Last week's launch of the government's new National Programme to Fight Corruption was proof that the accident-prone ruling coalition has finally understood the importance of PR in winning over Slovakia's impressionable electorate.
In its 16 months in power, the government has done a solid job of selling the foreign community on its democratic credentials and commitment to economic reform. But here in Bratislava one always had the sense that the coalition was ignoring the two main concerns of domestic voters - economic insecurity and crime.
The National Corruption Programme shows that this oversight is being corrected. Only one sentence on the nine-point outline of the plan is devoted to the biggest concern of foreign investors - clear and fair public tenders. Much of the rest aims to curb the power of petty bureaucrats, for example by introducing a system of charges for quicker or above-standard services at state offices across the country. Since virtually every Slovak seems at one time to have bribed a state employee to get decent service, this change alone promises to have an immediate and tangible impact on the lives of ordinary people.
Put this anti-corruption package together with the government's recent PR offensive against the reliability of unemployment figures, and you have the beginnings of a media-savvy strategy to win back disaffected voters.
Last December, unemployment rose above 20% for the first time in Slovak history. The government and economic analysts attacked the data, however, saying that it included at least 60,000 people who were collecting unemployment benefits but working on the side. The real figure, officials argued, was somewhere around 18%. This theme was picked up by the Slovak media, with the daily Národná Obroda even running a laughable front page article on February 1 claiming that "probably 250,000" of the 530,000 people claiming to be unemployed were actually working.
Whatever one thinks of the reliability of unemployment statistics or the merits of the anti-corruption drive, it is surely heartening to see the government starting to sell its policies adroitly and to quell public hysteria over the economy. To guage the importance of this shift, one only has to remember the damaging gaffes of 1999, when both the Economy and Transport Ministers resigned over corruption allegations, and almost every attempt at running a public tender blew up in the coalition's face. Scandal and mismanagement, in addition to three economic 'austerity packages' last year and soaring inflation and unemployment, had cut the government's support this February to below 40% from around 60% in 1998 elections. To get these voters back, the coalition is apparently setting out to convince the public that government policies are responsible for the gradual economic upturn expected in the years 2001 and 2002.
Convincing people of this will not be easy, given the aggressive media campaign currently being waged to the contrary by the opposition HZDS party. The HZDS, claiming that the public is fed up with the Dzurinda administration, has called for a referendum on early elections even though it knows how unlikely any plebiscite is to attract the necessary 50% of Slovak voters. The real goal of the referendum call, however, is to keep the HZDS in the media throughout the endless plebiscite process, and to elicit undemocratic-sounding refusals from the coalition to endorse a public vote on the government's future.
What a difference a year makes! In February 1999, the Dzurinda coalition did little else than bleat about the damage done to the country by the Mečiar government, while the HZDS seemed lost with Mečiar sulking in seclusion and corrupt top party officials like Ivan Lexa and Gustáv Krajči being raked over the coals in parliament.
It was actually then-Prime Minister and acting President Vladimír Mečiar who said at a March 25, 1998 international press conference that Slovakia needed a strong opposition if it was to have a future. Although he probably didn't have himself in mind for the role, his words are as true now as they were then. A resurgent opposition HZDS seems to have spurred an intelligent PR response from the coalition, and one can still say that Slovakia's future hangs on whether this government's new media tactics will be enough to convince voters in 2002 to forgive Dzurinda and Co. for their clownish antics so far.