IVAN Gašparovič, who will be remembered more for his occasional slips of the tongue than intellectual depth, delivered his very last New Year’s presidential speech. The outgoing president thanked all who helped him “even in situations when some tried to trample on the human dignity of the president, when they ignored or intentionally falsely informed about the work of the president”. Yet, unfortunately, it was Gašparovič, the one-time right-hand man of the controversial three-time prime minister Vladimír Mečiar, who during his two terms in office set the presidential standards rather low. This is not to say the country’s experience with the presidential office cannot get any worse.

“Not for the first time, I am talking about the significance of traditional family for the healthy development of Slovak society,” said Gašparovič in his speech, using an expression which, during the pre-Christmas period, proved divisive as tensions between gay rights activists and supporters of ‘traditional family’ peaked.

Those tensions were fuelled by a letter the Catholic bishops of Slovakia wrote to their followers and read aloud in all churches. They labelled gender equality efforts as representing a “culture of death” and same-sex marriages as “sodomitic mockery”, while noting that the institution of family in the traditional sense might not survive in Europe. Though the letter raised eyebrows even among Slovakia’s Catholics, and sent waves of discontent and anger through liberal circles, the developments also showed how conservative and resistant to diversity part of Slovak society remains, even if this diversity is a fundamental part of the human rights the Slovak constitution declares to respect.

It is not only Gašparovič and the bishops who have recently spoken about faith and family.
Prime Minister Robert Fico, who, after keeping everybody on edge about potential plans to run for president this spring, finally threw his hat into the ring on December 18. He rolled out his heaviest campaign artillery to target the hearts of conservative, Catholic voters, including recollections of his childhood and what he called his Catholic roots.

In a staged interview with Culture Minister Marek Maďarič, Fico’s presidential campaign leader, the prime minister discussed for the first time ever his baptism, first holy communion, confirmation and how the Catholic faith impacted his childhood.

“Perhaps if I am to do my profile in relation to the Catholic Church, I would end up better off than any deputy for the KDH [the Christian Democratic Movement],” Fico said in the video broadcast by Smer’s television channel.

Fico suggested that he had a grandfather who “very strictly respected the rules of standard Christian life” and that it certainly impacted him. Not surprisingly, Fico makes no mention of his membership in the Communist Party before the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

In the presidential race there are three candidates emanating from the KDH cradle: two former chairmen of the party, Ján Čarnogurský and Pavol Hrušovský, as well as Radoslav Procházka, who quit the KDH last year.

Fico’s recollections of his childhood and comments such as, “I grew up in an environment where people made their living by their own hand,” without much doubt indicates that the prime minister is very seriously trying to court conservative rural voters who might have a strong say in who becomes head of state, especially if Fico fails to win an outright majority in the election’s first round.

Fico knows that his best case scenario is winning in the first round, in the event that a run-off does what is usually all but impossible: unite divided right-wing voters against him. That prospect seems realistic as there should be enough people mobilised in opposition by the prospect of seeing Fico taking up residence in the presidential palace.

The campaign has just begun and the video of Fico recalling his childhood is far from the last of the publicity gimmicks the race will produce. The growing cynicism of right-wing voters and their mistrust of what motivates people in Slovakia to enter politics will make it much harder for anybody who wishes to take votes away from Fico. Their own videos about a spiritual and ascetic childhood without a television or mobile phone are unlikely to be enough.

They are left with the “elect me if you do not want Fico” argument and they will doubtlessly use these campaign bullets rather aggressively. That will tell us very little about what kind of presidents they might be.