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SLOVAK MATTERS

Chodťe voliť: Don't mind the populism

IF YOU'RE to understand anything of what's going on in Slovakia these days you need to learn some of the basic language of politics (politika).
The first thing you should know is that in about seven weeks the country will be holding national elections (voľby, from voliť, to choose or elect). Unlike in most countries, voters (voliči) in Slovakia face a real choice, although not between brands of politics or types of politicians. The voľba here is between menšie zlo (the lesser evil, or the parties of the current government) and źivelná pohroma (a natural disaster, or the loyal opposition). Electing the former will please Brussels and Washington, while choosing the latter means international isolation. Abroad this is known as demokracia; at home it is termed šikanovanie (bullying) valcovanie (steamrolling) and priložiť nôž na krk (putting a knife to someone's throat).

IF YOU'RE to understand anything of what's going on in Slovakia these days you need to learn some of the basic language of politics (politika).

The first thing you should know is that in about seven weeks the country will be holding national elections (voľby, from voliť, to choose or elect). Unlike in most countries, voters (voliči) in Slovakia face a real choice, although not between brands of politics or types of politicians. The voľba here is between menšie zlo (the lesser evil, or the parties of the current government) and źivelná pohroma (a natural disaster, or the loyal opposition). Electing the former will please Brussels and Washington, while choosing the latter means international isolation. Abroad this is known as demokracia; at home it is termed šikanovanie (bullying) valcovanie (steamrolling) and priložiť nôž na krk (putting a knife to someone's throat).

If that seems simple enough, you don't know Slovak politicians. Almost every party (strana) and movement (hnutie, from hnuteľnosť, movable goods, which is how Slovak politicians tend to regard state property) duking it out has a smirking twin (dvojča) hijacking its name and membership. The opposition is the worst, with the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (Hnutie za demokratické Slovensko - HZDS) losing blood to the Movement for Democracy (Hnutie za demokraciu - HZD), and the Slovak National Party (Slovenská Národná Strana - SNS) exchanging fierce looks with the Real SNS (Pravá Slovenská Národná Strana - PSNS).

The government is little better, with only two parties entering elections under the same name as four years ago, and six in new political colours.

Slovakia's non-parliamentary parties may be some way behind Canada's Natural Law Party, which in 1993 had 'Yogic Flyers' bouncing around stages in meditation positions, but they still offer some good comedy.

There's the šušlavý (lisping) Pavol Rusko, head of the Ano ('yeth') party, who is probably the most frequent guest on his own TV station's talk shows. There's fešák (handsome) Robert Fico with the million-crown účes (hairdo) and the 10-cent law and order homilies. There's hysterical nationalist Stanislav Pánis of the tiny Slovak National Unity (Slovenská Národná Jednota - SNJ) who still leads shrill celebrations of the founding of the 1939-1945 fascist Slovak state. And there's the still battling Revolutionary Worker's Party (Béčko - Revolučná Robotnícka Strana, B-RRS), who deserve an award for dogged persistence.

One thing you will find little of anywhere in this is public debate (verejná diskusia) about campaign issues. The reason is that there aren't any issues. Sure, there's unemployment (nezamestnanosť) of around 20 per cent, but that's seen as 'structural'. i.e. hard to fix. There's also corruption, but as that's the lifeblood (životodarná sila) of politics, parties are understandably reluctant to break the ice. Occasionally you hear whimpering about the životná úroveň (standard of living), but as that's likely to worsen steeply after Slovakia joins the EU, the country's integration-minded leaders don't encourage much discussion.

What we do have are distractions (rozptýlenia), principal among them police indictments for almost forgotten crimes. The freshest goes against Big Joe Majský, whose wife just joined the HZDS of Vladimír Mečiar (źivelná pohroma, see above). The cohorts of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda (menšie zlo) call this justice (spravodlivosť); Majský, noting the case comes from 1993, sees it as pomsta (revenge), not that he has to worry much, given the efficiency of the Slovak courts.

Don't be surprised at the absence of political honesty - the country even has an NGO commission set up to encourage politicos not to savage each other with the truth. Indeed, one of the most honest expressions to fall from Dzurinda's lips these past four years - that Pavol Rusko is a "zákerný, rafinovaný manipulátor" (a sneaky, refined manipulator) - was recently censured by the priggish commission, sending a signal to anyone else who felt like calling a spade by its true name.

No wonder (niet sa čo čudovať) populists like Fico and Rusko are doing well. As the saying goes, "Populism cannot prosper, because in the absence of sincere debate it ceases to be populism."

Slovak Matters is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners appreciate the beautiful but
difficult Slovak language.
The next Slovak Matters will appear on stands August 19, Vol. 8, No. 31.

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