Somewhere in the Bible there is a stern warning about the dangers of trying to remove a speck of dust in someone else's eye when you have a log obstructing your own vision. As an admonition against hypocrisy, this old chestnut has much to offer Slovakia's opposition politicians today, politics being, as they say, mostly a Vision Thing.
The SDK, the country's biggest opposition party, stands accused of trying to bribe journalists to write nice things about its leaders and policies. When the scandal first broke in late May, the party did its best to deny, defuse and dismiss the issue for several weeks, until leader Mikulaš Dzurinda finally dismissed his campaign director, Jozef Paczelt. Dzurinda also belatedly took responsibility for the scandal, but would not say what consequences, if any, would follow.
It then emerged that Dzurinda had been told almost three months ago about the bribery scheme by journalists who had been offered money to cooperate, but had done nothing to rein in his impetuous PR team. Prior to this disclosure, the SDK had simply looked naive and inept; now, it looked corrupt and disorganized as well.
None of this would matter quite so much if the SDK hadn't always cast itself as a virtuous, unimpeachable critic of government corruption. Accused of bribery and manipulation of the press, the SDK could only watch as its tough criticisms of Premier Vladimír Mečiar and his HZDS party were gleefully dismissed as hypocrisy by HZDS supporters. Slovenská Republika, a government-supported daily newspaper, ran a front page cartoon on June 3 depicting a reporter at his desk typing furiously under the caption "SDK is great! SDK is nice! Dzurinda is a genius!" Primitive stuff, but effective.
It would also not have mattered quite so much if Dzurinda and the SDK had come clean about the scandal when it first emerged. But instead, the party leadership publicly supported Paczelt. Slovak citizens then listened incredulously to Adriana Hosťovecká, the PR boss who had been in charge of the bribery scheme, explain that she had really been trying to create a kind of media council to keep SDK politicians informed of the latest news. Not for a second had she intended that any of the 19 journalists canvassed write complimentary articles about the SDK, nor apparently had she paused to wonder if her offer of money to influential media figures might not be misconstrued.
SDK supporters were presumably meant to have sighed in relief after this outrageous fibbing, to have chuckled ruefully and say, "ahhhh. so that's how it happened, I knew there must have been a reason." But judging from a straw poll of Bratislava residents, the party faithful have been deeply affected by the scandal, and deeply disappointed with the SDK leadership's handling of it.
Which, of course, brings us to the second political lesson that was administered during the past several weeks: know who your voters are.
It's a standing joke among Slovak politologists that if Mečiar were to shoot someone at random in the street, at least half of HZDS supporters would thump the table and say "He was right! That man shouldn't have provoked him!" Mečiar's supporters, in other words, are fiercely loyal and have a very high tolerance level for the non-standard political methods employed by The Boss.
SDK voters, however, support their party precisely because they are fed up with the economic and political corruption that has become the hallmark of the current Mečiar administration. The SDK's vague political program, internal disunity and clumsy PR approach do not exactly bring Slovaks running, but the party's dogged pursuit of the moral high road has always been a source of strength.
None of this can be news to Dzurinda, which makes it all the more astonishing that he neither nipped Hosťovecká's absurd scheme in the bud when he first heard about it, nor made a clean breast when the rest of the country found out. At best, his behaviour shows a dangerous naiveté and lack of judgement. At worst, it demonstrates a political blindness that bodes ill for the SDK's chances in September.
The SDK will lose about five percentage points in the polls as a result of this scandal. But in the end, these people will probably return to the fold, disappointed but resigned. After all, they may reason, the SDK is no more corrupt than any other party, and considerably less so than some.