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EDITORIAL

Manufacturing consent

Independent Rádio Twist has a show called "Black Box," during which listeners can dial in to the station and blow off steam about anything that is giving them grief. In late November 1998, the most frequent cause of agitation among Black Box callers was the bitter economic medicine announced by the new government.
"They're going to raise electricity and heating, and also food prices. What the hell am I going to do? I never should have trusted them," said one man in what has become a fairly standard Black Box tirade. The sense of personal injury generated by Black Box programmes is intense, and barely one caller in ten reminds viewers that the economic hardships they are dreading were brought on the nation by four years of government under Vladimír Mečiar.

Independent Rádio Twist has a show called "Black Box," during which listeners can dial in to the station and blow off steam about anything that is giving them grief. In late November 1998, the most frequent cause of agitation among Black Box callers was the bitter economic medicine announced by the new government.

"They're going to raise electricity and heating, and also food prices. What the hell am I going to do? I never should have trusted them," said one man in what has become a fairly standard Black Box tirade. The sense of personal injury generated by Black Box programmes is intense, and barely one caller in ten reminds viewers that the economic hardships they are dreading were brought on the nation by four years of government under Vladimír Mečiar.

But there it is. The bloom is clearly off the rose for the new government after less than a month, and many voters already seem to regret the haste with which they abandoned the Mečiar ship.

What the cabinet needs now is a clear vision of the future that they can communicate to citizens, a vision that will sustain people through tough economic times with the faith that it will soon all have been worth it.

American intellectual Noam Chomsky argued that in totalitarian or autocratic societies, governments don't have to bother about offering 'visions' to citizens because if anyone complains too loudly he gets taken away in a black van. Politicians can, quite simply, get on with the business of ruling and ignore public opinion.

In democratic societies, however, politicians have to convince voters of the sense of their programmes and of the importance of re-electing them to office. Governing, with all the compromises and dirty tactics it requires, must occur behind closed doors, while public opinion is constantly shaped and courted through the propaganda tools available to the modern state.

Chomsky's model - one in which successful democratic governments must 'manufacture' voter consent through the media, schools and other state bodies - explains much of what happened in Slovakia this November.

The parties of the new government, particularly the ruling SDK, made some extremely rash promises during the election campaign (take for example the vow to double everyone's wages). The average Slovak voter, being an extremely simple soul whose concerns are primarily economic, swallowed such promises and voted for economic - not political - change. EU integration, the rule of law, minority language legislation - meaningless phrases compared to beer money and the monthly rent.

Since September 26, however, the consent of voters to give the former opposition a chance has been lost. Not a whisper has been heard of doubled wages and a brighter economic future; instead, price hikes, budget cutbacks and belt tightening have been on the agenda, and voters quite rightly feel betrayed.

Unlike the former Mečiar government, which ignored voter dissent with impunity (and at peril to itself), this cabinet must set about winning the consent of citizens for the economic path Slovakia must now take. Politicians must sit down in village pubs among resentful people with empty beer glasses and tell them when they can expect a fatter paycheck. They must deliver a new vision of Slovakia's future that does not rest on illusions like doubled wages and quick westward integration.

The Slovak voter is an emotional beast, as any hour spent listening to Black Box will establish. If cabinet does not move soon to manufacture a new mood of consent, its chances of re-election will be small indeed.

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