>Slovakia’s new government: direction unknown

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While the deadlocked Czech political situation means that – three weeks after the election – MPs are still struggling to elect chairs of parliamentary committees, let alone a government, the Slovak elections in mid-June produced almost an embarrassment of viable majority coalitions. Commentators generally identified four possibilities

1) a coalition of the winning social democratic Smer party of Robert Fico with some members of the outgoing centre-right coalition – perhaps its more ‘social market’ inclined members, such as the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) orthe Hungarian minority party (which sits with the Christian Democrats in the European Parliament).

2) a renewed right-wing coalition taking on board Vladimír Mečiar’s much diminished Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) – still led by Mečiar from the seclusion of a large villa – accepting HZDS’s claims to have transformed into a European style People’s Part (of sorts)

3) a ‘national’ coalition of far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and Christian Democrats, historically associated with attempts to promote Slovak autonomy and independence, but wary of SNS’s extremism and unpredictable leade, Jan Slota.

4) A populist-nationalist coalition of Smer, SNS and HZDS harking backing to the Mečiar led alliance that made Slovakia a case study of illiberal democracy in 1990s and pariah for the West, except that HZDS would now be the tail that gets wagged, rather than the dog.

Most analysts – noting Fico’s embrace of the Social Democratic label and his party’s membership of the Party of European Socialist (gained not without difficulty) – expected him – despite still populist rhetoric opposing neo-liberal reforms – to go for option 1. Then he might indeed live up to his self-image of being a Slovak Tony Blair, toning down market reform only slightly but reaping the popularity that market driven prosperity would eventually deliver

Alas, the Christian Democrats have refused to play ball either by teaming up Fico; or by holding their nose and embracing a born again Mečiar, or – more understandably – by joining with Fico and Slota. Fed up of Christian Democrat equivocation and indecision, Fico has thus gone for option 4 – to the consternation of media, markets and commentators, who hoped it was just a negotiating ploy. The Party of European Socialists are unnerved to say the least, fearing a re-run of the Mečiar years or, perhaps worse, a kind of ‘Mečiarism lite’

The new PM, of course, promises that Slovakia will stay committed to NATO and EU standards and that the government not do anything too crazy, just ease the pain of the Dzurinda years. To cover his embarrassment Mečiar and Slota have at least agreed to stay out of the cabinet, although it will be interesting to see how the Young Gun Fico copes with these two old pros lurking Haider style outside the cabinet. Both (unlike him) have government experience.

In teaming up with radical populists and nationalists rather cobbling together an agreement with more liberal forces – despite their party’s Catholic social conservatism the Slovak Christian Democrat ministers were after all the originators of the flat tax -Fico seems to have gone for the Polish, rather than the Czech model. After its victory in the 2005 elections, Poland’s conservative-nationalist Law and Justice Party too teamed up with radical populists and Catholic-nationalists.

Meanwhile in the Czech Republic the equivalent of such radicals – the Communists – are still beyond the pale even for Social Democrats as far as coalition making is concerned. Hence the latest round of carefully crafted left-right ‘toleration’ in Prague.

This is rather ironic given that the Czech Communists are an altogether more serious, predictable and – relatively speaking – moderate force than the League of Polish Families, Self-Defence, SNS or indeed the new look HZDS. Indeed, apart from helping pass the Registered Partnership Law this year, their other unlikely service to Czech democracy has arguably been to soak up more elderly hardline populist and national voters that might have invigorated the far right, who crashed out of parliament in 1998 and once again flopped in elections this year.

Still perhaps Fico is a wiser man than he appears. There is no Mondeo Man or Worcester Woman in Middle Slovakia, only a large number of people who have lost out and see themselves as likely to lose out still more to a small, metropolitan middle class, that lacks the social and political clout of its UK, US or – dare I say it – even Czech equivalent

The pattern of both Polish and Slovak politics is more fluid with a much more marked rural-populist vs. urban liberal dimension, correlating with economic prosperity and poverty, than in Czechia will – as Cas Mudde suggests in an interesting but underdeveloped working paper (‘EU Accession and a New Populist Centre-Periphery Cleavage in Central and Eastern Europe, Harvard University Center for European Studies, Central and East European Working Paper No. 62 http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~ces/publications/Mudde.pdf
– be accentuated post-accession, with a still more distant centre of power and no great project with which to justify belt tightening.

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