POPULARITY polls are a strange phenomenon: those who do well say they are true reflections of the people’s will. Those who rarely make it higher than the last three slots say they are just meaningless crumbs to feed politicians’ vanity. Those who have never charted are likely to describe such polls as fleeting and capricious reflections of momentary moods in a society without enduring values.
There are politicians, for example the country’s controversial former prime minister Vladimír Mečiar, who at the peak of his political strengths in fact had the potential to be both: most popular and most unpopular, most trusted and least trusted, depending on how the question was posed.
Either way, there aren’t many more effective ways to measure people’s political references so neither politicians nor the public can disregard them entirely.
Without any doubt, Prime Minister Robert Fico is at a stage of his career when popularity polls are his friend. A recent poll suggested that his party, Smer, would receive an unprecedented 48.5 percent of the vote if parliamentary elections were held in July. That’s more than Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) ever managed to attract, even in its heyday.
The popularity of Smer’s coalition partners, the Slovak National Party (SNS) and the HZDS, has been on the rise lately too.
Those who had hoped that the recent scandal over a yachting adventure by Fico’s finance minister and the boss of an investment group, which was closely followed by claims of insider trading, would in some ways corrode Fico’s high ratings were waiting in vain.
Certainly, any politics built on populism is vulnerable to corrosion. The popularity of the Fico coalition, of parties that political analysts ahead of the last elections called “the worst-case political scenario,” appears unshakeable to many but in fact leaves about half the nation puzzled.
Today, if the latest Statistics Office poll is somewhere close to the national reality, nearly one half of the nation is satisfied with a government made up of Smer and two parties that pushed the country to the verge of international isolation between 1994 and 1998.
The country’s political analysts have been dissecting the phenomenon of Fico’s popularity down to its very molecules, producing different x-ray shots and diagnoses. They all agree that Fico is in fact using the technique of defining his enemies and sharing those enemies with his supporters.
“What is characteristic of every demagogue is that the person defines his enemies and then blames everything that might possibly go wrong on these enemies, just as he attributes all attacks on his person to them,” political scientist Miroslav Kusý said in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.
Fico has claimed all the credit for the country’s recent successes, such as joining the Schengen area or approval for Slovakia to adopt the euro. In his speeches he has never really given any credit to those who came before him.
Yet such popularity, be it fleeting or longer-lasting, is a real test for any politician. Because along with it comes immense pressure, and very few can handle the pressure well. For now it seems that Fico is working very hard to preserve the methods that generated such support for him. This is one of the reasons why in his reactions and in his very nature, has never ceased acting like an opposition politician and using opposition rhetoric. After all, acknowledging the contribution of his opponents to the progress of the country would require some statesmanlike qualities.
The prime minister seems insufficiently resolute to take action against those in his government who are suspected of either insider trading or mixing with people with ‘colourful’ pasts. Nor has he made much effort to distance himself from the statements of his junior coalition partner, Ján Slota, even when they cross the boundaries of not merely political but also human decency. Some say he is worried about the risk of losing some of his popularity by yielding to opposition criticism.
But the truth is that his popularity and public support mean that he can and should do the right thing, and get rid of some of the people who should never have been part of any government.
The ruling party’s strange political schizophrenia, caught between the habits of opposition and government, has left the opposition parties in an unfamiliar vacuum, with little to do but lick their wounds.
Two new parties will shortly appear. One is being set up by a former economy minister, Robert Nemcsics, most recently boss of the New Citizens’ Alliance party established by Pavol Rusko. Tibor Mikuš, who left the HZDS, also plans to bestow society with a new party, which is probably already doomed to join the scores-long list of defunct parties which have emerged to feed the personal ambitions of a narrow group and which, when there was nothing left to quench the individuals’ thirst, have disappeared without trace.
There is a saying that each nation probably gets the government and politicians it deserves. But many still hope that this is a cliché rather than a time-honoured truth.
21. Jul 2008 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová