The outlook for Slovak-Hungarian relations after the 2012 parliament elections

A steel bridge known as the "Elisabeth Bridge" straddles the Danube between the cities of Komárno (Slovakia) and Komárom (Hungary). Picture detail.
Source: Aktron / Wikimedia Commons, Copyright: GFDL / Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5

A “trace of Hungary” in Slovakia

May 21, 2012
Grigorij Mesežnikov
Slovakia has become the second Central European country after Hungary with a one-party government in power. And although – unlike Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary – Robert Fico’s Smer-SD party in Slovakia lacks a constitutional majority in parliament which would allow them to make fundamental changes to the political system, the strongest politicians in the two neighbouring countries are in a comparable position today. After election victories, they have both assumed exclusive responsibility for conditions in all areas of life in society under the government’s purview, especially in the area of social and economic policy. In the case of problems or failures, these politicians will not be able to cast blame on coalition partners who could tie their hands or on the opposition who could trip them up; they do not have any coalition partners, and the opposition is weak and divided, and, moreover, is (or will be) dealing with its own problems.

We can see a clear “trace of Hungary” in what has occurred in recent months in Slovakia – not, however, in the sense of a direct influence of the situation in Hungary on domestic political developments in Slovakia, but in the sense of a repetition of the “Hungarian” scenario in terms of the circumstances under which the ruling and opposition parties switched places. Much as the governing socialists and liberals in Hungary paved the way – through their mistakes and self-discrediting actions – for Orbán’s national-conservative party to achieve a comfortable majority in parliament, Slovakia’s governing centre-right parties, through a series of incomprehensible and – in hindsight also fatal – errors, contributed to a triumphal election victory for Fico’s left-wing Smer-SD.

Another parallel with Hungary, which was immediately clear to many domestic and foreign analysts following Smer-SD’s victory, is the possibility of an unusually large concentration of power in the hands of the new Slovak prime minister after the model of Fidesz’s leader. Although it would probably be somewhat premature to argue today – before the new government in Bratislava has fully assumed the reigns of power – that Slovakia is at risk of an “Orbánisation”, experience from 2006 until 2010 when Smer-SD was the main governing party demands vigilance. Moreover, Viktor Orbán was at that time still sitting with his party colleagues on the opposition benches in parliament, while Robert Fico as prime minister was already “rolling” his political opponents, journalists in the independent media, and representatives of non-governmental organisations and national minorities. He did not (nor does he today) have to follow anyone’s example, even that of such a capable and consequential politician as Viktor Orbán. Robert Fico can actually serve as a model for Orbán as a person endeavouring to achieve a maximum concentration of power.

The centre-right coalition’s fatal errors and the handover of power to Smer-SD

The fall of Iveta Radičová’s government in October 2011 was brought about by a split on the issue of approving Slovakia’s participation in the EFSF (the so-called “European bail-out fund”) between three governing parties on one hand – SDKÚ-DS, KDH and Most-Híd – and the fourth coalition party – SaS – on the other. From the outset, the SaS party led by Richard Sulík, a libertarian economist, refused to support ratification of the EFSF in parliament, arguing that to approve Slovakia’s participation in such a mechanism to save the euro would amount to “economic treason”. That nothing and no one would persuade doctrinaire SaS to the contrary was clear to anyone even slightly acquainted with the party’s personalities and with how its leader and his colleagues in the SaS parliamentary caucus think. It turned out, however, that this – quite surprisingly – was not completely clear to SaS’s partners in the governing coalition, who evidently thought SaS would nevertheless change its position for tactical reasons when faced with an ultimatum – either support the European bail-out fund or the government would fall. A mistake was also made in searching for an alternative approach – what to do if “euro-sceptic” SaS did not back down. Instead of applying pressure from the outset on opposition Smer-SD, which verbally supported approving the EFSF and had promised its partners in the Party of European Socialists (PES) that it would vote for ratification, the “euro-optimist” governing parties began to squabble with SaS in the summer of 2011 and to coerce it with a possible collapse of the government.

In so doing, they could not have created a better situation for Smer-SD, which had been waiting for the governing coalition to give it a de facto opportunity to cast a vote of no confidence in the government by combining a confidence vote with support for the EFSF. From the point of view of the governing coalition, this was ritual political suicide, committed right before the eyes of the public. No Slovak party has made such a gross and unforgivable error since 1990.

After the March 2012 election, Smer-SD will thus have 83 seats in the new parliament, while the four former governing parties will be in opposition: KDH (16 seats), Most-Híd (13 seats), SDKÚ-DS (11 seats) and SaS (11 seats). The new parliamentary grouping “Ordinary People”, which is neither a party nor a movement but rather a group of freely associated people of various ideological orientation (among them the well-known environmentalist, Green Party leader in 1990-1992, and currently professor at Comenius University, Mikuláš Huba), will have 16 seats in parliament.

Where the “Hungarian” card went

One of the issues that resonates most after the 2012 Slovak elections is that of Slovak-Hungarian relations in both its fundamental aspects – on the level of relations between the new government and the Hungarian ethnic minority in Slovakia, and on the level of bilateral international relations between Slovakia and Hungary.

