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ANALYSIS

After the bubble bursts

THE UNEXPECTED outcome of the presidential elections, which saw Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) candidate Vladimír Mečiar and non-parliamentary Movement for Democracy runner Ivan Gašparovič advance to the second round, poses a number of serious questions: Why did this happen, how will it change domestic politics, and what impact will it have on the country's image abroad?
The results of the vote may be surprising at first sight, but after careful thought one finds that they are not that shocking.

THE UNEXPECTED outcome of the presidential elections, which saw Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) candidate Vladimír Mečiar and non-parliamentary Movement for Democracy runner Ivan Gašparovič advance to the second round, poses a number of serious questions: Why did this happen, how will it change domestic politics, and what impact will it have on the country's image abroad?

The results of the vote may be surprising at first sight, but after careful thought one finds that they are not that shocking.

It is true that Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan had been the front-runner according to all opinion polls since the time the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) announced his candidacy over a year ago.

But there are several rules one needs to keep in mind when interpreting the results of Slovak surveys. One is that the appearance of certainty weakens one's position.

This was the case in the 2002 parliamentary elections when opposition leader Robert Fico was predicted as the election winner and the country's next prime minister. Instead, the vote brought unexpected success to the underdog of those elections - the SDKÚ.

Another example is the referendum on EU entry, which took place nearly a year ago. Preliminary research showed that a safe majority would attend, leading political representatives to underestimate the need to mobilise voters.

In the end, a tight majority of around 52 percent of Slovaks participated, just barely enough for the plebiscite to be valid.

The logic behind this phenomenon is that Slovaks are not inclined to act on behalf of something that appears to be certain.

In these elections, Kukan and his SDKÚ party made the fatal mistake of appearing only too sure that he would move on to the next round, giving his supporters little motivation to go the polls.

The sad fact is that, had voters known the results in advance, they would have been different.

Kukan's campaign is also to blame for the elections disaster. His spin-doctors decided not to let their candidate attack others, which is usually a good move in any election, be it in Slovakia or abroad.

Yet in this case, pointing out his enemies' faults would have been incredibly simple. One of Kukan's defeaters, Mečiar, is well known for the authoritarian methods he used as the prime minister of the country, which he brought into international isolation and near economic collapse.

Much of the current high unemployment was caused by wild Mečiar-era privatisation and the former PM has been implicated in a number of cases of abusing security forces in fights against political adversaries.

That is not to mention Mečiar's personal wealth, the origin of which he continues to have trouble explaining.

The voters got to hear absolutely none of this in Kukan's campaign. Only he knows why.

But one is tempted to speculate that the reason the current minority government is still in place is in great part thanks to Mečiar's quiet support, which may have something to do with this campaign strategy.

Gašparovič is Mečiar lite, and the task of pointing out his dark sides would have been almost equally as easy.

It may work out for a candidate to be non-confrontational if he has an excellent agenda to present to the people. But in this respect we saw nothing from the self-assured foreign minister.

Instead, Kukan's strategy was to build on his character. Someone should have warned Kukan that it would be no easy task for a former communist functionary suspected of collaborating with the communist secret service to convince voters that he is a man of great character.

This is especially true if we take it into account that most of Kukan's voters are members of the educated middle classes who can connect the dots.

A further rule with Slovak surveys is that Mečiar always receives more than the numbers show.

While this has several reasons, the two most significant are that his supporters are more disciplined, and thus more likely to show up on voting day, and are less likely to confess their preferences to pollsters, feeling a sense of well-justified shame for supporting the authoritarian politician.

With the help of the unaggressive Kukan, moreover, Mečiar partly succeeded in giving the impression of a man who has learned from the mistakes of his past, is good-humoured, and understands the people's needs.

It is therefore no surprise that, in the end, Mečiar's results were much better than figures showed.

Gašparovič benefited from his position as the underdog and the fact that he comes from political obscurity, both of which appealed to voters.

His Movement for Democracy failed to reach parliament in the 2002 general vote and he has taken no part in the political scandals which have since weakened all parliamentary parties except for the opposition party Smer.

And the support of Smer, currently the leading political force in the country by far, certainly did its part.

For Gašparovič it was enough to do nothing wrong and wait for the mistakes of others.

Moreover, in the twisted war of character, he had two advantages - he admitted the mistakes that were made under Mečiar and was the only of the top four candidates not suspected of helping the communist-era secret service.

The results of the election are likely to hasten the fall of PM Mikuláš Dzurinda.

The pressure on Dzurinda, who has been heading a minority government since the end of last year, has been growing stronger in the last weeks.

There has been disaster after disaster. Most recently, his allegations that there was a conspiracy against the state and his party turned out to be false.

The results of the investigation led even neutral media to call for Dzurinda to take responsibility for his mistakes.

SDKÚ breakaways united in the new Free Forum (SF) party. Their leader, Zuzana Martináková, has pledged to go after the PM and his ministers with greater determination than the party has displayed in recent months.

Moreover, the SDKÚ has found itself in the middle of a financing scandal after media reported that the party's list of donors included the names of many who had not given the party a crown.

This affair led several of Dzurinda's coalition partners to comment that, in a normal democracy, the head of the party would act on such suspicions, hinting that Dzurinda should consider resigning.

So far, Dzurinda has managed to withstand all problems because most of the pressure has come from the outside, whether from the opposition or his coalition partners. The PM had been able to fully rely on the support of his party for two reasons.

Firstly, his buddies in the party felt comfortable in their seats and believed that Dzurinda could work miracles. After all, he did lead the party to an unexpected victory in the 2002 elections.

It is now clear this is no longer the case. Not only can Dzurinda not help anyone any longer; people suffer because of their alliance with him.

The scandals brought about by Dzurinda, whether it was the "group", the suspicious financing, or his inexplicable statements about Slovakia being ready to give up unanimous voting in many key areas of EU decision-making, only harmed Kukan's position in the run-up to the elections.

The lesson other top SDKÚ representatives will learn is evident - sticking around Dzurinda will ruin them.

Moreover, as Dzurinda is deeply disliked by the SF, he cannot guarantee the coalition a majority in parliament. Someone else in charge of the SDKÚ could.

There is still time before regular elections take place, and if a new PM can ensure there is no early voting, the SDKÚ may have enough time to rebuild its ruined image.

The other reason Dzurinda was safe from an internal coup to oust him from his seat within the SDKÚ was the question of who would replace him.

With personalities such as Ivan Šimko and Zuzana Martináková out of the party and Ivan Mikloš busy running the lucrative Finance Ministry, there seemed to be few options.

Now there is one: Kukan. The man has good reason to be upset with Dzurinda for in part spoiling his presidential hopes. At the same time he evidently has high ambitions.

To top it off, Kukan is clearly much more popular than his party. These factors make a deadly combination from Dzurinda's perspective.

As regards Slovakia's image abroad, the bubble hyped by the country's investment successes has burst. Slovakia can again be seen for what it truly is: a country involved in a deep struggle for democracy.

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