"WHAT do these people know?" was the question going through the minds of most who had the chance to watch top country representatives struggle, in some cases unsuccessfully, to remember the lyrics of the national anthem on television. The doubts of Slovaks about the competence of their leaders for holding office are in many cases justified. If voters do not start pressing for quality and qualified individuals to hold high offices soon, Slovakia will be in trouble.
On May 12, Slovak Television (STV) ran a report analysing former President Michal Kováč's proposal to change the current Slovak anthem, comprised of 32 words in two strophes.
After chatting with top officials about Kováč's suggestion, the reporter asked them to recite the second strophe, or the last 16 words, of the anthem. The answers were nothing short of a major embarrassment. Jozef Heriban, MP for the ruling New Citizen's Alliance and the party's top candidate in EP elections, could not come up with the full text even with much help from the STV journalist.
Deputy Speaker of Parliament Viliam Veteška of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia came up with the words after about a minute, during which he tried to ask the reporter to stop filming and was clearly highly nervous.
Veteran MP for the Christian Democratic Movement František Mikloško said that he knew the lyrics, but did not like to be tested and quickly wandered out of the camera's view.
Former legislator and ex-Social Affairs Minister Oľga Keltošová, currently the vice-chair of the opposition party the People's Union, had the courage to admit that she simply does not know the second half of the song.
Smer's Robert Madej, at 23 the youngest MP, also had problems remembering.
"It's usually very spontaneous. I like singing it [after victorious] hockey matches, so if you give me a minute, I will tell you," he said.
A minute passed and nothing came. After the reporter helped him with the first two verses, Madej was able to finish the last part. Another representative to claim that the spontaneity with which he usually sings the anthem makes him, in a way, unaware of the text, was Speaker of Parliament Pavol Hrušovský.
Hrušovský did say the full length of the lyrics. However, he got as many as five out of the 16 words wrong.
To be fair, there were a number of politicians who did get the anthem right, or nearly right; Smer's Robert Kaliňák, Gyula Bárdos of the Hungarian Coalition Party, Communist Party member Karol Fajnor, and former President Kováč were among them. Still, the results were alarming.
Another moment of embarrassment, perhaps of a more serious nature, came on May 5, when the European Parliament rejected Július Molnár, Slovakia's nominee for the European Court of Auditors.
Slovakia's candidate was the only one to be turned down by the EP. MEPs cited a lack of experience with financial audits and Molnár's limited knowledge of issues related to the EU budget as main reasons for their decision.
The Slovak government did not reconsider its nomination and, as the final decision is left up to the European Council rather than the EP, Molnár did get the seat. Among the first to react was populist opposition leader Robert Fico, who criticised the government for putting incompetent individuals into top positions. Those objections later made Fico look somewhat foolish when it surfaced that Molnár has been a member of Fico's own Smer party for the past three years.
The EP incident took place just weeks after the public hearings of Slovak Commissioner Ján Figeľ, who did not perform as well as many new commission members, according to MEPs.
These are just some of the most recent examples, but the evidence of a lack of competency and qualification in Slovak public life is extensive.
Yet it is not the case that citizens don't care. Voters consistently say that professional skills and expertise are the most important quality a politician must have to gain their trust.
A survey of the Public Opinion Research Institute (ÚVVM) of the Statistics Office, released on November 19, 2003, shows that professionalism ranked first among the desired attributes of politicians, with as many as 52 percent of respondents citing it as their top priority.
The figure was the same in the ÚVVM's surveys in October and September of that year, and was only one point lower in August.
Other high-ranking qualities include an understanding for the people's needs, personal integrity, and honesty.
The media could do more to reveal the true degree of knowledge of top representatives by forcing them to lead substantive debates, not just the quasi-ideological chatter they indulge in.
Nonetheless, even without the media's additional aid, the public seems to be well aware that their current political representation does not meet the requirements needed to gain their trust.
According to a ÚVVM poll published on February 6, as many as 81 percent of the people do not trust the government. The second least trusted institution in the country is the parliament, falling only two points behind the cabinet. The local political scene has become the victim of a deadly cycle - the low number of qualified people in politics enhances general distrust of politics and politicians, which in turn feeds the reluctance of those who are qualified to become involved in public service.
In this respect, the catastrophic results of the recent presidential elections, which brought victory to Ivan Gašparovič, a man whose past is closely tied to that of former authoritarian PM Vladimír Mečiar, and embarrassments on domestic and European forums may play a crucial role.
Both mean a slap in the face for the many qualified and reasonable Slovaks who have the potential to run for office and help raise the level of Slovak politics. The question is whether that slap will wake them up from their lethargy and force them to accept responsibility for developments in the country, or whether it will be the latest in a series of disappointing blows, deepening an already alarming resignation on public matters.
The answer to that question will have a most fundamental impact on the future of Slovakia.
24. May 2004 at 0:00