During his first premiership, Robert Fico was known for playing the so-called “Hungarian” (or more precisely, “anti-Hungarian”) card at every suitable opportunity, whether in reference to politicians of Hungarian origin active in Slovakia (this mostly concerned representatives of the Party of Hungarian Coalition – SMK) or domestic political developments in Hungary. Especially in the weeks preceding the last parliamentary elections in 2010, Robert Fico participated in several events with a “national” theme – press conferences, extraordinary meetings of the Security Council of the State, Government and Parliament, unveilings of various monuments and other memorial artefacts – everywhere where reference could be made to the alleged danger threatening Slovakia from the south. The chairman of Smer-SD frightened his sympathisers with the possibility that a government could come to power which included the “autonomist and irredentist” SMK. Ultimately, this fierce campaign garnered extra votes from nationalist-oriented voters, although not enough to enable Smer-SD to form a government.

In 2012, Smer-SD hid the “Hungarian” card under the table, not recalling the Hungarian threat at all; it even made reference to Most-Híd as a potential coalition partner. Smer-SD’s moderation, however, had nothing to do with any sort of party-internal transformation with the departure of elements harbouring anti-Hungarian sentiments. Nothing like that occurred; Smer-SD simply did not need to activate the “Hungarian” card since its support ahead of elections was very strong, especially against the backdrop of the catastrophic decline in voter preferences for the governing centre-right parties. Moreover, it might not be worthwhile for Smer-SD to unleash a new round of escalating ethnic tensions – the carefully crafted image of a moderate social-democratic party could be seriously tarnished with unpleasant reactions in Europe, and a potential coalition partner – Most-Híd – would rule out a priori any possibility of entering a coalition with Smer-SD.

The result of two Hungarian parties being active in Slovakia is a peculiar case which is at least worth mentioning, as it is an inseparable aspect of what happened in the elections. After the collapse of the government and the announcement of early elections, Béla Bugár’s Most-Híd party rejected an offer by SMK to form a joint election coalition. The result of mutual intransigence on the part of the Hungarian parties was disappointing – Most-Híd failed to preserve its 2010 election gains, and SMK’s independent efforts turned out badly, with the party again remaining outside parliament. At the same time, a possible entry by SMK into parliament or a 10% showing by a joint Hungarian coalition could have shifted the balance of parliamentary power at least enough to have prevented the formation of a one-party Smer-SD government.

Slovak-Hungarian relations in the post-election period

So what is the outlook for Slovak-Hungarian relations in the next few years? It seems better externally (internationally) than internally (interethnically). Members of the Hungarian ethnic minority will scarcely see legislative measures that could lead to improvements for them in exercising their rights. To the contrary, even movement in the opposite direction cannot be excluded; representatives of Smer-SD let it be known long ago that they would attempt to amend the language laws so as to return them to the state of affairs which they had brought about before handing over power to Iveta Radičová’s government (it had to correct the most glaring distortions left by the coalition of Smer-SD, ĽS-HZDS and SNS). The possibility of obtaining dual citizenship – abolished in 2010 by the Smer-SD government – will certainly not be restored, which will continue to irritate Slovak Hungarians. Moreover, Smer-SD let it be known that it would not fill the office of Deputy Prime Minister for Human Rights and Ethnic Minorities, and would shift the agenda of minorities, which was hitherto under the purview of this member of the government, to the Ministry of Culture (although this agenda has very different dimensions than just cultural ones). It is more than just a bad signal about the new government’s approach to human rights and national minorities; the practical conditions for the exercise of rights by members of national minorities will worsen as well.

Against the backdrop of these not-too-encouraging domestic prospects, the outlook for Slovak-Hungarian international relations seems to be somewhat more optimistic. In the past, Robert Fico characterised Viktor Orbán as a dangerous politician, but at the time he had not had any personal experience with him. In 2010, they essentially missed each other in office: Orbán entered the government after the elections, and a couple of weeks later Fico left the government. Today Fico is in a more favourable position than Orbán. The latter is under pressure from the EU and is perceived in Europe as a political enfant terrible. Today, Hungary is having difficulty meeting the EU’s economic criteria, and efforts by the governing Fidesz to change the political system toward a greater concentration of power are encountering not only resistance from the domestic opposition but also criticism from the EU. Robert Fico, by contrast, is now perceived in Europe as a “pro-European” politician who even helped to approve the EFSF’s ratification in Slovakia. Even Slovakia’s economy is in incomparably better shape than Hungary’s. In such a situation, it would be a needless mistake for Robert Fico to initiate steps that would lead to an escalation of tensions in bilateral relations with Hungary, which he really does not need right now. What the re-elected Slovak prime minister is very likely to do, however, is to adopt a position of solidarity with the EU vis-à-vis Viktor Orbán on matters of internal affairs in Hungary. It is even possible that Robert Fico will become a sort of vanguard in the European political mainstream’s struggle for democracy in Hungary. In return, he will expect from the EU a more lenient posture vis-à-vis his intransigence in domestic minority policy, and possibly also vis-à-vis the criticism that he will direct at Budapest from time to time in order to maintain and cultivate his image among voters as a nationally oriented politician. It is questionable, however, whether he will succeed, and whether the EU will give the nod to such a mercantile approach.

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Grigorij Mesežnikov is a political scientist and president of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) in Bratislava.

Dossier: Focus on Hungary

The Heinrich Böll Foundation has compiled a dossier containing articles and interviews on the situation in Hungary since the right wing government came to power in April 2010. The driving goal behind the project is to analyze and interpret the changes in the domain of public life at ‘half-time’, two years before the next parliamentary elections.