EDITORIAL

What twists await in the election-year soap opera?

ROBERT Fico has opened a new season of political soap opera: Highways under threat. True to his habit of convening “extraordinary” cabinet sessions whenever he feels threatened by his opponents or the media, Prime Minister Fico again summoned his ministers. This time he tasked them with analysing the “highly likely attacks” which he says centre-right parties are poised to make on the public-private partnership (PPP) projects he and his allies have chosen to construct Slovakia’s new highways, and the unforeseen consequences these “attacks” might have on society.

ROBERT Fico has opened a new season of political soap opera: Highways under threat. True to his habit of convening “extraordinary” cabinet sessions whenever he feels threatened by his opponents or the media, Prime Minister Fico again summoned his ministers. This time he tasked them with analysing the “highly likely attacks” which he says centre-right parties are poised to make on the public-private partnership (PPP) projects he and his allies have chosen to construct Slovakia’s new highways, and the unforeseen consequences these “attacks” might have on society.

This is not a fable, said Fico when painting a picture of “irreversible damage” that the bad guys – those who do not want the highways his government is so eager to build – might cause.

Maybe hard-core Fico fans now envision dusty, bumpy roads, and communities cut off from the developed parts of the country – and will rush to the polling station to make sure that his Smer party rules the country for at least another four years and connects the eastern city of Košice with Bratislava by a multi-lane highway.

The opposition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) has not shown much enthusiasm for Fico’s screenplay and refuses to play the highway-killer role.

Besides, the economic weekly Trend is somewhat ahead of Fico’s ministers and has made its own analysis of the PPP packages. Trend has found completely different reasons for worry: the weekly believes that the first PPP package will inflate the price of highway construction by about 40 percent, and calculates that it is overpriced by €1.2 billion.

Trend even suggests that the looming losses for the state coffers might be 15 times higher than those from the disadvantageous sale of Slovakia’s excess emission quotas to the murky Interblue Group at about half the price that neighbouring countries cashed theirs in for.

What makes Fico nervous, though, are probably not the highways but the recent polls, which have certainly got the adrenaline pumping in many parties’ veins.

The polls now suggest that the parliamentary elections might not necessarily turn into a victory march into the next government for Robert Fico. Fico’s subconscious probably still bitterly recalls 2002, when he had been scoring high in the opinion polls, only to be left stranded on the sidelines after the general election, watching as someone else stole the show.

In 2002, Smer collected slightly over 13 percent of the votes in the election despite polls suggesting it would get at least 18 percent.

Then there is also the so-called Vladimír Mečiar election syndrome, which refers to the 1998 vote in which Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) came first, on 27 percent, but remained consigned to the opposition benches. That was the result of Mečiar’s political isolation and the political irrelevance of those who were willing to unite with him.

Smer is just as strong as it has been for the past four years. Yet Fico has for the first time admitted that he might not be the one forming the next government. If his current ruling coalition buddies fail to make it into parliament and if the centre-right parties keep to their earlier declarations that their preferences are for a centre-right government, then Fico may have to pass on the keys to the cabinet office.

A poll by the Focus agency published on April 21 showed Fico’s coalition ally the HZDS on 5.4 percent, only just above the 5-percent threshold required to get into parliament. His other coalition partner, the Slovak National Party (SNS), scored slightly higher in April, with 8.6 percent, but in March its preferences were down to 6.2 percent.

This is why Fico is now trying to mobilise his voters and Slovakia’s audience can certainly expect many more soap operas, highway killers, traitors, and politicians linked to shell companies in tax havens.

While observers have often called the greenhorn Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party a rising star, it might well be that the party’s objective is simply to make it into parliament and copy Fico’s tactic of gathering strength in opposition by kicking the governing parties. Would SaS unite with Smer if it offered the prospect of a speedy access to the top table? It is hard to say. New political forces with people who are new to politics do not always have the political savvy to help them manoeuvre over terrain as sensitive as that of a post-election period, when a wrongly chosen union can define them for the rest of their time in politics or even cut that time prematurely.

Recent polls have had perhaps the most bitter message for the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) and Béla Bugár’s Most-Híd party. According to the latest Focus poll, both parties scored narrowly above 5 percent, which suggests that together they account for the 10 percent backing that ethnic Hungarians have always secured for their political representation in Slovakia.

Now, even if they can get out the Hungarian vote, these two parties could both fail to make it into parliament. In fact, it was the desire to avoid such a fate that drove the Hungarian Christian-Democratic Movement, the Hungarian Civil Initiative, and the Coexistence to unite (as the SMK) once before to save the Hungarian vote.

All this suggests that 2010 might after all be one of the least predictable election races. That offers some feeble hope for those who over the past four years have grown ever more cynical and disillusioned about the role of politicians and the ways of politics, and started to believe that all the public is being offered are soap operas whose noisy dialogues and colourful costumes only serve to divert attention from the big business which is taking place behind the stage.


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