A look at the political year

THE YEAR 2008 was notable in Slovakia for its economic stability and corruption scandals, say political analysts. They also mentioned the worsening of Slovak-Hungarian relations, the ruling coalition’s enduring popularity among voters and the opposition’s inability to unify.

THE YEAR 2008 was notable in Slovakia for its economic stability and corruption scandals, say political analysts. They also mentioned the worsening of Slovak-Hungarian relations, the ruling coalition’s enduring popularity among voters and the opposition’s inability to unify.

Speaking at a Smer party meeting in Nitra on December 6, Prime Minister Robert Fico, who heads the party, said that he was satisfied with the progress made this year. He told the audience that his government is more dedicated than virtually any before it, and apologised for any mistakes that had been made along the way. Fico then turned his attention to opposition parties and the media.

“It’s a pity that there haven’t been any polls about which country’s press produces the most lies – Slovakia would surely win,” he said, as quoted by the TASR newswire.

Fico said the ruling coalition can win the next parliamentary elections, set for 2010, by proving politically stable and showing the strength to respond to flaws and failures.

He added that Smer will remain atop the coalition by protecting the interests of Slovakia’s workers, creating a social market economy with strong government regulations and respecting the rights of ethnic minorities.

Suspicions of cronyism

But political analysts and members of the opposition note that more government ministers have resigned or been dismissed over the past year than in any other administration.

In November 2007, Agriculture Minister Miroslav Jureňa, a nominee of Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), was dismissed over a scandal involving the transfer of valuable plots of land. Two months later, Defence Minister František Kašický, a Smer nominee, resigned after his ministry violated procurement laws by announcing an inflated tender for cleaning services. And this past August, Environmental Minister Jaroslav Izák, a Slovak National Party (SNS) nominee, and Agricultural Minister Zdenka Kramplová, an HZDS nominee, were dismissed.

Other examples include Smer-nominated former health minister Ivan Valentovič, who resigned in June for personal reasons, and Branislav Bríza, the acting general director of the Slovak Land Fund (SPF), who was dismissed in November in connection with the same scandal that cost Jureňa his job.
Most recently, opposition MPs held a failed no-confidence vote on December 9 against Construction Minister Marián Janušek, an SNS nominee, whom they alleged had directed state contracts to firms with links to SNS chairman Ján Slota.

Political analyst László Öllős believes that Fico has lost control of the cronyism within the coalition.

“The public was used to the government acting swiftly to correct any mistakes,” Öllős told The Slovak Spectator. “But now it fails to do so, or at least that’s how it seems from outside.”

Political analyst Miroslav Kusý said that Fico has been reluctant to punish improper acts among Smer nominees.

He cited the case involving Tipos, the state-owned lottery company, which was ordered this past August to pay Sk3.5 billion for stealing another lottery company’s know-how. Opposition MPs failed to oust Finance Minister Ján Počiatek, whose ministry is the company’s sole shareholder, and he has retained the prime minister’s trust.

Mikuláš Dzurinda, chairman of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) party, accused the ruling coalition of being beholden to financial groups.

“The biggest revelation this year was the discovery that the government is not led by the prime minister,” he said at a press conference on December 16.

Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs non-governmental think-tank, said that corruption has become widespread within the coalition when allocating Euro funds or awarding state contracts.

“This is common among all the coalition parties,” he told The Slovak Spectator. “They fail to prevent conflicts of interest.”

A year of conflict

Öllős said the government spent much of the year in conflict with the media, pension management companies and, especially, Hungary.

“The atmosphere [towards Hungary] was very aggressive, even hostile," he said.

Kusý said that Fico diverged from his traditional role as a social–democratic party leader by taking on some of the nationalism commonly heard from the SNS.

"He was swayed into assuming a nationalist agenda,” he said.

Mesežnikov recalled a resolution approved by the ruling coalition this autumn that required MPs from the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), some of whom had attended a forum in Hungary, to swear loyalty to Slovakia.

“This was an unprecedented punishment,” he said.

He also mentioned the recent controversy in Hungarian–language schools, overseen by Education Minister Ján Mikolaj, an SNS nominee, which received geography textbooks with place names printed in Slovak.

Weak opposition, strong coalition

The analysts agreed that the opposition has failed to unify or present an alternative. Kusý blamed this on rifts within the parties.

Meanwhile, the ruling coalition remains popular. Smer and the SNS have even gained in the polls. If the election had been held in December, the Smer party would have received a record 48 percent of votes, according to a poll by the Institute for Public Opinion Research at the Statistics Office. By comparison, Smer won 29.14 percent of the votes in the June 2006 election.

The analysts said signs of the global financial crisis in Slovakia could affect the coalition's popularity.

What's to come in 2009

The analysts said that Slovak–Hungarian relations will continue to worsen as long as the SNS stays in the coalition.

“Slota feels the need to reignite and revive fascist–like tendencies toward Hungarians,” Kusý added.
Mesežnikov said 2009 will probably not be as favourable for the coalition because of the global financial crisis and the euro, which Slovakia adopts on January 1.

“Euro adoption is positive, but one segment of the population will experience it as a problem,” he said.

He added: “All this is going to be a new situation, so we do not know how these factors will be reflected at the ballot box."

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