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Institutionalization of Slovak Political Parties and Charismatic Leaders

Lubomír Kopeček

This article forms part of the output of the grant project „Czech and Slovak Democracy after 1989“ (GA 407/03/D077).


The paper looks at the issue of importance of charismatic leaders with respect to political parties in Slovakia. The argumentation draws on classical theories, especially that of Angelo Panebianco. The paper asserts that majority of significant Slovak parties, i.e. Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, Christian Democratic Movement and some others, owe their existence above all or solely to their party leaders. In other words, the parties remained significant as long as they relied on their leader. While in some parties in the course of their development, there was successful depersonalization of the leader’s charisma carried out and the parties continued to exert significant influence, there were some other formations that ceased to exist after they lost their leader. This may serve as a proof of the small degree of institutionalization of the Slovak party system. At the same time, it is important to add that another two new formations, which were successful in the last parliamentary elections, i.e. Direction and the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union, were dependent on the charisma of their leaders. The latter said, we may not expect that the Slovak party system will get consolidated in a significant manner in near future.


party system in Slovakia, leaders, charisma


Analysis of party system in Slovakia after 1989 brings up a very intriguing topic of institutionalization of Slovak political parties.{1} What do we in fact mean by institutionalization? Samuel Huntington explains the term as a process through which organizations and procedures gain in significance and achieve stability (Huntington 1965: 394). In the words of another classic Angelo Panebianco is institutionalization a process of „the consolidation of the organization, the passage from an initial, structurally fluid, phase when new-born organization is still forming, to a phase in which the organization stabilizes“ (Panebianco 1988: 18).
Panebianco points out that institutionalization of a political party is characterized by a multiphase process. The party proceeds from the phase of minor institutionalization into advanced institutionalization when the initial system geared towards achievement of general goals is replaced by a system oriented at advancement of particular interests. Participation of party agents - in origin similar to social movement - is replaced by professional participation with all accompanying phenomena, i.e. bureaucratisation and creation of party apparatus, fostering solid hierarchical structures and the like. The process of institutionalization is finished at the moment when the party attains maturity and becomes consolidated. This paper aims to investigate one specific issue and that is the impact of charisma, or more precisely charismatic leaders, on the process of institutionalization.

