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ANALYSTS BLAME DIMINISHING PUBLIC SUPPORT ON CONFLICTS WITHIN RULING COALITION

ANO tackles its decline

THE RULING New Citizen's Alliance party (ANO) has hatched a strategy to bolster its alarmingly low public support.
Midway through the present four-year election term, the liberals aim to woo voters not just with a new logo, but also with an ambitious programme, called "Modern Society".
Following a meeting of top ANO officials on October 3, their chairman Pavol Rusko outlined the main points underpinning the party's most recent initiative.

THE RULING New Citizen's Alliance party (ANO) has hatched a strategy to bolster its alarmingly low public support.

Midway through the present four-year election term, the liberals aim to woo voters not just with a new logo, but also with an ambitious programme, called "Modern Society".

Following a meeting of top ANO officials on October 3, their chairman Pavol Rusko outlined the main points underpinning the party's most recent initiative.

By the end of this election term, ANO wants to ensure that conditions are in place for the establishment of 12 new industrial parks, with the potential to create 80,000 jobs throughout Slovakia.

The party, whose nominee, Health Minister Rudolf Zajac, recently steered his health reform through parliament, aims to round off this success by ensuring that all emergency patients receive medical attention within 15 minutes of calling an ambulance.

ANO also pledges to create conditions to connect an additional 300,000 Slovak households to the internet, which would increase the percentage of households online from the current level of 11 percent to 35 percent.

"These are concrete, measurable goals, and we will account for them before the next parliamentary elections," Rusko said.

Several recent opinion polls have seen ANO's share of the vote fall below the five percent threshold required by Slovak parties to enter parliamentary general elections. A September poll, carried out by the Focus agency showed that ANO had the backing of only 4.5 percent of the electorate.

Formed in the spring of 2001, ANO entered the September 2002 elections as a newcomer on the political scene, yet received 8 percent voter support. The result enabled the party to become one of the four members of the present ruling coalition.

But as the party slides down on the opinion polls, observers have started speculating that ANO might not live out its current election term. Analysts are drawing comparisons with the former ruling party, the Party of Civic Understanding, created shortly before the 1998 elections, having served four years in the previous coalition cabinet, only to depart from top-flight politics as the election term ended.

But ANO leaders insist they will fight to avoid such a fate. Party leaders have agreed to focus on championing the interests of the educated and professional sections of society, such as doctors, teachers and businesspeople, as well as civil servants.

"We want to represent the interests of the middle class," insisted party chairman Pavol Rusko.

According to Rusko middle class support could help his party increase its voter support base to between 10 to 12 percent by the end of this election term. And he and his party peers are determined to take his fight to the masses.

"I want to do everything I can so that ANO is supported by more people," said ANO Vice-Chairman Ľubomír Lintner.

"We except that by 2006 people should see that more jobs have been created, and that the reforms this government carried out have brought positive changes, in health, for instance."

According to Lintner, ANO's falling support has been caused by several factors.

"Many of our voters in 2002 were disenchanted; they wanted to see politicians do things differently, but they were not necessarily liberal voters. They simply voted for us because we too wanted to achieve a change in politics," Lintner told The Slovak Spectator on October 4.

Lintner also admitted that ANO has suffered falling support "maybe because of the competition with the conservative Christian Democratic Movement (KDH)", which is ANO's ruling partner.

For months last year the two ruling partners were embroiled in a public argument over an abortion issue that was then shelved to avoid an escalation of conflict within the coalition.

Grigorij Mesežnikov, political analyst with the Institute for Public Affairs think tank, advanced several reasons for ANO's declining support.

"For one, it is a ruling party and as such the public often identifies it with unpopular measures. Another reason is that ANO is a young party and therefore has no strong ties with the electorate," said Mesežnikov.

Another reason, according to Mesežnikov, was the party's conflicts with the other ruling partners, and within ANO itself. ANO's biggest internal rift, he asserts, preceded this year's elections to the European Parliament (EP) when several ANO MPs fought over their preferred candidate to head the list of nominees to the EP.

Mesežnikov also thinks that ANO was not effective in pushing through a liberal agenda.

"They got hold of the liberal agenda in an unfortunate way. ANO tends to come up with liberal themes only when it suits them, from the point of view of their power plans," Mesežnikov said.

However, Lintner believes that his party, together with its ruling coalition partners, has achieved several goals they can be proud of, including health reform and Slovakia's improved economic rating due to ambitious tax and pension reforms.

As a result of these initiatives, foreign investors have shown increased interest in Slovakia, promising to create thousands of jobs in a country where unemployment, averaging 15 percent, remains a major issue.

"We also understand, however, that people need to see some more tangible improvements than just a better [economic] rating," Lintner said.

"A better rating is questionable for people who open their purses and see that they are still empty. When the middle class feels the positive impact of the changes, people will start to realise that, since the fall of communism, we have been trying to form a society where individuals can succeed and that the state will not stand in their way," he said.

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