The clown who would be king

EACH political arena has its buffoons. Some are entertaining and harmless while others are annoying, but most have one thing in common - no one takes them seriously.

EACH political arena has its buffoons. Some are entertaining and harmless while others are annoying, but most have one thing in common - no one takes them seriously.

There is another variety of political clown, however, that challenges people's sense of decency and has the potential to cause turbulence in local politics.

Ján Slota has been around for a long time on Slovakia's political scene and has tried out all of these categories. Just as normal Slovak politicians vacillate from leftists to right-wingers, from conservatives to liberals, and from isolationists to globalists, so too has Slota from time to time softened his rhetoric and changed some of the names on the list of his nation's enemies.

But at the end we have always been left with the same old Ján Slota who thinks there is nothing wrong with making speeches while in his cups, and who believes that what the Roma and Hungarian minorities need here is iron discipline.

The programme of Slota's Slovak National Party (SNS), which claims to be Slovakia's oldest, has changed little over the past decade. The first SNS, founded in 1871 and remaining the only Slovak political party until the formation of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, worked towards the emancipation of Slovaks living under Hungarian domination. However, later incarnations differed from the historically first party.

Despite its disdain for all things not Slovak, nationalist or Slavic, Slota's party was prompt to mimic phrases like foreign investors and Maastricht, and Slota himself forgot the party's slogan "we protect what is ours and we do not want anything foreign" in welcoming the Korean investor KIA to his city of Žilina.

A recent analysis by the F A Hayek Foundation, which indicated that the SNS is among the most left-wing parties in Slovakia with only the Communist Party (KSS) further to the left, shows that the only thing consistent about the party is its hatred of Hungarians, the Roma, homosexuals and other "traditional" enemies of far-right parties.

Slota responded to the Hayek foundation as he always does - boorishly. "If I am the left then you are Lenin," he said, adding that the Hayek foundation interested him "about as much as Greenland Eskimos interest you".

The third week of May unambiguously belonged to Slota. Many who thought he might keep his thirst under control during the pre-election period were wrong, as were those who believed that pictures of Slota drunk in a bar could harm his image.

The private television station JOJ got footage of Slota in the Harley Davidson bar in Bratislava at his vulgar and drunken worst. Since the station bleeped out Slota's cursing, there is not much we can tell readers about the incident except that the Žilina mayor actually spit on bar patrons who happened to be speaking Hungarian, and that the eight percent of the population who supports Slota obviously must not mind this behaviour at all.

In a clear indicator that the SNS is under Slota's full control after past conflicts with SNS No 2 Anna Belousovová (Maliková), the party defended its leader, comparing TV JOJ's footage to media terrorism.

Belousovová, who in the past produced a tapestry of condemnatory statements about Slota, calling him a drunkard and a brute, today silently toes the party line, supporting the man who in return called her a mad cow.

The SNS was quick to update its programme following the Harley Davidson incident and proposed to amend the media law to protect privacy with zero tolerance for Paparazzi style journalism.

Meanwhile, Slota came to his own defense: "I wasn't drunk like a pig," he said.

Some people object that Slota is not worth the print and paper costs or the airtime devoted to him. But the brutal truth is that people seem to like his excesses - a recent poll by the Statistics Bureau showed his popularity increasing from 7 percent in April to 8.1 percent in May.

In a recent interview with The Slovak Spectator, Slota explained his popularity by saying that most Slovaks are just like him. He has defended his passion for alcohol in the past by saying that the majority of the population drinks.

The SNS received 5.4 percent of the vote in the 1994 parliamentary elections, after which it became a part of the notorious Mečiar ruling coalition headed by the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and assisted by the Workers Association of Slovakia. The 1998 elections brought the SNS as much as nine percent, but the party was no longer part of the ruling coalition.

The SNS went divided into the 2002 elections, with each of the two warring factions gaining under four percent, below the five percent required to make it into the legislature.

This failure was followed by a verbal war between Belousovová and Slota, which was not really about what direction the party should take but rather about personal ambitions. Finally, Belousovová and Slota buried the hatchet and the SNS reunited.

Analysts are divided on the SNS's chances of being part of the next ruling coalition. While the foreign community no longer dreads the prospect of Vladimír Mečiar coming back to power, Slota's return to parliament and his potential presence in the government is sure to keep human right organisations busy recording his xenophobic and racist statements, and the rest of us trying to square our notion of what is acceptable with the antics of this political clown.

By Beata Balogová

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