Charisma - theory and practice

Many or possibly majority of Slovak political parties emerged exclusively thanks to the activity of their leader or a small group of supporters associated with the leader. The most obvious examples of such trend where the leader played a crucial role for forming the party are for instance Vladimír Mečiar and his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), Robert Fico and Direction (Směr), Rudolf Schuster and the Party of Civic Understanding (SOP). The leader was also very important, yet not as crucial as in the examples mentioned above, for party formation in the case of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and Ján Čarnogurský, Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ) and Peter Weiss or the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) and Mikuláš Dzurinda.
The degree of party formation through the initiative of the party leader and his impact is typical for the initial stage of development of the political party. See for example de Gasperi and Christian Democracy (DC) in Italy or Adenauer and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Germany in the period after WWII, during which the era of uncompetitive politics in Italy and Germany was replaced by the emerging competitive system of political parties. Nevertheless, this trend has been rather rare in West- European party systems in the last decades due to their relative institutional stability. The exceptions are manifested mostly by different radical or protest formations such as Anders Lange and his Progress Party in Norway or Mogens Glistrup and the ‘sister’ Progress Party in Denmark, Jean-Marie Le Pen and National Front in France etc.
Important in the initial phase of party development, which is typical of establishing links between the party and a specific group of voters, are personal and charismatic aspects, i.e. attachment of voters to the leader. In the phase of forming the party the emergence of such attachment is reinforced through effective stimuli such as the existence of general threat on one hand or general enthusiasm on the other (cf. Herbut 1997: 77).
The circumstances of KDH’s emergence in Slovakia may serve a relevant example of the latter whereby the party was formed around the personality of Ján Čarnogurský at the turn of 1989/1990, while a strong role in the process played the euphoria of some Catholics over new opportunities that opened up within the new democratic system. Another example may be the creation of HZDS in the spring of 1991, which was conditioned by feelings of injustice shared by the supporters of Prime Minister Mečiar who was removed from office then. It is precisely this kind of emergency situation that gives rise to environment where a group of voters sees in the person of the leader somebody capable of meeting their expectations and solving their problems. In this way, solid ground is prepared for establishing a firm link between the leader and his electorate.
Panebianco distinguishes between two kinds of charisma: situational and messianic, which he also calls “pure” charisma. The basic distinction between the two types lies in the fact that situational leaders are capable of altering the profile and character of the formation they lead as opposed to messianic leaders. Furthermore, durability of the party draws on the situation whereby charisma of situational leaders undergoes ‘rutinization’ (‘objectivisation’), i.e. the former attachment of voters to the personality of the leader transforms itself into an attachment to the party. To put it in other words, the charisma becomes depersonalized. (Panebinaco 1998: 52-53, 143 - 147). This is different to parties with messianic leaders where the leader remains the key person in the party, which results in halting the development of his potential political successors.
The distinction between the two types of charisma is very important with respect to the perspective of the political party concerned. While with the situational charisma of the ‘founding father’ is not his loss (resignation, death) fatal and thus the party stands good chances of ‘survival’, the loss of messianic leader poses direct threat to the party’s existence.
To illustrate the successful process of depersonalization, let us look at the example of KDH. KDH’s ‘founding father’ Ján Čarnogurský may be considered a leader with situational charisma since for most of the 1990s there was an obvious fixation of voters on his personality. The attachment of a group of strong believers to Jan Čarnogurský considerably helped the party after its first schism prior to the elections of 1992, when a radically nationalist group headed by Ján Klepáč split off, as well as in the period between 1998 - 2000, when the party faced up to the threat of being dissolved within the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK). However, the charisma of Jan Čarnogurský lacked messianic components. The high degree of institutionalization achieved within KDH, even if we cannot speak of full consolidation, proved to be instrumental in overcoming the crisis that arose out of the second party split at the beginning of 2002 when Dzurinda’s wing joined the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ). In the same year the smooth leader replacement of Čarnogurský with Pavol Hrušovský and the Parliamentary elections in 2002, in which the party - then without the leader-founder - achieved relatively good results thanks to a small but faithful electoral group, proved that KDH had successfully finished the process of depersonalization. This may be confirmed by the statement of Vladimír Krivý who commented on the electoral support of the 2002 elections that the voters of Christian Democrats are deeply and often lastingly identified with the party (Krivý 2002: 103).
A different example of a party where the situational charismatic leader was crucial for its inception, yet with an opposite outcome marked by failure, may be considered Peter Weiss and SDĽ. At the beginning of the 1990s offered then popular Weiss an attractive vision of reform for the Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS). He managed to bring about the reform while instilling in the ‘successional’ SDĽ the identity of a ‘modernist’ left-wing party. Together with assumption of material and organizational resources of the original KSS and with Weiss’ charisma did SDĽ manage to attract a considerable electoral group. On the other hand, the transformation of the party was marked by the limited influence of the leader on its future orientation and development, which is typical of this type of charisma. The failure in 2004 elections shattered Weiss‘ authority and thus he was gradually shifted to the margin (later attempts of Weiss and his wing at gripping power in the party failed).
The new party leader Jozef Migaš opted for a markedly different political strategy while his personality lacked charismatic features. Hence, in the end of the 1990s the attachment of the ‘traditional’ voters to the party did not prove to be strong enough to face the effects of SDĽ’s unpopular involvement in the government (cf. Kopeček 2002: 108-122). In this sense, the situation was determined by a missing attachment to a strong charismatic leader among other things. In the case of SDĽ we may thus speak of well-initiated institutionalization with very unsuccessful final consolidation (there were other factors leading to marginalization of SDĽ, the one discussed here however played a significant role).
The example of Social-Democratic Party of Slovakia (SDSS) represents a rather bizarre effort to link up the party with an integrative person of the leader, albeit ex post. SDSS did not have a charismatic leader during its reconstruction at the turn of 1989/1990. It was only shortly before the elections of 1992 that it acquired for the position of the party leader the legend of the Prague Spring - the reformed communist Alexander Dubček. However, Dubček died tragically after the elections and thus his engagement in the party had an episodic character followed by fairly negative consequences (due to Dubček’s pressure SDSS canceled the closed pre-election coalition agreement with SDĽ, which led to the party’s absence in the Slovak Parliament in 1992. Based on the exceptionally positive reception that Dubček enjoyed with the public, SDSS still attempted to mold Dubček posthumously into a key person in the collective identity of the party during the following decade.

