Slovakia: A vote for the best and the worst
9 March 2012
The snap general election was supposed about Europe and Slovakia’s place in it. But a series of revelations about high-level political corruption now threatens the entire system.
When Iveta Radičova’s right-wing government fell last October after a dispute over Slovakia’s participation in the financial bail-out of indebted eurozone countries, it seemed that the Europe issue would redraw the traditional political and mental map of the country.
The early elections of March 10 had only to confirm a new era in which the pro-European orientation would be a more important bond holding the coalition together than the conventional ideological – and in the case of Slovakia, cultural – differences between left and right.
But after a few months everything is different. Europe has been forgotten and life in the country is dominated by corruption scandals at home, whose unprecedented scale is corroding the very essence of politics. The published ‘Gorilla’ file – a report from the SIS, Slovakia’s secret service, on politicians’ links to business – has turned traditional right-wing voters in particular towards new parties, which sprang up like mushrooms after a rain.
But, one after another, these have got caught up right away in their own scandals and scraps, from which they are emerging battered beyond recognition. The preliminary outcomes of this confusion are estimates of a frighteningly low turnout (45 percent), of which nearly a third do not yet know who they will vote for.
Loss of face
As illustration, it’s worth mentioning the case of several political newcomers that – except, of course, for the Gorilla file – have dominated the political scene. SaS, a junior liberal party, whose anti-European stance brought down Radičova’s party, destroyed its own laboriously constructed reputation as an uncorrupted and principled party through two revelations: Defence Minister Ľubomír Galko had the Military Intelligence Service wiretap journalists’ phones, and its chief Richard Šulík let a certain entrepreneur on the state’s ‘Mafia files’ screen his own party candidates before the previous election. As shown in secretly recorded and anonymously published videos, while he was chairman of Parliament Šulík met with businessman Martin Kočner in Kočner’s home and passed on to him information from the corridors of power.
Another candidate for Parliament is Igor Matovič and his party Ordinary People. This young populist broke away a year ago from the SaS and brought familiar names, mainly from conservative intellectual circles, onto his party’s candidate list. Later, however – in response to the Gorilla file – he invited them to undergo a lie-detector test and so show that they had never offered a bribe or taken one. They refused, resigned en masse from the candidate list (Matovič submitted to the experiment himself) and called Matovič a madman and a notorious liar.
Another new party is 99%, founded last October. Its candidate list, though filled with unknown names, ran a massive campaign backed by the cash of an armaments firm. This obviously entrepreneurial project, which masterfully exploited the ideas and slogans of the Occupy Wall Street movement, stands at about five percent in the polls, which shows the confusion in the minds of many Slovak voters. The police though, as part of a criminal investigation, have begun to scrutinise the mandatory ten thousand signatures required by petitions to register a new party, and it has become clear that most of them are fake. Constitutional lawyers are warning that the elections may be ruled invalid.
Because of these and many other scandals filling the media, politicians have become nervous wrecks, refusing to answer journalists' probing questions or just running out of the television studio – as the head of the nationalist SNS, Jan Slota, whose party has plunged in the polls, did recently. What’s more, the information system at the tax office has broken down, and so has the state budget, which following February is deep into the red; huge losses threaten, not to mention the difficulties that await everyone who filed a tax return.
Waiting for Fico
The feeling among Slovaks that the state is failing to carry out its basic functions because of rotten politicians is running high, though it may be unjust. Primarily one party is benefitting from this mood – the left-wing Smer, under Robert Fico. If the small parties mentioned get into Parliament festooned with scandals, they will wreak chaos among the weakened parties on the political right. If they don’t get into Parliament, however, the forfeited votes cast for them will bring a major boost to Fico. The probability that his party Smer will win a majority is not small and, under certain circumstances, the party could also get a constitutional majority.
The main issue in the election, therefore, is how many seats Smer will pick up. If it wins a landslide, a new era will begin, one that will mark the total failure of the political class, which was represented by the right-wing SDKU chairman and twice Premier, Mikulas Dzurinda. His party is now staring with horror at its own plunge in the polls towards the exit threshold of five percent and can only hope that frustrated voters will still save it.
In a situation where the polls only vaguely reflect the rapidly changing temper of the electorate, it is useless to attempt to predict the election results. One can only hope that when the election date arrives Slovak society will shake off the oppressive feeling of chaos and hopelessness it has fallen prey to and that a new government gets back to the important matters, such as Slovakia's future in Europe.
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Translated from the Czech by Anton Baer