Vox populi, vox dei

POPULISTS have never been the most inventive of politicians. They don't have to be. The populist formula is intellectually undemanding but, it seems, also timeless: tell the masses you are their eyes, their ears and most importantly their voice.

POPULISTS have never been the most inventive of politicians. They don't have to be. The populist formula is intellectually undemanding but, it seems, also timeless: tell the masses you are their eyes, their ears and most importantly their voice. Tell them you know their hopes and share their fears. Tell them you loathe the intellectual and self-serving economic elite and their arrogant way of running people's business. Then paste the label "elite" on the forehead of anyone who stands in your way. You do not need to choose left or right; you can be a leftist and rightist at the same time or you can be neither. You do not even need to know where you stand. You can be as flexible as putty, fitting into any political mold the masses happen to prefer at the time. You can be anything: a rightist religious fundamentalist, nationalist or even racist. You can be the voice of the working class or the hands of the farmers.

Countries where a large portion of the population is growing weary of the burden of economic reforms are fertile soil for populism. The American organization Freedom House in its latest democracy assessment said that populism has been gaining muscles in Eastern Europe and in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Slovak media quite frequently refers to Prime Minister Robert Fico as a populist. He naturally doesn't like being described as one, but his rhetoric often makes the use of the term irresistible. During his election campaign, Fico offered the masses a new Slovakia where the poor see their incomes rise and the rich are forced to show solidarity and pay more into the state's piggy bank. Fico promised a "millionaire tax", lower fuel prices, the end of corruption and the reversing of some of the reforms seen to be hostile by the masses. When assessing the government's performance over its first year in power, analysts said the country is indeed lucky that Robert Fico has not managed to keep all of his promises. Yet, Fico is fortunate that the memory of the masses is so short that perhaps not even the most hard-core Smer voters could cite tidbits from the party's election programme.

Fico's supporters (46 percent of the country's voters) mostly remember changes to the health care sector, according to a Focus poll conducted for the Hospodárske Noviny daily. Analysts say that the killing of the Sk20 fee for every visit to the doctor's that Mikuláš Dzurinda's most criticized minister, Rudolf Zajac, established, is the move most strongly engraved in the memories of Smer voters. Sympathizers of the ruling coalition did not even mention the empty promises and populist statements as being among the things that they associate with the current government, while only 7 percent of the supporters of the opposition parties said they do indeed remember the political fibs.

One year after forming a coalition with the controversial HZDS and the far-right Slovak National Party, Fico finds himself enjoying the support of 40 percent of poll respondents. If the voters really do not even remember the changes the government has made, it is hard to believe that it is the actual performance of Fico's team that is satisfying them.

Fico knows that trying to fulfil some of the election promises would unbalance his popularity. People indeed like to hear about dramatic changes, they like to hear about the poor taking over countries and ruling, they love hearing about the masses overthrowing regimes, but they do not like the hassle of actually overthrowing them. In the end they often do not like to bother with changes and it very unique historical conditions are needed for these society-shaking changes to have a chance.

Slovakia hungers for serious social-democratic policies and a determined leftist force. And when there isn't one, people will opt for anyone who claims to be one. Over the past decade, leftist parties in Slovakia have been trying to rise from their own ashes but instead of seeing a phoenix rising, the country's left-leaning voters have only seen worn-out attempts to unify small leftist bodies devoid of public backing. Leftist voters in Slovakia are in danger of falling prey to the ideologies of post-communist and nationalist parties because these groups are the ones that are pretending to offer solutions.

By Beata Balogová

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