Formation with a messianic leader - Movement for a Democratic Slovakia

Slovak politics provides also a sufficient number of leaders with ‘pure’ charisma. According to Panebianco, parties like this will remain a deviant case in their organizational development because they get institutionalized only exceptionally (Panebinaco 1988: 65-67). The party members‘ fanatical loyalty to the messianic leader allows us to call such parties genuine charismatic parties (cf. Ansell, Fisch 1999: 287-288).
The issue of existence of such parties plays a peculiar role in Slovak politics, which derives from the long-term significance of the dominant agent in the system - HZDS. Vladimír Mečiar, the leader of HZDS, seems to be the best example of a leader with ‘pure’ charisma. His unrivalled standing in the organizational structure of HZDS in the 1990s was not originally determined by party statutes but by his personal qualities in the sense of Weber’s definition of charismatic power (cf. Urubek 1999: 70). Until 1993 Milan Kňažko was the only rival candidate for the position of the party leader throughout the history of HZDS. Even in times of governmental and political crisis did V. Mečiar manage to gain 83 % of votes of delegates attending one of the party congresses. Ever since there has not been any rival candidate at any other party congress and thus Mečiar has usually gained 100 % (!) of delegates’ votes.
Mečiar’s position has been so firm that it could withstand any political crises. The conflicts with his opponents have resulted in secessions from HZDS. See for example HZDS’ history of the last decade dating back to Kňažko’s ‘rebellion’ in 1993, which resulted in the formation of Alliance of Democrats of the Slovak Republic, and the last development at the beginning of 2003 marked by the secession of the so-called Tkáč’ platform leading to the creation of another ‘splinter’ - the People’s Union. Mečiar’s key standing in the structure of HZDS resulted in emergence of informal mechanisms in decision making which was extanding outside the official organizational structures of HZDS.{2}
The significance of V. Mečiar for HZDS is illustrated by the state of affairs after the elections of 1998. Mečiar’s announcement that he will leave politics was at first caused by a political tumult over failure in the elections when HZDS gained ‘only’ 27% of votes and thus could not form a majority government. The situation brought about consequently dwindling of electoral support as shown by public polls and there was no HZDS representative capable of overcoming the ensuing serious crisis in the party. It was only after several months when Mečiar announced his presidential candidacy and lost in direct presidential elections by narrow margin - a proof of his continuing great popularity - that the situation within the party became stabilized.
The leader of HZDS keeps having decisive impact on the profile of HZDS, which is in nature still unclear as it becomes adjusted to current assumptions of the leader ad hoc. As an example of this situation may be considered the development of the party after the lost elections of 1998, when Oľga Keltošová, then the representative of the social-democratic wing of the party, proposed to change HZDS into a left-wing party. Contrary to that the former representatives of nationalist-traditionalist wing Augustín Marián Húska and Dušan Slobodník asserted moving closer towards the positions of the nationalist SNS. Nevertheless, in March 2000 the so-called ‘transformational’ HZDS congress declared on the basis of Mečiar’s decision that the party will transform itself into a “people’s” formation (cf. Mesežnikov 1999: 102 and Mesežnikov 2000: 109 - 112). When we look more closely at the term ‘people’s’ (cf. Kopeček 2003: 184 - 186) we may however come to the conclusion that it is supposed to signify center-to-right orientation (see the declared aim to assume membership in transnational party structures, i.e. the European People’s Party). However, in reality there was no substantial change in HZDS profile.{3}
Mečiar‘s HZDS represents within the Slovak party system today, in the sense of Panebianco, the ‘purest’ example of a charismatic formation. This does not however mean that the only factor playing part in the institutionalization of HZDS was the charisma of its leader. Other obvious factors included (1) building a widespread network based on clientelism until HZDS’ grip on power expired in 1998- HZDS still partially relies on this network - as well as (2) adopting a centralized model of the party structure that draws on rather large membership, i.e. 40 000 - 45 000 members, given the Slovak standards. Both these factors would in case of a loss of the current party leader counter complete marginalization of HZDS, if we apply Panebianco’s concept of charisma. Yet we may assume that a sudden loss of Mečiar would bring HZDS into the position of a small party. However, it is important to add that such development is evolutionally possible even if Mečiar remains in the position of the head of HZDS for a longer period of time. The reason for this is gradual erosion of Mečiar’s charisma as signaled by the elections of 1998 and 2002.


