POLITICIANS have always benefited from the fact that people’s memories are short and often selective. Ivan Gašparovič, who is now running for re-election as president, is no exception.
Though the roar of the economic crisis, which crossed the Atlantic last year and has now hit Slovakia, has partly drowned out the voices of the presidential candidates, Slovaks need to take a rather closer look at the people aspiring to move into Bratislava’s Presidential Palace - or stay there for an additional term. The first round of presidential elections is scheduled for March 21. If a second round is required (as it almost certainly will be) it will take place on April 4.
Gašparovič seems to have a decent chance of re-election, at least according to recent popularity polls by the Institute for the Research of Public Opinion (ÚVVM), which ranked him as the second most popular politician in Slovakia.
Gašparovič perhaps owes his popularity more to things he has not said rather than the issues he has addressed during his term.
In fact, it is quite a challenge to recall any truly memorable moments from the Gašparovič presidency, or an outstanding theme of his time in office.
A reporter from the private television station JOJ recently made a humorous collection of tongue-slips by Gašparovič, which the president’s office paid back in kind by barring her from covering the inauguration of the new foreign affairs minister. The president’s spokesman pompously declared to the Sme daily that “if someone wants to turn the act of reporting into entertainment and circus, that belongs to the street not to the presidential palace."
Whatever further amusement was to be had from the president’s sense of humour failure, banning reporters from the presidential palace is a nasty reminder of an era that journalists had hoped was long gone – but with which Gašparovič was very closely associated.
Gašparovič has avoided any really explosive topics and - unlike his predecessors – has also restrained from any telling criticism of the government in the annual reports that presidents deliver to parliament. As is no doubt the intention, all this helps to mask the profound political makeover which has helped create his present, rather inoffensive image – and divert attention from his less-than-savoury CV.
During the 1990s, Slovakia’s now-president was a staunch ally of Vladimír Mečiar, the three-times prime minister of Slovakia who, since his party’s formation - and to this day - has remained riveted to the throne of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). Gašparovič defended the frequently indefensible policies of the Mečiar governments, which were regular targets of international criticism.
Gašparovič might have remained at Mečiar’s political right hand much longer, had the HZDS boss not deleted his erstwhile sidekick from the party’s candidate list for the 2002 parliamentary elections.
At the time Mečiar said that Gašparovič could run for a seat in the European Parliament. Gašparovič retorted that this was like offering a Slovak citizen the chance to run for a seat in the United States Congress.
Gašparovič not only declined to run for the European Parliament: he set up his own party and, in an improbable victory, defeated his former boss in the presidential elections in 2004.
Observers at the time interpreted Gašparovič’s victory as the nation’s vote for a lesser evil, since many Slovaks wanted Mečiar to slip into political oblivion rather than returning to high leadership. The fact that today the Mečiar-led HZDS is part of the ruling coalition, created by Robert Fico after the 2006 elections, only goes to show that politicians’ eternal hope – that voters will be either forgiving or forgetful – is not without justification.
Fico and his Smer party now firmly support Gašparovič’s re-election, thus fully conforming to the letting bygones-be-bygones approach.
Will Slovakia’s presidential elections again be a vote for lesser evil?
Gašparovič now faces, among others in the presidential race, Iveta Radičová. Radičová, a former labour minister and the vice-chair of the opposition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) is also supported by the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) and – in theory - the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH).
But recently, KDH MP Daniel Lipšic in a bizarre expression of ‘support’ for Radičová called on the opposition to “pay their moral debt to the electorate” and reopened an old debate about alleged vote-buying in parliament during the second government of Mikuláš Dzurinda. Fico was quick to suggest that Radičová was among those who benefited from the alleged vote-buying through becoming labour minister.
Radičová responded by stating that she had nothing to hide and that if anyone had knowledge about any fraud they should file a criminal complaint.
Of all the candidates, who include some familiar also-rans, only Radičová has the potential to challenge Gašparovič. Now some wonder if the Lipšic vote-buying allegations will affect her chances.
Aside from any unresolved opposition baggage, which they should surely have addressed long ago, many also wonder whether Slovakia is ready to vote for a female president.
Also, will people who do not wish Gašparovič to remain in Slovakia’s presidential palace vote for Radičová?
Or will Slovakia finally hold presidential elections in which the winner is chosen because of what they stand for, rather than who they are not?