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EDITORIAL

The government's report card: C- with a downward trend

The emergency room of Bratislava's sprawling Kramáre Hospital was empty last Monday night. Instead of the usual crowd of anxious walking wounded, a single cleaning lady mopped her way down a silent corridor.
Slovakia is a country on holiday at the moment, and none of its citizens are keeping a lower profile than the nation's politicians. Like exhausted schoolchildren, deputies scattered to the winds as the bell rang to end the last parliamentary session on July 10, and will not reassemble until September.
Foreign investors, economic analysts and the media have already begun the weary task of compiling report cards on the government's first eight months in power, and the results are not encouraging.


Some foreign investors may want the government to stay behind after school and mend its ways.
illustration: Ján Svrček

The emergency room of Bratislava's sprawling Kramáre Hospital was empty last Monday night. Instead of the usual crowd of anxious walking wounded, a single cleaning lady mopped her way down a silent corridor.

Slovakia is a country on holiday at the moment, and none of its citizens are keeping a lower profile than the nation's politicians. Like exhausted schoolchildren, deputies scattered to the winds as the bell rang to end the last parliamentary session on July 10, and will not reassemble until September.

Foreign investors, economic analysts and the media have already begun the weary task of compiling report cards on the government's first eight months in power, and the results are not encouraging.

In terms of its political objectives - electing a president and passing a minority language law - the cabinet gets a fair B minus (on the North American scale of A for excellence and F for failure). The set tasks were accomplished, but the work proceeded slowly and not always in accordance with the original lofty ideals. Citizens felt manipulated into choosing Rudolf Schuster as president, in part because the government lent him its endorsement and muscled independent candidates out of the picture. And the minority language law, while fulfilling EU requirements, still does not help the almost 100,000 citizens of minority cultures who live in districts where they make up less than 20% of the population (and thus are forbidden under the provisions of the law from using their languages in official state contacts).

In terms of its economic goals, the government gets a D minus. Not only did cabinet take far too long - almost eight months - to pass the necessary economic austerity measures, it also has yet to articulate a clear direction for Slovakia's economic development. Piecemeal policies, such as selling off state banks and state-owned "strategic companies" and cutting the ranks of the civil service, failed to win parliamentary approval in the July session because deputies spent far too much time wrangling over the minority language law. Investors will now have to wait until September to see progress on any of these long-awaited laws.

Both of these grades - the B minus for politics and D minus for economy - may be revised downward pending the outcome of an investigation into corruption and the influence of lobby groups within the cabinet.

Without going into the gory and labyrinthine details, it is safe to say that the government's inept handling of several recent contracts has surprised observers who had expected a more transparent and even-handed policy. The explanation is simple - the government is made up of 10 separate parties, eight of whom banded together in two coalitions for the sake of success at the polls last September. Now that the heat of elections is off, several of these eight coalition members are pushing their own political agendas, and the business agendas of the lobby groups they represent. With so many competing agendas to satisfy - and we musn't forget to include here those pursued by the four main parties of the ruling coalition - every economic decision takes an eternity to make, and is followed by a paroxysm of recrimination from the disappointed parties [viz. the Nafta Gbely scandal].

It is curious now to read again the warnings of political pundits last November. Back then, observers seemed most concerned that ideological differences between the government's 10 constituent parties would paralyse the cabinet. As it turns out, political ideology in Slovakia is still too weak a force to generate a decent argument. It is lobbyism that causes the most thorny problems, and business conflicts which engender the deepest antagonisms.

Prospects for improvement seem bleak. The largest government party, the SDK, is gripped by internecine warfare between its five constituent parties. SDK leader and Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda cannot fire his erring pupils - SDK stalwarts Economy Minister Ľudovít Černák and Telecom Minister Gabriel Palacka - because he fears they might be replaced by men who owe him no loyalty. He also fears reshaping the cabinet - a Pandora's Box if ever there was one - because he knows it would leave him vulnerable to the former communist SDĽ, his powerful coalition ally.

And yet, fire these men he must. It's a bitter truth, but the team that got Dzurinda and the cabinet where they are is not the team that can win the next battle against corruption, internal dissent and lobbyism. Winning that fight calls for leadership of the loneliest kind: Turning one's back on one's friends and excising the cancer before it spreads.

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