Improving the reputation of political office starts with politicians

ENTERING politics in Slovakia can lead to power and influence - and sometimes provide access to media and money. Esteem and respect, however, are not among the perks of political service.

"If you call your opponent a politician, it's grounds for libel."
- Bertrand Russell

ENTERING politics in Slovakia can lead to power and influence - and sometimes provide access to media and money. Esteem and respect, however, are not among the perks of political service.

According to a poll conducted by the MVK agency for the daily SME, 13 percent of respondents say they do not know a single politician worthy of respect. Almost 54 percent say that a small percentage of officials meet general standards of professionalism.

The survey shows that 34.1 percent of respondents think that the most important quality a politician can possess is empathy - the ability to understand the problems and needs of the common person. A similar percentage - 28.4 percent - say that professionalism is key. Half that - 13.8 percent - say that a resistance to corruption is the main priority.

The qualities that people seem to appreciate in a politician have been somewhat static for decades. Nevertheless, even popular politicians fail to meet the minimum expectations of the average voter.

Most Slovak politicians say they do not deserve the scorn and negative sentiments the public dishes out. They say the media has greatly contributed to tainting their image.

It is true that the memory of the masses tends to be short and selective, and that a politician is better remembered for a juicy scandal than well-designed legislation. But what politician ever enters public life without knowing this fact?

Rather than point to bad press, Slovak politicians should take a long look at their unwillingness to give up parliamentary seats, ministerial posts and state offices once they are associated with corruption. There is, after all, a certain propriety to stepping down until suspicion is proved groundless and names are cleared.

According to the MVK poll, 87.4 percent of the respondents feel that being found guilty of a crime is a strong reason for a politician to quit politics. (One wonders what criteria for quitting the remaining 12.6 percent require?) A significantly high number of respondents - 79.2 percent - say that suspicion of criminal wrongdoing alone should be a reason for a politician to depart public life.

There is no political tradition in Slovakia whereby a politician under strong suspicion of corruption voluntarily steps down from his or her post. In fact, parliamentary deputies want to protect their privilege of deputy immunity, which screens them from the same scrutiny that non-politicians face. Unfortunately, deputy immunity is not one of those benefits of political office that has been used with particular judiciousness, either.

Over the past decade, deputy immunity has either slowed down or prevented the criminal prosecution of those suspected of committing serious crimes.

When, in November 2004, a scandal broke involving a Sk5 million (€125,000) bribe allegedly accepted by Pavol Bielik, a member of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and the mayor of Rača in Bratislava, Bielik refused to resign, even after his own party boss requested the move.

When Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) deputy Gabriel Karlin and high-standing municipal official Milan Mráz were charged with bribery, the HZDS tiptoed around the issue, suggesting that the allegations were part of a campaign to discredit the officials. The courts eventually found Karlin guilty and sentenced him to one year in prison. The HZDS silence on the matter is deafening. Is it surprising that the public criticizes the HZDS for failing to condemn its deputy?

A majority of survey respondents also feel that politicians who fail to explain how they acquired their assets should resign. A massive 72.4 percent think that, while 64 percent say that lying should end a political career.

In Slovakia, politicians have finally lifted the veil shrouding their assets (see story, page 2). But many analysts say that these published property declarations are more a source of entertainment for journalists than a public check on corruption and greed.

Not all houses are created equal - nor are flats, gardens, necklaces or pieces of pottery. If a politician publicly discloses that he owns a recreational cottage, it says nothing about his real financial strength. Not unless the politician also reveals the value of his assets.

The property disclosure law does not demand property values from politicians. Given that, it is surprising that the law obliges politicians to declare their annual incomes, including non-state-related employment and other business activities.

The vagueness does not stop there. While politicians' debts are notated in the published version of the declarations, amounts are not given.

Pavel Haulík of the MVK polling agency concluded, rather unflatteringly, that the widely held opinion in Slovakia is that politicians are interested only in making money, and as fast as possible.

Certainly part of this is a growing trend of scepticism towards politics and politicians worldwide. But a part of it stems from real experiences that real people have had with Slovak politicians. Perhaps it is time for our country's officials to work harder to remove the association between politics and corruption? Until then, it will be potentially libellous to call anyone a politician.

By Beata Balogová

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