SPECTATORS at the Roman Coliseum sometimes became part of the show in which trained gladiators, criminals, and prisoners of war fought for survival and glory. Pundits sometimes apply the Coliseum metaphor to the spectacle of political and election campaigns. However, a bad performance in the Slovak political Coliseum may have more serious consequence for the modern Slovak audience than poor shows had for ancient spectators.
Political analysts predict that the Slovak election campaign, which officially starts on May 27, will see some sharp clashes even though Slovaks themselves have little taste for confrontation and conflict.
While propaganda has been part of every government from the time of Augustus, the level of sophistication in propaganda campaigns has steadily increased. Slovak campaign advisors have learned a lot from their western counterparts, but so has the Slovak public. Does this mean the public is less vulnerable to sophisticated manipulation?
Many recall the notorious 1998 campaign of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, when Vladimír Mečiar invited German supermodel Claudia Schiffer to help him open a section of highway, and the party's billboard ad, featuring the slogan "Country of your Heart" and a picture of the Swiss countryside, tried to persuade Slovak voters that they were looking at an image of Slovakia.
There was also the Everest expedition that brought a HZDS party flag to the top of the world's highest mountain, and the presence of Gerard Depardieu at a HZDS campaign rally, but these banalities were overshadowed by the general atmosphere of bombast.
Images of Vladimír Mečiar on HZDS billboards from 2002 also remain in the Hall of Fame of unforgettable campaign travesties. The party's campaign masters tried to make Mečiar, the party's main election commodity, look much younger, giving him a darker and fuller head of hair.
Presumably, all parties have learned from these mistakes.
Analysts say that the coming campaigns will be about reforms, with the government parties brandishing their reform record and the praise of the international community, and the opposition parties, especially Smer, condemning the reforms as harmful to common folk.
The Christian Democrats (KDH) will play it safe and stress the conservative agenda that appeals to their core voters. No surprises there.
The party has already begun a crusade to protect the traditional form of marriage, and has submitted a bill to parliament defining marriage as the union between a man and a woman. The bill bans marriage between two people of the same sex, and denies to such couples the protection and privileges enjoyed by traditional married couples.
Many believe that the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) needn't lift a finger to get into parliament, since the country's ethnic Hungarian minority will vote for their representatives regardless of the quality of their campaign.
However, SMK honorary chairman Miklós Duray, who represents the more radical wing, has warned his party fellows that Hungarian voters do not feel their lives have improved much in the eight years the Hungarians have been in government. Duray, who has been shunted by the SMK's mainstream leaders to the party sidelines, has warned that the party is losing support in Dunajská Streda, Komárno and Rimavská Sobota, traditionally SMK bastions.
Perhaps these are the first signs that the ethnic principle will not guarantee the party 10 percent support forever if it supports a government programme that conflicts with the economic interests of SMK voters.
That said, there is little danger the SMK will not gain the five percent of votes it needs to win seats in parliament.
The Slovak Christian and Democratic Union (SDKÚ) will stay true to its blue uniform, keeping its campaign on a liberal footing. The Finance Ministry, led by the SDKÚ's Ivan Mikloš, continues to come up with tax proposals that please the business community, suggesting the party will base its appeal on its successful reforms.
SDKÚ Chairman and PM Mikuláš Dzurinda will have to persuade his voters that he has not burned out after two terms at the wheel.
By boasting of its reforms, however, the SDKÚ will give ammunition for the campaign of the Smer opposition party, which will criticize every Dzurinda cabinet reform, a tactic that made the party Slovakia's most popular over the past four years.
However, criticism did not work for Smer in the 2002 parliamentary elections, a major disappointment for leader Robert Fico, whose hunger for the prime minister's job remains palpable.
Smer is likely to focus on Slovakia's deep regional disparities and high unemployment rate, and to appeal to those who believe the Dzurinda government has sold all the country's best assets to foreign corporations.
The HZDS is in a tough situation. Party leaders continue to talk about winning the elections with 20 percent of the vote, but even they seem to have difficulty believing this forecast.
The party's biggest problem is that it cannot succeed in elections without Mečiar, who is still the main reason the HZDS' core voters back the party. But the party also has no future beyond elections with Mečiar, since few parties are prepared to work with him because of his authoritarian behaviour while prime minister from 1994 to 1998.
The Slovak Communist Party, which few take seriously, will again trot out its communist-era slogans and warnings about the imperialist monster that is devouring Slovakia.
Once the wealthiest (and the only) party in the Czechoslovak federation, the KSS now says it cannot afford a campaign.
Chairman Jozef Ševc has said that parties should not spend too much money on their campaigns and instead should give the funds to "retired disabled miners" from the Slovak town of Handlová.
The big surprise of the 2002 elections, when seven percent voted for the communists, is unlikely to be repeated.
As for the public, people no longer trust politicians and their last-minute bills. Many think, for example, that the recent changes to pension legislation are designed to curry favour with older voters.
But a change to the Election Act may restore some honesty, if not sincerity, to Slovak politics. While during the last elections parties were required to keep their campaign spending under Sk12 million (€320,000), this year they can spend as much as they want, meaning they will have less reason to lie - at least about how much Claudia Schiffer is asking for a highway opening.
By Beata Balogová
27. Feb 2006 at 0:00