In order to draw specific conclusions from what has been said it is interesting or natural to compare Slovak party system with that of its Czech neighbour. In the initial phase of the system’s crystallization was the situation in both countries analogical with respect to the connection between the charisma of the leader and the party. In Czech environment the personality of the leader also played a key or significant role for a number of parties during the foundational period - see the most obvious example of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and its leader Václav Klaus or the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) and Miloš Zeman’s significance for its rise in the first half of the 1990s.
There was however a more or less successful process of depersonalization in the Czech lands epitomized by a smooth replacement of leaders in ČSSD and ODS. As far as ČSSD is considered, fixation of voters’ attachment to the party instead of the leader was confirmed by elections into the Chamber of Deputies, in which ČSSD achieved similar results as in the preceding two elections. As for ODS, the process of depersonalization seems to be so far a reality indirectly verified by stable electoral support as shown in public polls. Even though it is generally more difficult to speak of Czech political parties as fully consolidated, we may ascertain that all significant formations in the system have attained a solid degree of institutionalization (probably besides the Freedom Union - Democratic Union). Taking this into consideration and the relative stability of political interactions{4}, we may speak of the Czech party system as being rather solidly institutionalized.
The Slovak party system appears to be considerably different from this comparative perspective. A very basic fact that four out of seven successful political parties made it to the Parliament in the 2002 election and, on the contrary, several subjects victorious in the previous election did not succeed at present, shows a low level of general institutional stability of the system and its participants (cf. Rybář 2002). However, in the case of two of the four new subjects - SDKÚ and Direction (Směr) - it is charisma of the leader which is important or even crucial for the success.{5}
This implies that research of leader charisma will remain to be important in future. At the same time, a special attention should be paid also to new political participants. At the end of this paper, only few brief analytical notes can be made concerning both SDKÚ and Direction due to the short period of their existence as well as the lack of more (textual) space for a detailed analysis.
As for Direction, it may be stated that at the beginning the role of R. Fico was crucial for its origin. In other words, the attachment of the electorate to the leader (not of the electorate to the party) played a crucial role in the ‘establishment period’ of Direction. The ‘establishment’ period can be roughly determined from the birth of the party at the end of 1999 until the election of 2002. During this period, we can at most speak of a wholly incipient phase of institutionalization. Although in course of this period ‘standard’ bases from the point of view of organization of the party building (establishment of party body’s structure, building of local party structure etc.) were laid, this played only a subordinate role in respect of the party’s potential and operation. The evolution-bound program reorientation from the original effort to avoid defining itself ideologically to declaratory accentuation of Blairistic ‘Third Way’ may be assessed in the same way. This shift in the program appeared important particularly from the point of view of outward (foreign) presentation of the party. In-party needs were rather secondary.
Nevertheless, the election of 2002 apparently opened a new perspective and a new phase in the institutionalization of Direction. Election ‘clearance’ on the left side of the spectrum, in which no equivalent participant remained with the exception of the isolated Communist Party of Slovakia, created a prospective opportunity of further expansion of the party. All this happened despite the election result of Direction which was generally conceived of as a failure (‘only’ 13.5 %). As Fico’s post-election statements and practical measures indicate - see the merger with SOP at the beginning of 2003 and the offer aiming at other non-Parliamentary subjects - filling up this empty political space became his target. Concurrently it is probable that practical need of fulfillment of this target will require strengthening the party structure and firmer establishment of its identity and program. However, the answer to the question whether the process of depersonalization of Fico’s charisma will really take place and whether it will lead to a higher stage of institutionalization of Direction, still remains open.
Although in case of SDKÚ the attachment to the personality of the leader (Dzurinda) was important, the sources of potential that this party drew from were after all more extensive at the beginning of its existence (they were mostly based on the heritage of SDK in terms of program, electorate and partly also organization{6}). Moreover, in terms of personnel, SDKÚ was not ‘a one-man party’ but its personal appeal to the electorate was markedly more varied than in the case of Direction from the very beginning.
From the point of view of institutionalization of the party, the continuous and close connection with governmental power, which existed from the inception of SDKÚ - see the isolated phenomenon in party history whereby the party was established in the Slovak Republic Government Office in January 2000 - proved negative. This led to neglecting the building of the party as a political institution and, in addition, in its essence this created environment for development of personal animosities (see the concentration of the considerable number of ambitious politicians - Ministers, Secretaries of State, Members of Parliament etc.). A harsh slump in the electoral support of SDKÚ accompanying the decline of voters’ trust in the leader of the party in the second half of 2003 signals a small degree of SDKÚ’s depersonalization of. At present, SDKÚ represents from the point of view of institutionalization - despite its four-year existence - only a very loosely rooted subject, which is not good news for its future.

