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EDITORIAL

Voting with the heart, not the mind

THE PRESIDENTIAL race in Slovakia will be no contest of ideas or visions. Marketing, not agenda, will bring victory to one of the four men who stand a chance of being elected. These axioms will determine the political decisions of the candidates in the upcoming months.
Most candidates hope to improve their image and boost popular support by gaining the backing of political parties or other influential interest groups, such as the labour unions. Interestingly, few seem to realise that this political backing may be useless.

THE PRESIDENTIAL race in Slovakia will be no contest of ideas or visions. Marketing, not agenda, will bring victory to one of the four men who stand a chance of being elected. These axioms will determine the political decisions of the candidates in the upcoming months.

Most candidates hope to improve their image and boost popular support by gaining the backing of political parties or other influential interest groups, such as the labour unions. Interestingly, few seem to realise that this political backing may be useless.

The example of frontrunner Eduard Kukan, vice-chairman and cofounder of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), best illustrates the importance of personal appeal, rather than political parties.

Kukan has placed first in all relevant surveys done since he announced his candidacy way back in January 2003. Over 26 percent of eligible voters will vote for Kukan in the first round of elections scheduled for April 4, according to the findings of the MVK agency, released on March 2.

The same cannot be said of the SDKÚ, whose ratings have plummeted in recent months and which is the only party backing Kukan. Recent research shows it would barely reach the 5 percent mark required for entering parliament if elections were held today.

Nonetheless, the party did try to press other parties into telling their voters to vote for Kukan.

When asked how Prime Minister and SDKÚ boss Mikuláš Dzurinda reacted to the notion that the Hungarian Coalition Party might not support Kukan, party boss Béla Bugár told the daily Pravda:

"He said he would not like it and that it could make our collaboration within the ruling coalition more difficult."

The Hungarian party is the only out of the four coalition parties that is not putting forward its own candidate. On February 28 it decided to support František Mikloško, a veteran MP for the Christian Democratic Movement, quoting his Christian values as their main reason.

Their decision, much like Mikloško's candidacy, seems a mere gesture and as such is more likely an accurate reflection of attitudes prevailing in the Hungarian Coalition Party than the result of a political deal with the Christian Democrats.

Mikloško is far behind the top four contestants, with support under 7 percent. Rumour has it that he is thinking hard about quitting the campaign, which is what numerous other candidates may end up doing.

Former authoritarian PM Vladimír Mečiar is also struggling to gain voters other than hard-core fans of his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia.

In order to do that, Mečiar is not only trying to present himself as a moderate opposition politician who can get along with just about everybody, but is rallying support from other political players.

One of the warring factions of the divided current and former members of the Slovak National Party said it would support Mečiar. In return, Mečiar acknowledged Peter Súlovský, the leader of the splinter group, as the party's only legitimate head.

Mečiar gained other points after the labour unions withdrew their support for Schuster, whom they had previously asked to run and declared they would not give their members and sympathisers any recommendations as to whom to vote for.

Many of those who see the unions as an authority on political issues may indeed be tempted to support the infamous Mečiar.

The labour unions' bosses seem to have only one goal in the run-up to these elections, or in recent months in general - improving their own image in the hope that it will bring them more political power.

The unions have gone to great lengths to please the leader of the opposition party Smer, Robert Fico, who has failed so far to offer them a spot on the party's ballot for elections into the European Parliament or give them other public promises.

So the unions may be shifting their focus and setting their sights on Mečiar, who in turn badly needs to prove to voters and pundits within his party that he is an acceptable partner for potential political allies.

Schuster seems to be most desperate for support. He recorded a significant jump in preference after he sharpened his criticism of the government's social reforms, but perhaps poorly timed that tactic as his campaign seems to be losing momentum an entire month before the vote.

He, too, tried to get Smer to support him, but it now seems he will have to try to convince voters that his main advantage is his political independence.

All top six candidates have based their campaigns on character rather than attitudes. Kukan's billboards tell the voters that Kukan is "a decent man", who can "achieve a lot without yelling".

Mikloško only says "hello" to Slovakia from his billboards and shows Slovaks some of the things he likes most - the Bible, a sausage, and clams - among other things.

Others are no better. Nothing on the EU, nothing on Slovakia's role in a globalised world, nothing on unemployment, nothing on the Roma problem.

Obviously, the trouble is not that there is a lack of challenges ahead. The problem is that no one bothers to address them, for two reasons: The candidates just have no visions, and few voters care.

This spring's vote will therefore be a matter of sympathies and emotions, not reason. And that would be a tragedy even if the candidates really did have good character.

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