IN AN ACT of unwavering support for Labour Minister Viera Tomanová, who has been under pressure from the media for what her critics call suspicions of cronyism, Prime Minister Robert Fico recently announced his doctrine for awarding public tenders. It is not unacceptable to award public funds to supporters or sympathisers of the ruling coalition parties if their proposals conform to the law and the rules, Fico said. He clarified that he will not define such an act as cronyism unless public funds are approved for friends or family, or rules are violated in some other way.
Tomanová’s ministry has approved subsidies worth Sk400 million (€13 million) to four non-profit organisations backed by people close to Fico's Smer party, as part of a project to support companies who hire applicants from socially vulnerable segments of society.
“We will not consider it unacceptable if, in the case of two equal projects of the same quality and the same final effect, a minister gives preference to a [village or town] mayor who supports the ruling coalition,” Fico said.
Fico stated that mayors close to the ruling parties will be supported whenever the law makes it possible for the government to do so.
“We won’t let the media, which has clearly taken over the role of the political opposition, to terrorise us, only because we do not intend to disadvantage our members, sympathisers and mayors of towns and villages,” Fico said at a press conference.
Fico said what he will consider unacceptable is if the ruling coalition’s supporters or sympathisers are discriminated against during tenders despite submitting projects of the same or comparable quality.
“We cannot and will not discriminate against more than 60 percent of people in Slovakia who identify with the ruling coalition, either as members or sympathisers,” Fico said during a political talk show on the TA3 television station on August 24. “Why can’t the mayors who under [Mikuláš] Dzurinda received nothing because they were nominated by Smer, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, or the Slovak National Party apply again, simply because they are aligned with Smer?”
Ethics watchdogs and opposition parties have condemned the prime minister’s remarks, suggesting that his statements will encourage cronyism and, therefore, could seriously deform the business environment.
“The statements are a de facto sanction of cronyism, which might have catastrophic consequences,” Zuzana Wienk, director of the political ethics watchdog Fair Play Alliance, told The Slovak Spectator. “He elevated something that society must fight to a norm, and he has done so as a high political representative.”
Fico deflected any criticism of Tomanová, whose ministry channelled support to a company controlled by Juraj Thomka, who is a friend of Smer’s Jana Laššáková. Tomanová, too, has brushed off allegations of cronyism, contending that the eight non-profit organisations which received money from her ministry were selected from a pool of 12 applicants exclusively on the basis of their professional criteria.
“The Labour Ministry has never explored, nor will it ever explore, which political party the applicant is a sympathiser of, which religion he is, etc,” the Labour Ministry stated in a release sent to The Slovak Spectator.
The release stated that political affiliation cannot be a criterion for rejecting a tender that meets requirements, just as it is not a criterion for approving it.
However, political ethics watchdogs warn that political connections actually play a large role when it comes to tenders and public money.
“The fact that someone close to the ruling coalition has won should raise a warning signal that should lead to a check of whether the tender was prepared transparently, with clear rules and equal conditions for all,” Wienk said. “We have to look at whether the winner had an advantage due to its contacts, conditions or above-standard information. This is a factor that politicians should consider, not brush under the carpet.”
Wienk said that Fico’s statements are unconstitutional and contravene laws on public procurement and conflicts of interest.
It could happen that a bidder who is close to the ruling coalition wins a genuine and open tender, but that bidder must truly have made the best offer, Transparency International’s Emília Beblavá said.
“The ruling coalition must convince the public that it chose the best possible offer out of public, not partisan, interests,” Beblavá told The Slovak Spectator. “There is a huge difference.”
Beblavá said the solution is to have transparent and open public tenders in which none of the bidders are disadvantaged and it is made obvious that those who are close to the ruling coalition won because they submitted the best conditions, not because of their party contacts.
“However, this doesn’t really happen in Slovakia today,” Beblavá said. “The analysis that Transparency International conducted in Slovakia shows that only part of the total volume of public funds that is used for procurement is allocated through public tenders.”
In 2007, only 21 percent of state orders were allocated through public tenders, which means that a majority were allocated through non-transparent methods, Beblavá said.
“This leaves huge room for allocating public orders in line with party colours, and considering party interests instead of the public interest,” Beblavá said.
As for the impact that such a doctrine might have on the business environment, Beblavá said that the government is setting the wrong example.
“This suggests that the winner will be the bidder closest to a political party, not the bidder who offers the highest quality at the best price,” Beblavá told The Slovak Spectator.
“This is very dangerous not only for business, but for young people and society.”
“The Robert Fico government is not the first in Slovakia or in the world to give benefit to its people,” said Ivan Štefanec of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ). “But it is the first in the world to declare that the conduct is fair and that it will continue doing so.”
Štefanec said it is now clear that the government’s anti-corruption programme lies in giving advantages to people close to the ruling coalition.
“The prime minister obviously applies double standards and is shamelessly defending his privileged minister,” Štefanec told The Slovak Spectator.
The Fico government has also worsened the political environment by impeding democratic institutions, shutting the public out of cabinet sessions, and turning debate into self-congratulatory monologues, Štefanec said.
“The official promotion of party cronyism only worsens the situation and pushes our political environment back, out of the 21st century,” Štefanec said.
1. Sep 2008 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová