EDITORIAL

The irresistible charm of cronyism

THERE are statements with the sole ambition of shocking the audience. Then there are agglomerations of words which masquerade as sophisticated and deep, but which careful listening reveals have described little of any significance. Then there are other statements, representing perhaps the most disagreeable sort of political rhetoric, which elevate highly disputed thoughts to the pedestal of reason and proceed as though there were a general consensus around them. The speaker must make them with a heavy dose of arrogance and assume the mantle of a deity in order to silence in the listener even the smallest voices of doubt.

THERE are statements with the sole ambition of shocking the audience. Then there are agglomerations of words which masquerade as sophisticated and deep, but which careful listening reveals have described little of any significance. Then there are other statements, representing perhaps the most disagreeable sort of political rhetoric, which elevate highly disputed thoughts to the pedestal of reason and proceed as though there were a general consensus around them. The speaker must make them with a heavy dose of arrogance and assume the mantle of a deity in order to silence in the listener even the smallest voices of doubt.

A recent statement by Prime Minister Robert Fico - made to shield his hapless but strangely durable labour minister, Viera Tomanová, who has been the subject of repeated allegations of cronyism - falls into the third category.

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 when communicating his new doctrine for handling public tenders.

“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 as quoted by media.

He neither whispered these words into the ear of his closest allies nor distributed them via a secret email: he made the announcement publicly, as though heralding the beginning of a new era in which the limits of party cronyism are redrawn and redefined.

One possible interpretation is that from now on the media should not even bother the prime minister with questions about public tenders won by people close to his Smer party, because he will not deign to investigate them unless someone violated official rules. Reading between the lines, another interpretation suggests itself: it pays to be a supporter of Smer.

To cut a long story short: Tomanová’s ministry has approved subsidies worth Sk400 million (€13 million) to four non-profit organisations backed by people close to Smer, within a pilot project supposedly designed to support companies who hire applicants from socially vulnerable segments of society.

If anyone was wondering whether the ministerial head of Tomanová, who has faced cronyism suspicions before, would roll they can now rest assured that it won’t. The prime minister has come up with a doctrine to make sure of it.

Both Emília Beblavá of Transparency International and Zuzana Wienk of Fair Play Alliance noted that the core of the problem is not that sympathisers of Smer - or any other party, for that reason - bid for tenders. The problem is that the tenders often lack transparency and that on the frequent occasions when there is a ruling-party-friendly winner they are not properly scrutinised.

Yet, such scrutiny could in the end benefit the winner too, because any suspicion that things other than the quality of the project brought them victory could be eliminated.

Cronyism has a seemingly irresistible charm for many who make it into power. One might ask: if there are two equally good projects, why should party affiliation not be the final arbiter?

The first reason is that there are already unhealthy ties between politicians and business and such logic would return society to the era when people who did not have the “right” political identity had limited opportunities in any area of society.

Also, being in power carries a price and parties who enter government should accept the limitations and duties that come with it.

In the case of tenders, a single phone call to pass on information a week, a month or couple of months before other applicants get wind can make a huge difference, and if a sympathiser of the ruling party wins a tender there is always the suspicion that that phone call actually took place. Not necessarily, of course. But the suspicion is there. Also, if there are two applicants with similarly good projects, why should it be party affiliation that in the end decides?

Observers immediately noted that what statements like Fico’s tender doctrine do, in fact, is redefine the playground rules. And in games like business, many players immediately adjust their tactics in hope of gain.

What comes next? Will the prime minister inspire job applicants to brag of their membership in Smer when they want a well-paid state administration job? One can almost imagine the pseudo-justification: well, we can’t discriminate against Smer supporters when we hand out certain types of jobs, can we?

Political nominations and unhealthy ties between business and politics have been a persistent problem for Slovakia and it seems that Fico is now suggesting a ‘solution’ that suits his buddies the most: make such conduct the rule, stand firmly behind it and persuade the public that all you are doing is eliminating ‘discrimination’ against sympathisers of Smer.

Observers commented that Fico’s statements are unlikely to evoke much reaction from the European Commission, even though EU money is often at stake in public tenders. But hopefully there are still some who pause to listen carefully to what politicians say in Slovakia, because cronyism’s irresistible attraction is unlikely to diminish.


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