SLOVAKIA'S political arena is suffering from a bizarre case of schizophrenia: the largest of the governing coalition's parties seems unwilling to shake off its opposition-party habits, while the opposition parties still appear traumatised by their loss of power.
Far too often, when listening to Robert Fico, one could be forgiven for mistaking his words for those of the fieriest opposition leaders - always on the attack, always ready to dole out blame to secure some political breathing space - rather than the country's prime minister, sitting on a comfortable coalition majority.
For example, desperation might lead an opposition leader to start hurling about the accusations of financial crimes - in this case, linked to the construction of Branisko, the most expensive highway tunnel in Slovakia's history - to which Fico treated the public this month. But it was far cry from the poise one might expect from a prime minister. Fico merrily named Gabriel Palacka, a former transport minister in Mikuláš Dzurinda's cabinet, as having been closely involved in the case, despite producing no evidence whatsoever to support his claim. Later, after much media nagging, Fico said he was using "operative [i.e. intelligence-based] information."
Slovakia has already had a prime minister, the same one who back in 1998 pushed Slovakia to the verge of international isolation, who sometimes threw the media chunks of information about secret deals or lurid conspiracies in order to discredit his opponents. The information was mostly "operative", and from undefined sources. That former prime minister, Vladimír Mečiar, is today Fico's ruling coalition partner. It seems that "operative" information from concealed sources will continue to entertain the public.
Fico's opposition-style antics take the wind from the sails of the actual opposition, whose parties find it more difficult to join the debate or tackle a government which appears to be acting in their role.
But the opposition parties are also wallowing in their own internal conflicts, leaving none of them immune to petty in-fighting. It is hard to tell whether these conflicts are driven solely by the agony of opposition, but they nonetheless help to drive a series of wedges both among the parties and between them, leaving the entire opposition camp divided and ineffective.
In the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) a departing group of four conservatives has flounced off, accusing the leadership of betraying true Christian Democratic ideals, while voices within the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) intermittently call for the resignation of party leader Mikuláš Dzurinda.
Just as it looked as if one opposition party - the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) - might have been shielded from this fratricide by its unifying ethnic agenda, it has promptly turned on itself, dividing between the party's two main personalities. The current leader Pál Csáky and former boss Béla Bugár are now trading accusations of lying and damaging the party.
Bugár recently accused Csáky of meeting Fico's Smer party before the vote on the Lisbon Treaty on April 10, something which both Smer and Csáky deny. The Lisbon Treaty vote opened a rift between the SMK and the rest of the opposition since Csáky's party voted with the ruling coalition, helping Fico to push the Lisbon Treaty through the parliament.
The opposition parties had been using the Lisbon vote as a lever in order to make Fico withdraw or amend the controversial Press Code. The SDKÚ, though it considers the Lisbon Treaty a good thing for Slovakia, has condemned Csáky for betraying the opposition and says the SMK's actions make any further cooperation impossible.
Csáky will now carry the burden of suspicion that he cut a deal with Fico and voted for the Lisbon Treaty not because of its merits but for some ulterior motive. Csáky could perhaps have told the SDKÚ a little earlier than 24 hours before the vote that he was planning to break the unity of the opposition parties.
In fact the way parliament voted about the Lisbon Treaty reveals the poverty of Slovak political discourse, since there was next to no real discussion about the treaty itself or its likely impact on the country. One wonders how many deputies were familiar with even the main points of the treaty, rather than its role as a weapon in the domestic political struggle?
When the history books are written, they will record a confusing political tug-of-war rather than a rational debate about the treaty and its implications.
But returning to the SMK, it has been paying the price of neglecting the new political generation, just like all the other political parties.
Bugár and Csáky - just like Dzurinda or the KDH's Pavol Hrušovský - have not offered enough support to the young politicians who could now have been ready to take their place as they burn out or as their parties start showing signs of "old leaders fatigue" syndrome. People now feel they would like to vote for new faces: but they cannot see them, just the old ones, with increasingly unconvincing makeovers.
After decades-long contact, politics necessarily leaves the participants scarred, and in some cases exhausted. For voters, familiarity breeds contempt.
But power is a very strange animal. Once a politician has succeeded in taming the beast, he is less inclined to let others approach it, insisting it respond only to their words. As time tells on the ringmaster, and the animal stops listening, there is always the risk that no-one will be around with the experience to teach it - or the public - new tricks.
28. Apr 2008 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová