GIVEN the state of the education sector in Slovakia and the challenges it faces, many would agree that Dušan Čaplovič deserved to be sacked as education minister. While Prime Minister Robert Fico offered no forthright explanation as to why Čaplovič was asked to quit and why Tomáš Malatinský will no longer serve as economy minister, it seems apparent that they were thrown overboard for the wrong reasons.

Fico’s unsuccessful presidential run, the party’s poorer than expected performance in the regional elections, and the outcome of the vote to the European Parliament amid falling approval ratings are making Smer leaders rather nervous.

Obviously, Fico wants to avoid the fate of Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), which after years of popularity failed to reverse its gradual but consistent decline. Now it is completely insignificant and has been dissolved. That party displayed strong autocratic features, arrogance and a complete resistance to criticism with observers suggesting that Mečiar – with his uncontrolled thirst for power – dug the grave of his own party.

Indeed, Culture Minister Marek Maďarič spelled it out at the June 28 party congress: “We have found ourselves in a critical moment, when our decisions will make Smer a key party. If we underestimate this moment, we might as well take the road of the HZDS and the SDKÚ [the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union].”

Political scientist and Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) President Grigorij Mesežnikov called the governmental changes only a surface cleaning, arguing that the ruling party dismissed Čaplovič and Malatinský because they were the easiest to remove.

Fico has offered little or no self-reflection in connection with his failed presidential project, even if it was he who called the second round of the presidential vote “a referendum on Smer”. Moreover, Maďarič, the man who masterminded Fico’s presidential campaign and who offered his resignation as Smer deputy chair following Fico’s Waterloo, was re-elected to the same post at the June 28 congress.

All in all, Smer is trying to sell the idea that midterm changes are being made to better serve the public. Fico, during his party congress speech, even made reference to “cases of arrogance among party members” and said that “some of our representatives have stopped communicating with mayors and underestimate the value of feedback”.

Fico of course stuck to the plural “we the party” instead of taking “singular” responsibility for even his failed presidential adventure. He has understood that people are growing increasingly weary of austerity and are fed-up with politicians turning the state-administration into a business opportunity for family and friends.

In line with Smer’s style of politics based on rewarding loyalists, the symbolic Christmas bonuses to pensioners that the party is now promising, which in no way address their real problems, makes it hard to see how the party will maintain its popularity without inflating deficits.

As such, along with the personnel changes and the Christmas bonus, Smer also outlined what Fico called a post-consolidation “positive package” of reform measures predicated on lower gas prices, a higher minimum wage, lower levies for mid and low-income employees, the introduction of a minimum pension, the option to simultaneously receive a wage and welfare on a temporary basis and boosting the capacity of kindergartens.

Observers argued that some of these measures are reasonable if Smer finds the money and the will to carry them out. The rest smells like a PR gimmick, while it remains a mystery where the finances will come from.

Perhaps the only positive thing coming out from Smer’s midterm parade would be if new Education Minister Peter Pellegrini becomes more effective in handling the challenges of the education sector, which is one of this country’s biggest pains.

Those in charge of education have abandoned the mission of giving teachers the status they deserve and it seems they have also misunderstood their own role.

Vladimír Šucha, the director general of the Joint Research Centre, in an interview with The Slovak Spectator earlier this year, actually had an interesting idea: tune the education system and society in general to recognise talent and put people in places where they best fit, so that “we have the fulfilment of the individual while society benefits from it too”.