EDITORIAL

Vandals and scandals: Billboard graffiti depicts voter impotence

Billboards advertising the virtues of the governing party in Slovakia, the HZDS of Premier Vladimír Mečiar, have been defaced across the country by spray-painting vandals. More than anything else, these acts symbolize the impotence citizens feel at the latest wave of privatization deals and institutional putsches the government has staged.
"Come with us," the HZDS urges on a billboard in Bratislava. "To Russia," a graffiti artist has added. "To hell" writes another.
"We've shown it together," the HZDS insists. "How to steal," comes the answer. "Don't be afraid of heights," voters are told - "fear Mečiar instead," is the rejoinder

Billboards advertising the virtues of the governing party in Slovakia, the HZDS of Premier Vladimír Mečiar, have been defaced across the country by spray-painting vandals. More than anything else, these acts symbolize the impotence citizens feel at the latest wave of privatization deals and institutional putsches the government has staged.

"Come with us," the HZDS urges on a billboard in Bratislava. "To Russia," a graffiti artist has added. "To hell" writes another.

"We've shown it together," the HZDS insists. "How to steal," comes the answer. "Don't be afraid of heights," voters are told - "fear Mečiar instead," is the rejoinder

Campaign ads from other government parties have come in for the same treatment. The coalition partner Slovak National Party (SNS) implores citizens to regard Slovakia as "our nest." Vandals have covered these billboards with anti-Nazi graffiti. Even non-political advertising has been targeted. "It's a question of money," writes the economic weekly magazine Profit in support of their product. "But only of our money," added a street wag, affixing the party slogan of the HZDS to the billboard.

From Bratislava in the south to Žilina in the north and Košice in the east, the political advertising campaign of the government is being sabotaged by furtive vandals, while opposition billboards project their uninspired messages free of interference. Only in Banská Bystrica, Mečiar heartland, is the situation reversed.

Vandalism is an expression of discontent - the unearned, borrowed rage of teenage malcontents, the frustration of the dispossessed, the desperation of people with bleak futures. It is disheartening, but perhaps understandable, that those responsible for defacing HZDS ads feel all of those things.

With four weeks to go before elections, the government has changed the leadership of the armed forces, installing unprofessional and incompetent men in positions of responsibility. One almost dare not ask why.

A late rash of privatizations, both through formal, direct sales and the back-door method of increases in basic capital in which state shareholders do not participate, is underway. Some of the biggest remaining industrial and financial jewels have passed into unknown hands, and the government says the same fate awaits state banks and Slovak Telecom .

The most trusted private media station in the country, TV Markíza, has been sold off to a company named Gamatex, one of the owners of which has been associated by insiders with various dodgy financial dealings including the international Technopol fraud case involving the son of the previous President, Michal Kováč Jr. While the unrest and uncertainty at Markíza is largely the fault of its politically ambitious former owner, Pavol Rusko, Slovak citizens may rightly feel that their confidence in the objectivity of Markíza's newscasts should be withheld until further notice.

The largest oposition party, the SDK, fought and won a court battle to be allowed to register for elections. The fact that the party had to fight at all shows who holds the initiative, power and all the cards in Slovakia's yet-to-be-waged election campaign.

A document was published in mid-August in the daily newspaper Pravda, which purported to be a HZDS election strategy paper from late 1997. It's authenticity cannot be established beyond doubt, which is why it has never been published in this newspaper. But one line from it stands out as so apt a description of how the HZDS is playing its cards that it merits citation. "The campaign must be short and quick," the sentence reads, "but strong."

Few democratic countries experience election campaigns waged with the ferocity and stick-at-nothing desperation of Slovakia's HZDS. What lies ahead in the next four weeks cannot be foreseen, but one may be sure that the order of battle will remain short, quick and hard strikes at the heart of the opposition.

Which, of course, is the source of the frustration writ large on government billboards across the country. Not one of the four opposition parties who may make it into Parliament has shown more than a terrified and disorderly retreat from the HZDS bombardment. Bicycle tours, sententious finger wagging in the press and execrable campaign ads are all that opposition politicians have offered to Slovak citizens in search of political change. The day is fast arriving when the vandals will change the target of their derision.

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