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EDITORIAL

Surprised? We shouldn't be

THE ELEMENT of surprise is what makes elections so endlessly fascinating. On June 17, the Slovak voter, this perplexing creature that politicians have been trying to dissect to learn its secrets, prepared several surprises for the political contestants. Indeed, one of the most frequently used words following the announcement of the results of the parliamentary elections in Slovakia was "surprise".

THE ELEMENT of surprise is what makes elections so endlessly fascinating. On June 17, the Slovak voter, this perplexing creature that politicians have been trying to dissect to learn its secrets, prepared several surprises for the political contestants. Indeed, one of the most frequently used words following the announcement of the results of the parliamentary elections in Slovakia was "surprise". Some political watchers were astonished by the anemic result of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), which managed only 8 percent of the votes. Others were equally surprised by the performance of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), which harvested 18 percent of the votes. For some parties, like Zuzana Martináková's Free Forum and Pavol Rusko's New Citizens Alliance, this will likely be their last surprise before they fade into political oblivion, as both failed to win at least the 5 percent of votes required for seats in parliament. A few were surprised by the success of the Slovak National Party (SNS), which after its 2002 failure to retain its representation in parliament, in 2006 collected slightly over 11 percent. Ján Slota, for one, was not surprised by his party's success, and during the vote count his greatest concern was whether the SNS would get more votes that the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK). Slota says he has great faith in the generosity of the Slovak voter, whom he sees as very similar to himself. That didn't stop him from saying of these gentle voters, when they failed to return him to parliament in 2002 and elected the SMK instead, that "Slovaks are probably genetically stupid." But he was probably just surprised. The conservative Christian Democrats (KDH), after a campaign under the wings of a puerile stork mascot and fiery aspirations to revive family values and morals, got 8.31 percent, less than the SNS or even its traditional opponent, the HZDS. But were any of the choices made by Slovak voters really surprising? Was it really a lack of respect in society for traditional values that kept the KDH low on the election ladder, or was it rather the fact that society does not share the KDH's burning concern with issues such as the Treaty with the Vatican? Smer was destined to win, so its 29.14 percent score should not be a surprise for anyone. They got pretty much what opinion polls have been suggesting for over three years. However, its opponents had hoped that Fico's party would remain true to a tradition in Slovak politics in which protest parties score much higher in opinion polls than in actual elections. Fico has been so eager to get to power that he held himself in check during the run-up to the elections in order not to scare away his potential election coalition partners; in particular, he softened some of his bolder statements about foreign investors and raising taxes, and applied a little soft soap to his future coalition partners. He now faces a trial-by-negotiation before he can receive the absolution of power. Nor is the performance of the SDKÚ as surprising as some claim. Dzurinda's party has been warning of the prospect of a Smer-SNS-HZDS coalition, using it as a scare tactic to make voters think better of penalizing the SDKÚ for its corruption scandals. Apart from the bogeyman of the SNS-Smer-HZDS coalition, voters also associate Dzurinda's party with the brave reforms the country has launched and its improving business environment, and were obviously willing to give Dzurinda another chance despite their reservations about his performance. These voters may also have been voting for the familiar, for a government that seemed to function well despite its flaws, and against the unknown that Fico's Smer represents. The HZDS defeat is not surprising at all. Not only has Vladimír Mečiar been slowly burning out over the past couple of years, but he has also become unreadable even for those seeking a strong leader. The HZDS faithful did not understand why the Father of the Nation would assist Dzurinda in his quest to sell Slovak state assets to foreign corporations, after having spoken so ardently 10 years earlier of the need to create a Slovak domestic capital class. While other leaders, even those who were disappointed, made some show of commenting on the elections, Mečiar, true to his habit of disappearing after defeat, left his deputies to put on a good face. After gaining 27 percent in 1998, the 2002 elections had already been a tough bite to swallow for Mečiar, as his party got only 19.5 percent and was again unable to form the government. This time Mečiar was only 3 percent away from not making it back to parliament. It is not unlikely that the voters of the HZDS wanted something that Vladimír Mečiar could no longer give them, and sought it in Ján Slota. For many, the success of the SNS was the most worrying moment of the parliamentary elections, since its election campaign consisted entirely of pouring oil on the nationalist fires that still burn in some Slovaks. Some SNS supporters tend to be people who believe that the country is surrounded by enemies who are out to subvert the nation and steal... well, who knows really what they think. Not many eyebrows were raised over the election deaths of dwarf parties like Misia (Mission) 21 of former Defence Minister Ivan Šimko, or the hopeless Nádej (Hope) party established by the fugitives from the New Citizen's Alliance (ANO) of Pavol Rusko, which itself will be leaving parliament for good. For some, the defeat of the Free Forum of Zuzana Martináková, a former ally of Mikuláš Dzurinda, might seem surprising since the party was consistently scoring over five percent in election polls, but the truth is that voters focused on larger parties in 2006, partly motivated by the fear of a SNS-HZDS-Smer coalition, and partly in line with their essential conservatism. As surprise gave way to the realization that these elections weren't really as astonishing as they first seemed, the cold reality of coalition talks set in. Market watchers have already suggested that the outlook for the country's reforms is more optimistic than they had expected. Let's hope they won't be too surprised by the next government. By Beata Balogová

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