POLITICIANS either condemn them as manipulative snapshots of the fleeting moods of the public or they cherish them as small but important confirmations of the public’s devotion to the values they claim to stand for: public opinion polls. While neither extreme view corresponds to the reality of opinion polling, the approach of politicians towards the polls still depends on how their political band is doing on the charts.
A recent poll by Focus polling agency doubtlessly heartened the opponents of Smer since it showed that Slovakia’s strongest political party slumped from 46.9 percent support in January to just 35.3 percent in September. Quite a considerable drop for a party which has kept its numbers over 40 percent in most polls since it was most successful in the 2006 parliamentary elections.
But all that sympathizers of Prime Minister Fico and his partners in the ruling coalition need to do to keep an upbeat spirit is to look at another poll published by the Median agency from a slightly earlier period. Median’s polling showed Smer’s preferences at 45.1 percent in August, little change from its preferences of 46.7 percent in January. The decline is so negligible that political junkies of Smer could begin to pop their imaginary champagne corks.
If there was a supreme order guiding all things political and if politics worked in a way that parties would have to pay with the loss of voter support for any conduct that deviates from the principles they claim to follow, then at least three parties in Slovakia would have fallen as steeply as an aeroplane which had lost both its engines.
A chain of corruption scandals at the Environment Ministry where ministers have come and gone just like summer storms; frustrated judges writing to the top state leaders about their concerns about Slovakia's judiciary; a party boss flying planes with questionable ownership under even more fascinating circumstances: one would say that all this cannot slip past the sensory nerves of society, leaving no scars on people’s trust in their leaders. But perhaps yes, it really could.
What opinion polls also do is inspire a virtual political trading floor – using the public’s momentary love or hate as measured by the polls. Simulated coalitions then emerge on the trading floor with party leaders using simulated principles to guide them in their pursuit of future partners: Smer would never enter a coalition with the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) while it is led by Mikuláš Dzurinda and the SDKÚ will never form any political union with the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) until Vladimír Mečiar is no longer its boss. The fact that Smer has not yet proposed to the SDKÚ or that Dzurinda’s party has not yet tied the knot with HZDS for a little marital bliss in parliament probably has more to do with each party’s political calculations and number-crunching than any political principles or values they claim to cherish.
Daniel Lipšic, the deputy chairman of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) recently proposed that his party, which according to Focus would collect 11.2 percent of the votes, should start laying the bricks for an eventual coalition with the SDKÚ, which would get 13.4 percent if elections were held today. The KDH-SDKÚ coalition would then – in the way Lipšic envisions it – take Béla Bugár’s Most-Híd party and Richard Sulík’s Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party under its wings so that their votes would not go to waste. In fact the “wealth” that Most-Híd could bring to the new family is 5.8 percent, according to the Focus poll, while SaS could offer 3.2 percent. Then there is the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) which stands at about 6.6 percent, though this party under Pál Csáky has lost much of its appeal due to a certain radicalisation.
Counted through the Focus poll numbers, such a wide coalition could altogether collect about 40 percent in opposition to the coalition of Smer and its two rather notorious partners, the SNS at 8.6 percent and HZDS at 6.1 percent, which would then garner about 50 percent of the vote. At this point, all this is nothing more than political simulacra – not a real plan for the 2010 elections. Both KDH and SDKÚ might finally hold hands with Fico if he reaches out to them, regardless of their rhetoric intoxicated by the recent poll numbers.
And Fico appears to have understood that Ján Slota and Vladimír Mečiar are irreparable as is the harm they cause both to society and perhaps their coalition partner with their insatiable consumption of the privileges of power.
But in politics, lessons are rarely learned and declarations are often made to hide rather than reveal the real substance. Even though it seems that Smer is by now fed up with cleaning up the messes left by SNS and HZDS, perhaps if the bargain is good and the party can guarantee a victory march into the next government that will be easier than a more principled partner could offer, then this is what Slovakia might need to endure for the next couple of years or longer. That is unless people begin to understand that real elections have much more serious repercussions than their simulated opinion-poll versions.