calm for a time. The calm before the storm. This finally came at the beginning of September 1999 from the East of Slovakia in the form of the "Prešov Challenge". This demanded that KDH officials stop attacking the SDK and Mikuláš Dzurinda in the media and invited the representatives of the Christian-Democrat platform in the SDK, together with Mikuláš Dzurinda, to use the possibilities of joint membership and take part in the formation of a single party. In this way Mikuláš Dzurinda and Co. returned to the KDH. The hidden aim of the challenge was to win the struggle with Ján Čarnogurský on KDH ground. In reaction to the Prešov Challenge the Christian Democrats approved the motion that the KDH would go into the next elections independently, or in a coalition under its own name.

After a short period of relative calm matters went into a steep decline at the beginning of 2000.

At a press conference Ján Čarnogurský aired an apparently absurd idea: he stated that he could imagine the SDK going into the elections as a tripartite coalition - KDH, DS and a union comprising the remaining parties. The reaction to this was not long in coming.

The formation of a new party

Eleven signatories signed the political declaration of the SDKÚ (Slovak Democratic and Christian Union), amongst them Mikuláš Dzurinda, representatives of the DU, and also the Dzurinda supporter Juraj Kopčák, Mayor of Prešov, chief of Mikuláš Dzurinda's advisors, and one of the initiators and signatories of the Prešov Challenge - a man vainly trying to get back from local into national politics. This declaration literally generated hysteria amongst the party representatives, especially in the constituencies. Ján Čarnogurský strongly rejected it and announced that the SDK was now finished and the Dzurinda faction should leave the KDH. About a week after the announcement of the SDKÚ declaration it was clear that this wasn't just a declaration but rather the origin of a new party. Signatures for its registration are already being gathered and the SDKÚ as a party will soon become a reality. A struggle is going on in the constituencies over future posts in the party. The SDSS and SZS have let it be heard that they are inclined towards working with parties from the left of the Slovak political spectrum. The DS, despite its continually low level of support, is rejecting joining the SDKÚ. The struggle between Ján Čarnogurský and Mikuláš Dzurinda is coming to a head.

All this is happening at a time when unemployment is reaching 20%, economic reforms, slowed down by the left-wing SDĽ, are moving forward very slowly with serious consequences for people's wallets, and the state is rife with clientism and corruption. All this is grist to the mill for Vladimír Mečiar and his HZDS, which unambiguously leads in the public opinion polls. The Slovak National Party (SNS) is hanging on to its relatively high level of support amongst voters despite the stormy changes which were played out in parliament during the recall from office of its former chairman Ján Slota and the appointment of its new chairman Anna Malíková. There is also considerable satisfaction for the "left-wing Heider" Robert Fico, a deserter from the SDĽ who formed his own party, Smer, and who is holding his position of popularity in the public opinion polls. Incidentally, recently there have been a huge number of public opinion polls in Slovakia. None of them adhere to the most basic conditions of such polls and they quite genuinely have no validity at all. The people - voters for the SDK, or rather the parent party of the SDK, are confused. It's as if no one knows who they will vote for in the elections. Mečiar is asking for a referendum on early elections. He knows what he is doing. The opposition, including Fico, are crying in unison that their assertion that the SDK was a swindle for the voters has been proved true.

What will happen now with the SDK? One thing is certain: none of the wings of this coalition, including Dzurinda and Čarnogurský, have any kind of strategy. Every step they take is improvised. Ján Figeľ intends to run for the post of chairman of the KDH - a man who otherwise is a moderate Dzurinda supporter. But it will be difficult for him to stand against Čarnogurský in a party bereft of Dzurinda supporters. The SDKÚ as a political party will soon become reality. The struggle to preserve the SDK as a whole will begin, as will that for the stability of the government, but also - especially in the constituencies - over seats in the new party. Because of the unpredictability of the process of transformation, or, to put it another way, the disintegration of the SDK, it is not possible to predict with any accuracy who will go with whom into the elections. And certainly not, for that matter, what will happen to the weakened forces of democracy that once were allied in the SDK when the sickened voters come to the polling booths.

Michal Frank, 12 February 2000

The author is a reporter for the newspaper Korzár, and studies at the University of Prešov


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