QUALITY and digestible content have never been one of the strengths of Slovak political campaigns. However, the brutal demagogy of the referendum campaign has managed to surpass all negative expectations. The main ideological battles have been fought in the public broadcast media - on Slovak Television and Slovak Radio.
Only the opposition party Smer, led by power-hungry Robert Fico, has decided to bring out a few billboards reminding voters to use their right and decide.
The TV ads serve as good indicators of the new depths to which Slovak politicians and political marketers have sunk. Smer's TV-spot opens by showing the most vulnerable social groups - the people likely to be easiest pray to Smer's populist bashing - students, the unemployed, the elderly.
"I currently pay several thousand crowns per month for my university studies," says a very angry young man. "Moreover, the government wants us to pay tuition. This decision is being made by people who studied for free. I would like to let them try that today."
An outraged unemployed lady follows the student:
"Every year we hear how things are going to get better and what great numbers we have. But I can't live off of numbers. I want a job and a salary. As long the government doesn't care how we live, I'm going to care how it governs."
The two outbursts of pure rage are replaced by the image of a needy mother.
"I need medicine, I pay. I need a prescription, I pay. I walk into an examination room, I pay. What do I pay my health insurance for? It's no joking matter, something needs to be done," she says in a pleading voice.
A pensioner, building more on the rage of the first two characters than on the desperation of his immediate predecessor, tells of his suffering:
"My pension? That's just enough to survive on. My children have to support me financially. What about those who don't have anyone? And yet, we want so little. We only want what we deserve."
The black-and-white images of Smer's four prototypical Slovaks, accompanied by majestic music, are replaced by a full-colour Fico and a more cheerful tune. Fico wastes no time and addresses viewers with a message that, for some reason, brings the term "national socialism" to mind.
"In a democracy you have the right to elect a government, but also the right to recall it, as long as it has no sense for national interests, a decent living standard for the people, and justice," he says.
This is not too much of a surprise. After all, Fico, a former communist, has always had a deep passion for restoring order, e.g. through the reintroduction of capital punishment and supporting Ivan Gašparovič in the presidential race.
Extreme nationalist Ján Slota, known for his deep dislike of Hungarians and the Roma alike, was the other major supporter of Gašparovič, who ran under the slogan "I feel nationally, I think socially".
"Your voice in a successful referendum will lead to more than the fall of the government and early elections. It will most of all be a clear signal to politicians to start caring about people and stop stealing," Fico tells voters.
"We will see to what length the ruling politicians will go to ruin it. Even in my neighbourhood they put the referendum voting room two kilometres away from the place where presidential elections are held," he continues.
Undoubtedly, Fico makes two strong points to his target audience through these statements - the government is not only a "bunch of crooked thieves", but it also strives to manipulate the results of the referendum. The coalition has itself to blame for the second part of that allegation, as reports of referendum rooms in some places being located away from the rooms designated for presidential elections have reached the media.
If this was indeed part of an intentional strategy on the part of some members of the coalition, it was a bad mistake. There is nothing that can motivate voters as much as the feeling that they are being manipulated. And Fico's propaganda machine knows that very well.
"For those who support the referendum, it is a test of patience to silently tolerate the social injustice and arrogance of the ruling powers. Doing nothing is the worst of all. The reward for non-participation in the referendum will be further price increases and the cheap sell-off of the best state property," concludes Fico.
The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia wanted to play a similar tune, but did so in a more amateur way. Bad picture, bad music, and bad content are the most fitting descriptions of their attempt to mobilise voters.
"[The referendum is needed] so that a government that knows how to deal with the problems of the healthcare system and can ensure care for all patients without fees and limits is enabled to take over. That's what's right, that's what's constitutional, and that's what we want," says party MP Viliam Soboňa, who has been stripped of his parliamentary immunity due to allegations of shady dealings with Slovak spas.
Then his parliamentary colleague Tibor Mikuš even pledges to halt some major on-going state sales to protect the interests of Slovaks:
"Through a referendum we can prevent the privatisation of Slovak Electricity, which would lower your living standard."
That criticism sounds more than strange coming from a person whose own party's wild privatisation and subsequent tunnelling left tens of companies and regions in ruin. However, the greatest shock is the ad of the ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ).
At first, nothing but black with a dark-grey square in the middle fills the screen. Suddenly, white letters begin appearing, accompanied by a deep voice reading the party's messages to the voters, one sentence at a time, separated by long pauses:
"This referendum is useless. The problems Slovakia has cannot be solved this way. Most citizens refuse to take part in such a waste of money. Even those who don't go express their opinion. We do not support a senseless referendum with our participation."
The last slogan, "use your right and say - I'm not going," remains lit up on the screen for what seems an eternity. Just as the viewer feels relieved that he survived this attack on the senses, the thing starts running again. And then again, repeating until the party's legally allotted time is exhausted.
More than any other campaign before, this one was focused on brainwashing in its purest form. For sanity's sake, let's hope there will be no major political campaign in Slovakia anytime soon.
5. Apr 2004 at 0:00