Fico and Mečiar: Enigmas without secrets

TIME is not on Smer boss Robert Fico's side. Once his potential voters start feeling the positive impacts of the reforms that the Mikuláš Dzurinda government has implemented, he will have nothing to offer.

TIME is not on Smer boss Robert Fico's side. Once his potential voters start feeling the positive impacts of the reforms that the Mikuláš Dzurinda government has implemented, he will have nothing to offer.

Even those who have been hit hardest by the austere reform measures to heal the country's economic wounds are unlikely to walk Fico's "third way" come election time. By then, a healthier economy will be giving them a real taste of prosperity instead of crumbs.

The "third way" is what Fico calls a "socially more just system", and he is convinced that Smer can deliver it.

His critics argue that Fico has failed to provide an adequate road map describing the path and where it leads. All he hints at, they say, are indistinct contours that eventually take dogged followers to Fico's Elysium.

Charts showing Smer's popularity at 30 percent has obviously made Fico impatient.

Although the elections are still 18 months away, Fico has already presented a bombastic plan of changes that would revert most of the reforms achieved by the Dzurinda government.

Fico wants to implement two value added tax (VAT) rates, effectively replacing the current 19-percent flat tax, which has been intensely praised by the international community along with the flat income tax for the competitive edge they give Slovakia's business environment.

He said Smer would lower VAT on items such as basic food products, prescription drugs and social housing construction projects, as well as abolish VAT on select goods such as textbooks and school utensils. Fico gave his word to push down energy taxes to 15 percent and cancel the Sk20 and Sk50 (€0.50 and €1.30) co-payments on prescription drugs and hospital stays.

The Smer "reformist" has certainly promised to change everything that the public seems to dislike about the current government's reforms. Some suggest that Fico is studying popularity instead of serious economic charts.

Even if Smer wins the elections it is not clear that Fico and his team would actually shape the government.

The media is speculating on who would help Fico in his alteration efforts.

Could it be Vladimír Mečiar, who has been trying to get back into power since the last two national elections? After all, Mečiar's financial supporters are getting nervous about the possibility that he would sit in the parliamentary opposition rather than share the "power."

Still, an eventual union between Smer and Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia party (HZDS) seems unrealistic. All efforts to alleviate the antagonism between Mečiar and Fico have been decorative declarations delivering no real results.

For Fico, it is more important to capture HZDS voters than try to cooperate with the party leadership. In some ways, this is precisely what Fico has been doing for the past couple of years.

Despite the public enmity, Fico shares similarities with Mečiar. Both are former enigmas that have revealed all their secrets but nevertheless keep attracting public and media attention.

Smer and the HZDS are built around their leaders, both of whom claim to know what is best for the nation. Each has tried to persuade the public that only he can provide shelter and protection from evil foreign influences that can only harm this small nation, which has struggled so long to win its independence.

Mečiar uttered a memorable quote to a Stern magazine journalist in 1998 as part of his departure from power: he said his "fingers are on the pulse of the nation" and he knows what the nation needs.

He clearly knew only what his voters wanted to hear.

The similarity in behaviour between Mečiar and Fico is striking. While it seems that Fico has learned a thing or two from Mečiar's past mistakes, he is missing some important lessons that Mečiar himself seems to be learning.

The HZDS leader, for example, knows from the pain of political isolation that going against reforms that are praised by the European and western community doesn't pay. He has learned that questioning democratic principles acknowledged by the rest of the developed world is a fight he can never win.

The lessons that Mečiar has learned do not make him a good politician or justify his past transgressions. It merely means he's human.

Mečiar's growth as a person is interlinked with Fico's growth as a politician. The HZDS electorate is unwilling to forgive their boss for his warming relations with the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union party.

Mečiar's traditional voters want to see an iron-fisted leader that will protect them from the enemies of the nation (the Hungarians, the European Union, the United States, among others).

Certainly, Mečiar's traditional voters are also those who the reforms have hurt the most, as they come mostly from rural regions, have elementary education and are older.

Smer's Fico is ready to supply these voters with the populist promises they want to hear.

However, here Fico knocks at a serious problem. Most European countries and relevant international organizations consider Slovakia an economic marvel. While it has imperfections, they think it is on the right track.

Beata Balogová

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