ALL SOCIETIES have invisible minorities, people who live on the margins. The majority knows they are out there but pay essentially no attention to them unless it feels threatened by them. Then there are minorities that are physically visible, wearing the stereotypes that the majority has prepared for them in order to highlight their place on the social map.
However, these minorities often remain politically invisible, and very few find a position on the political maps.
While the Hungarian minority, the largest minority group in Slovakia, cannot complain about a lack of political visibility, Slovakia's Roma, the second largest minority group, is politically completely invisible.
The Roma have traditionally belonged to the most socially and economically deprived groups in Slovakia and across Central and Eastern Europe.
Candidates lists of political parties for June 2006 parliamentary elections do not suggest anything is about to change for the Roma in Slovakia. There is no Roma party running for parliament to represent a community so complex that the cultural differences between two Roma from ends of the spectrum may be larger than between a Slovak and a Hungarian.
According to a 2005 government survey, Slovakia has 320,000 Roma out of a population of 5.4 million. Around half of the Roma live integrated among the majority population, while the other half lives in urban and municipal concentrations, settlements on the outskirts of municipalities, or settlements physically separated from villages or towns by natural or artificial barriers, such as railways or creeks.
Some political analysts say it would be political suicide for a Slovak party to design its programme to attract the Roma vote.
The Roma remain one of the most vulnerable minority groups in terms of political manipulation and propaganda. The image of political parties traveling to Roma villages and trying to buy their voters for a shot of slivovica or a bowl of goulash is an appalling stereotype of the Roma's election behaviour, but it is also more than certain that some parties will choose this approach to winning the Roma vote.
Slovak parties are generally reluctant to discuss the political invisibility of the Roma. While the Slovak government promised to actively participate in the "Decade of Roma Inclusion" between 2005 and 2015, a programme supported by the World Bank and the Open Society Foundation, there has not been much progress in terms of involving the Roma in public and political life.
Parties often say they have "colour-blind" criteria for selecting their candidates and may not even know if a Roma runs on their candidates list.
The "colour-blind" approach is fine when the playing field is level, but the Roma population in Slovakia is so far behind the mainstream that many doubt the problem of Roma exclusion can be solved on the basis of civic principles alone.
And yet, the parties are right when they say that achieving the inclusion of the Roma will require the active engagement of the Roma themselves.
In the past, Slovakia has had several Roma political parties, but the public mostly remembers these parties for their public squabbles over party posts rather than their sincere representation of the interests of the Roma.
Cabinet appointee for the Roma community Klára Orgovánová said in 2004 that one of the reasons of the failure of Roma parties is that "the same people who emerged in 1989-90 are still there. They have been trying to survive with their old ways, and they don't want to admit that it's not enough to simply hold meetings, summon a congress, create programmes and organize press conferences."
According to Orgovánová, Roma parties have functioned largely by reacting to the statements of others, rarely by contributing to a general debate or taking a stand on important political issues.
In 2002, the situation was the same with no major political party giving Roma candidates a chance to win a seat in parliament. While the Roma Civic Initiative (ROI) held talks with the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) and Smer, nothing came of them. The Roma Initiative of Slovakia (RIS) called on parties not to abuse the Roma issue during their election campaigns and not to spread hate among the public, but failed to convince the Roma of the sincerity of its goals.
A recent survey of the electoral behaviour of the Roma by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) for the National Democratic Institute suggested that the Roma would vote for a political party that targeted unemployment.
Some 72.9 percent of respondents identified a cure for unemployment as their main political agenda, while 48.2 percent said solving social problems should take priority.
The survey also showed that the Roma are inclined to vote for the Smer opposition party, which promises solutions to unemployment and social affairs. According to the SME daily, the Roma are also long-time voters of the opposition HZDS.
Given Smer's rhetoric, which has at times been aggressive towards the Roma, the survey results show the vulnerability of the community to populist methods.
Among the many misconceptions about the Roma is the assumption that the Roma don't vote. The IVO survey showed that their election participation is higher than the majority turnout.
Surveys like this are a good start to helping this community become politically more visible. If only they had someone to vote for besides populists, opportunists and purveyors of election alcohol and goulash.
By Beata Balogová
3. Apr 2006 at 0:00