Time to sing along with politicians

VOTERS still remember rallies for the 1998 election in which Vladimír Mečiar put on a show by carrying top model Claudia Schiffer around and waving to the crowd while surrounded by movie stars Gérard Depardieu and Claudia Cardinale.

VOTERS still remember rallies for the 1998 election in which Vladimír Mečiar put on a show by carrying top model Claudia Schiffer around and waving to the crowd while surrounded by movie stars Gérard Depardieu and Claudia Cardinale.

This year's campaign might not be that bombastic, as Czech folk legend Honza Nedvěd will be the only foreign celebrity paying a visit, but political parties plan to continue the tradition of celebrity endorsements, knowing fun and music is what attracts a crowd.

The opposition left-wing Smer, which sits atop the latest polls, was the first to kick off its pre-election campaign. Its first stop was the western town of Malacky, where it arrived with comedians Andy Kraus and Peter Marcin, from the Uragán (Hurricane) TV show, on April Fool's Day (April 1).

According to the daily SME, the local Záhoran cinema overflowed with people clearly much more interested in entertainment than any discussion of politics.

"Inviting artists to political rallies is a Slovak custom," sociologist Pavel Haulík told The Slovak Spectator.

The parties, he explains, are too weak to arouse public interest with just their agenda. What works abroad, with several thousand people coming to listen to a political discussion, is unthinkable in Slovakia.

"If it was just about politics, a minimum number of people would turn up," Haulík said.

Czech singer Nedvěd will play for the New Citizen's Alliance (ANO) party and the bands Prúdy, Gladiátor and Drišľak will perform for the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ). Singer Jožo Ráž, who leads Slovakia's most popular rock band, Elán, remains faithful to Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), which is now in opposition, while its offshoot Movement for Democracy has attracted the Devil's Violin, a group led by Ján Berky-Mrenica Jr that accompanies the country's famous folk ensemble Lúčnica. Singer Marián Greksa and humourist Zdeno Luknár will support the Free Forum (SF).

Though election campaigns with cultural celebrities are popular, they have a minimal effect on the election's result, sociologists say.

"Often, people who have already made up their mind come to a rally just to see the entertainers," Haulík said.

"The public perceives their participation as a neutral decoration, as a bonus of a free concert or performance," said sociologist Zuzana Kusá.

She added that, on the other hand, celebrity endorsement does play an important role, because its absence could damage a party's reputation by "provoking speculation that no artist is willing to associate their name with [it], even on a purely business basis".

Few parties, she says, have the requisite stature to renounce this "proof" of acceptability and refuse the "circus setting".

Haulík and Kusá see many reasons for why artists would agree to perform at a party's rally, starting with economics. A famous entertainer can earn up to Sk2 million (€54,000) for a campaign and a successful singer Sk100,000 for a single concert, the Pravda daily discovered. Also, personal sympathies with a particular political subject also can play a part.

"There's a whole range of other reasons," Haulík said.

When comparing this year's campaign to those in 2002 and mainly 2004, Kusá sees "less internal enthusiasm and more general skepticism". Therefore, any celebrity support is more likely to be a matter of business rather than "mutual appreciation."

Though the financial aspect may seem distasteful, it is necessary to shield the artists from any negative publicity that wouldn't come from, for example, performing at a corporate event, the sociologists say.

Live performances also have the power to attract the local media, which is a valuable form of promotion, especially for the lesser-known, smaller parties.

Some predict this year's campaign will be the most expensive in the country's history, as a law restricting spending to no more than Sk12 million (€324,000) was recently repealed.

The limit, Zuzana Wienk from the Fair Play Alliance said, proved useless, as it was crossed by all the major parties, which spent an estimated total of between Sk80 and Sk100 million.

Kusá believes the parties will maintain some "margin of sobriety" also this year because a pompous campaign could run the risk of turning voters off.

"People are skeptical about big promises for a lot of reasons and, in certain regions, would certainly condemn any images of high-rolling Bratislava politicians.

"On the other hand, even playing modest can cost a lot of money."

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