IF the party that is likely to win these elections were a standard left-wing party with a sincere programme designed by committed socialists and enacted by credible professionals, there would be nothing to object to in Smer's current popularity. Voters would make their choices on June 17, and stand a good chance of getting what they asked for.
But that's a few too many 'ifs' for comfort, given that Smer is the potential anchor of the next government.
The central problem with 'Smer - social democracy', as the polls front-runner calls itself, is that its platform is based on populism, on whatever it thinks will sell, rather than on its founders' political principles, and their prescription for what ails the country.
This populism creates two immediate problems. First, it means that the party is likely to struggle if given the task of running the country. Only two weeks before elections, party vice-chairman Robert Kaliňák was still tinkering with Smer's plan to scrap the flat tax, one of the main pillars of its programme, by suggesting the circle of 'unusually wealthy' people to pay higher taxes should be expanded to include all those who earn over Sk50,000 (€1,322) a month. Is everything Smer plans to do similarly up for grabs (or, more likely, up for sale), or are party leaders merely reading from different scripts?
Once in government - particularly if partnered with the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS), whose only real programme is to regain power - Smer would find that criticizing right-wing reforms is one thing, and having a constructive and positive programme for change is something else entirely. The risk is that the party would try to cover for its programme inadequacies by launching a hunt for the 'enemy within', such as the rich, the political right, or if we go back far enough, 'asylum tourists' (i.e. the Roma).
The other problem with Smer's populism, at least in Slovakia, is that it appeals to the worst in the national character. Slovaks themselves admit that envy is their surpassing weakness, and even have a saying for it - If my goat dies, let at least two of my neighbour's goats die as well. Smer's proposal to tax the rich is nothing more than village-style envy elevated to a political programme - If I am taxed one goat, let my rich neighbour be taxed two.
In a similar way, the party's claim that it will pull Slovak troops out of Iraq appeals to the isolationist, inward-looking aspect of the Slovak character. Doing so would jeopardise what the country has achieved so far through its creditable performance in many international peace missions, both in terms of its international image and the positive impact that engagement with the world has had on the national consciousness. In the same way, the politics of envy would waste the progress that has been achieved these past four years in educating people about what the state can afford and how much responsibility people should take for themselves.
Much has been written - at least in newspapers like this one and the Slovak media read by the urban elite - of the connections between Smer's election candidates and the former financial backers of Vladimír Mečiar's HZDS party. While Smer is understandably not anxious to discuss the matter, it is likely that after the debacle of 1998 elections (the HZDS won but could not find a coalition partner), Mečiar's backers realised that their horse would never again win the big race, and decided to sire a new political foal (Smer) to give them a ride back to power. These backers, and the business interests they represent, are another huge 'if' in the Smer equation. What tax will they exact from their political servants in return for their contributions?
With elections only days away, Smer is getting the rough end of the pineapple from a number of media, including the Týždeň conservative weekly and the top-selling Plus 7 dní, whose current issue features a story on Smer leader Robert Fico using his mother's new "luxury Bratislava flat" for illicit rendezvous with his lover; on Smer No 2 Kaliňák and his "Sk3 million" Audi RS 4; and on financier Juraj Široký, "whose name is mentioned in relation to Smer's financing", and the likelihood of his fleeing to his luxury home in the Bahamas to avoid possible prosecution in the Harvard trust fund scam from the early 1990s. With the hounds in full cry, one feels a stab of sympathy for Smer and its vulnerability to attack.
But that sympathy should not be indulged. If Smer ends up forming a government with a pair of right-wing parties, such as the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) and the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), many of the risks associated with its programme, if not its backers, could be contained. Both the SMK and KDH have international credibility and enough professionals to staff a coalition government. And in many ways, after four years of neo-liberal reforms, Slovakia might profit from a broad coalition and a new public consensus.
If, on the other hand, Smer sides with the HZDS and SNS - a possibility none of them have ruled out - Slovakia would have a government that is potentially worse than the 1994-1998 administration between the HZDS, SNS and the Workers Party. It would have far less potential for derailing the country's development, as Slovakia already has NATO and EU membership under its belt. But it would mean more years of delay, waste and murky politics, which is reason enough to reject Smer and its dangerous populism.
By Tom Nicholson