A toss of the coin?

“AS DURING the times of kings it would have been naive to think that the king’s firstborn son would be the fittest to rule, so in our times it is naive to think that the democratically elected ruler will be the fittest,” writes award winning writer J.M. Coetzee.

“AS DURING the times of kings it would have been naive to think that the king’s firstborn son would be the fittest to rule, so in our times it is naive to think that the democratically elected ruler will be the fittest,” writes award winning writer J.M. Coetzee.

So it is with Ivan Gašparovič, a man who has always owed his political success to supporters, opponents or political figures who needed him to do a “particular job”. He has rarely been chosen on his own merits. The reason for this is quite banal: it is very hard to figure out just what Gašparovič stands for.

Gašparovič won the second round of the presidential election after collecting 55.53 percent of the votes. His challenger Iveta Radičová, the joint candidate of the parliamentary opposition parties, won 44.46 percent of the votes on a 51.67 percent turnout, according to the official results announced by the Central Election Commission on April 5.

In the previous presidential race in 2004 Gašparovič, who at the time was still closely tied to three-time prime minister Vladimir Mečiar and his party, made it through to the second round in a major upset which occurred mainly thanks to a lot of people assuming that the-then foreign affairs minister, Eduard Kukan, was already safely on his way to Slovakia’s version of the White House. But he wasn’t, and instead the nation was confronted with an unedifying choice between Mečiar, whom the majority of the nation did not want to return to power, and his erstwhile sidekick Gašparovič.

Some stories of success are poetic tales of grand achievement; others are rather more prosaic.

In the 2009 presidential elections, Gašparovič owed huge chunks of his success to Prime Minister Robert Fico, whom the president has loyally supported over the past four years. Anyone looking for criticism by the head of state of the actions of the Fico government – an administration which has, after all, not exactly been lacking in controversy – will search in vain. It is not that the country needs the president to act as the opposition to the ruling cabinet; but the head of state should at least be a source of reflection and challenge when needed.

“Robert Fico knows very well why he wants him [Gašparovič] to be the president,” political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator. “There are no programmes or any content behind his choice, but purely the mechanics of power. Fico needs the security of a loyal partner in this position and, most importantly, so that after the 2010 elections Gašparovič will charge him with forming the new cabinet. This is the name of the game, nothing else.”

This is indeed the name of the game. Yet it is not illegal and it does not go against the rules of this country to be politically desired by the prime minister or to stand close to the ruling parties, in this case Smer and the Slovak National Party (SNS). Being a partisan candidate is a legitimate practice. But lying about it is not, since it provokes questions about a candidate’s integrity.

Presidents without integrity are in effect just puppets which countries employ to shake hands with passing foreign dignitaries.

Gašparovič has repeatedly lashed out at Iveta Radičová for being a member of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) and for being supported by her party.

In a televised debate with Radičová, Gašparovič wore his self-declared non-partisan status on his sleeve, restating several times that “I have only the citizens behind me while Ms Radičová is the deputy chairwoman of a political party,” according to the Sme daily.

But then came a video recording, published by the SITA newswire.

“We are alone here, so I can say that I am practically a member, and my failure would be the failure of Smer,” Gašparovič said recently at a Smer party meeting in Košice, which he was not aware was being recorded.

“If I am not elected, nothing happens; maybe from a personal point of view it would be better for me, I will have time for my family. But it is now about Smer,” Gašparovič says on the tape.

When confronted by reporters about this statement, Gašparovič first denied having said any such thing, clearly oblivious to the video recording. Later, his spokesman tried to finesse Gašparovič’s statements suggesting that the president had never denied that his social programme was close to Smer’s programme.

It is just one of the issues that leaves one wondering why Fico wants Gašparovič so badly. They certainly deserve each other. But the nation deserves someone who is not burdened by a communist past, who carries none of the baggage of Slovakia’s mid-1990s flirtation with authoritarianism and - most importantly - someone who has integrity.

But to get such person the nation will first have to elect them.

Coetzee poses the provocative question: “We do not chose our rulers by the toss of a coin – tossing coins is associated with the low-status activity of gambling – but who would dare to claim that the world would be in a worse state than it is if the rules had from the beginning of time been chosen by the method of the coin?”

Once Slovakia has re-elected its next old-new president quite a large number of people might be left pondering this question.

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