List of acronyms used in the text

ANO - New Civic Alliance (Aliancia nového občana)
ČSSD - Czech Social Democratic Party (Česká strana sociálně demokratická)
HZDS - Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (Hnutie za demokratické Slovensko)
HZDS-ĽS - Movement for a Democratic Slovakia - People’s Party (Hnutie za demokratické Slovensko - Ľudová strana)
KDH - Christian Democratic Movement (Kresťanskodemokratické hnutie)
KSS - Communist Party of Slovakia (Komunistická strana Slovenska)
ĽS-HZDS - People’s Party - Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (Ľudová strana - Hnutie za demokratické Slovensko)
SDK - Slovak Democratic Coalition (Slovenská demokratická koalícia)
ODS - Civic Democratic Party (Občanská demokratická strana)
SDKÚ - Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (Slovenská demokratická a kresťanská únia)
SDĽ - Party of the Democratic Left (Strana demokratickej ľavice)
SDSS - Social-Democratic Party of Slovakia (Sociálnodemokratická strana Slovenska)
SNS - Slovak National Party (Slovenská národná strana )
SOP - Party of Civic Understanding (Strana občianského porozumenia)

Poznámky / Notes

{1} The paper was presented at the conference entitled “From independence to integration: Slovakia and the Czech Republic before ascending the EU“ held between 21.-22.1.2003 in Bratislava (organizer – Slovak Political Science Association).
{2} These unoffical methods were embodied between 1991 – 1997 by the position of two of Mečiar’s colleagues (A. Nagyová and I. Lexa), who became unofficial spokespersons of his political attitudes, which in practice stood for legitimating of decisions made by the top party authorities (cf. Urubek 1999: 70).
{3} Since the ‘transformational’ congress HZDS carried the name Movement for a Democratic Slovakia - People’s Party (HZDS-ĽS), from 2003 the name switched to People’s Party - Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (ĽS-HZDS).
{4} In this respect is however the degree of institutionalization evidently smaller – see the period 1998 – 2002 which was abnormal in terms of governing the country.
{5} The case of another party - New Civic Alliance (ANO) – is specific because of the fact that the primary source of its potential was not charisma of the leader but his media resources. In this case, we can rather speak of an uncharismatic personalistic party (cf. Ansell, Fish, 1999).
{6} Approximately half of the members of SDK parliamentary club and virtually all SDK ministers went over to SDKÚ.

Literatura / Bibliography

Ansell, Ch. K., Fish, S. (1999): The Art of Being Indispensable. Noncharismatic Personalism in Contemporary Political Parties, in: Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3.
Duverger, M. (1964): Political Parties, London: Methuen.
Herbut, R. (1997): Partie polityczne, in: Antoszewski, A, Herbut, R. (eds.): Demokracje zachodnioeuropejskie. Analiza porównawcza, Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersystetu Wroclawskiego.
Huntington, S. P. (1965): Political Development and Political Decay, World Politics, Vol. 7. No. 3.
Kitschelt, H. (1995): Formation of Party Cleavages in Post-communist Democracies, Theoretical Propositions. Party Politics, Vol. 1, No. 4.
Kopeček, L. (2002): Strana demokratické levice 1989 - 2002: úspěch či neúspěch slovenských postkomunistů?, in: Hloušek, V., Kopeček, L (eds.): Rudí a růžoví. Transformace komunistických stran, Brno: MPÚ.
Kopeček, L. (2003): Stranický systém Slovenska, in: Fiala, P., Herbut, R. a kol.: Středoevropské systémy politických stran, Brno: MPÚ.
Krivý, V. (2002): Volebné výsledky, in: Mesežnikov, G., Gyarfášová, O., Kollár, M., (eds): Slovenské voľby ´02. Výsledky, dôsledky, súvislosti, Bratislava: IVO.
Mainwaring, S. (1998): Party Systems in the Third Wave, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 9, No. 3.
Mesežnikov, G. (1999): Vnútropolitický vývoj a systém politických strán, in: Mesežnikov, G., Ivantyšyn, M. (eds): Slovensko 1998-1999. Súhrnná správa o stave spoločnosti, Bratislava: IVO.
Mesežnikov, G. (2000): Vnútropolitický vývoj a systém politických strán, in: Kollár, M., Mesežnikov, G. (eds): Slovensko 2000. Súhrnná správa o stave spoločnosti, Bratislava: IVO.
Michels, R. (1931): Strany a vůdcové, Praha: Orbis.
Ondruchová, M. (2000): Organizácia politických strán a hnutí na Slovensku, Bratislava: IVO.
Panebianco, A. (1988): Political Parties: Organization and Power, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rybář, M. (2002): Party System Instability and the Emergence of New Parties in Slovakia, (text was presented at the PhD. Summer School on European Parties and Party Systems, Keele University, UK, 9.9.-20.9.2002),
available at , 20. 11. 2003
Urubek, T. (1999): Vývoj a postavení Hnutí za demokratické Slovensko ve slovenském stranicko-politickém systému, unpublished disseration, Department of Political Science, School of Social Studies at Masaryk University in Brno.

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