Independent MP Róbert Fico looks the part of the modern politician. Riding to parliament in the back of a Volvo, he sticks one mobile phone back in his pocket to answer the unheard summons of another, a sleek miniature handset cased in muted chrome. It, like the cut of the man himself, bespeaks a world of efficiency and professionalism.
It is this image, of being tuned in to the mood of the electorate and in touch with the needs of the country, that has boosted to a record 29% approval rating - the highest of any Slovak politician - and to almost 25% support for his new Smer party. Declaring himself one of a 'new generation' of politicians who are sick of past and present government thievery, offers voters a conservative law-and-order remedy sweetened with leftist potions to ease the lot of the common folk. It's attractive, but is it for real?
Many political analysts say if you scratch Róbert Fico's veneer you will catch a glimpse of an ambitious, savvy politician who adheres to few if any ideological canons. He has in the past spoken out in favour of capital punishment, a strange position for a man who served for six years as Slovakia's agent to the European Court for Human Rights. An acknowledged expert in criminal law, he described the 1997 decision of then-Interior Minister Gústav Krajči to thwart a referendum on NATO membership as "basically a political, and not a legal problem" which it was "necessary to resolve by political means." And although he said in 1996 that the decision of Mečiar's HZDS to expel former HZDS deputy František Gauleider from parliament "truly was a case in which an MP's constitutional rights were violated," he proceeded to defend the case of the Slovak state - and thus the Mečiar government - against Gauleider in Strasbourg.
None of this makes him a closet Mečiar supporter, as many of his critics have suggested. Instead, 's political agility during the Mečiar years left him one of the country's most popular MPs without forcing him to get his hands dirty. But this same agility that allowed him to survive and prosper during the 1990's is what makes one doubt the sincerity of his pronouncements today.
Fico says, for example, that he is not anti-Hungarian nor does he use the 'Hungarian card' to build an image of macho nationalism among ethnic Slovaks. But at the same time he says the Hungarian Coalition Party came to government with its own agenda, rather than with a desire to serve the entire country. If this is true of the Hungarians, how much more so is it of 's own former SDĽ? Of the SOP, which was nothing more than a springboard to power for President Rudolf Schuster? Far from thumbing their noses at the interests of ethnic Slovaks, the Hungarians have been praised by the prime minister himself as the most stable element of the ruling coalition.
The Smer boss also says he's got nothing against gypsies - nothing, that is, unless suggesting that they be denied their constitutional right to social benefits at home if they apply for asylum abroad can be interpreted as slightly discriminatory.
The list of questions about goes on and on - would he ever work with Mečiar, how he imagines privatisation would proceed if parliament had control of it, how he reconciles 'clean hands' politics with his business dealings with former HZDS promoter Fedor Flašik. If at the end of the day much of what Fico says rings true; if he really is as incorruptible as his boyish haircut and frank expression suggest; if he is indeed young, smart and cosmopolitan enough to serve the country better than it has been served since 1993; then questions about his motives will be answered soon enough. But like the sleek mobile phone which winks in his pocket, so far smells too much of polish and not enough of honest sweat.
22. May 2000 at 0:00