ALL THOSE WHO thought that four dismissed ministers plus one heavily criticised might have exhausted the annual major scandal quota of any government, have not fully comprehended the potential of Slovakia’s ruling coalition.
While at the end of the year, governments usually focus their energy on pushing next year’s state budget through parliament, the team of Robert Fico and particularly its junior coalition member, the Slovak National Party (SNS), is instead busy trying to preserve a minister whom the opposition wants to have sacked for what it calls cronyism.
It is the oldest story in Slovakia’s political book: the SNS, which nominated the minister for the post, claims that the political morals of Construction Minister Marián Janušek are beyond reproach. It sees no problem with decisions by Janušek’s ministry to grant extremely lucrative contracts worth €98 million (Sk2.95 billion) to two legal firms, Avocat and Zamedia, which have links to SNS chairman Ján Slota.
Prime Minister Fico said that if he detects serious violations “really, even violations of ethical character, really very significant I will not hesitate”.
Earlier this year, on July 22, Fico indeed showed then-Environment Minister Jaroslav Izák the door swiftly after accusations emerged of cronyism related to the approval of ministry subsidies paid to political contacts and supporters. Izák was also a nominee of the SNS. At that time Fico said the former minister was involved in “unethical conduct”.
True, one month later in his unwavering support for Labour Minister Viera Tomanová, who had been under pressure from the media for what her critics called suspicions of cronyism, Fico shared with the nation his new “tender doctrine”.
The prime minister announced that it is not unacceptable to favour supporters or sympathisers of the ruling coalition parties with public funds if their proposals and projects do not violate laws or rules. Fico also shrunk the definition of cronyism so that certain acts do not fall under it - in fact it now seems to apply only when funds are approved for friends or family, or the rules violated in some other, particularly egregious, way.
As The Slovak Spectator went to print it was still hard to tell whether Janušek would be blessed with the protection of Fico’s tender doctrine, or whether the sword of ‘ethics’, wielded by the prime minister, would sever his ministerial tenure.
The country’s opposition has already collected the parliamentary signatures necessary to initiate a no-confidence motion in the minister. But unless they are able to convince some of the ruling coalition’s deputies that Janušek’s conduct is un-ministerial their attempt to have him recalled is likely to prove fruitless.
Janušek indeed would join a pretty colourful club of departed ministers: In December 2007, Agriculture Minister Miroslav Jureňa, a nominee of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), was sacked after a scandal involving the transfer of valuable plots of land. In late January 2008, Defence Minister František Kašický, a Smer nominee, resigned after his ministry violated procurement laws by announcing an inflated tender for cleaning services. Health Minister Ivan Valentovič, a Smer party nominee, resigned on June 3, citing personal reasons. HZDS chairman Vladimír Mečiar asked on August 14 that Fico end the short-lived ministerial career of Zdenka Kramplová, who had replaced Jureňa as agriculture minister.
The finance minister, Ján Počiatek, came close to joining the club for his infamous appearance on the yacht of a Slovak financial group in Monaco just before the Slovak crown's central parity rate against the euro was revalued in late May, but he somehow escaped with a caution. Fico called his conduct “unethical” and “immoral”. But obviously it was not “unethical” or “immoral” enough to require his removal.
One wonders about the implications of five fallen ministerial heads for the Fico government. Is it that the ruling parties have just made a series of very bad choices when picking their representatives to run ministries? Is it that the state administration is still riddled with people who moved into politics to make a mint? Is it because the rules remain shady and the definitions of cronyism and corruption are still far too flexible? Is it because some politicians owe their existence to party sponsors who after a while simply demand what they think is rightfully theirs:
benefits? And why do some parties have such a problem with openly declaring who their sponsors are? Or when they do, with convincing voters and journalists that their sponsors really are pensioners with a few spare millions in plastic supermarket bags ready to drop off at their party offices.
What remains puzzling is that all the severed ministerial heads, criticism and mystery millionaire pensioners do not seem to have put a dent in the bullet-proof popularity that Robert Fico’s coalition seems to enjoy. Fico himself still has an approval rating of over 40 percent. A large part of the public either blindly believes that all this is happening for their benefit, or their understanding of political standards remains so distorted that the coalition is serving up exactly what they expect and accept. What about the rest? They can look forward to another toothless attempt by the opposition to get another minister sacked.