EDITORIAL

Not taken for granted

RIGHT-WING voters’ support for the main right-wing candidate can not be taken for granted, even if the job of Bratislava’s mayor – consistently filled by centre-right occupants for the last 20 years – is at stake. While this is just one of the lessons that the ruling coalition parties will have to learn from late November’s municipal elections, in which independent left-wing candidate Milan Ftáčnik, who was backed by the opposition Smer party, won the mayoralty of the capital, it is a significant one.

RIGHT-WING voters’ support for the main right-wing candidate can not be taken for granted, even if the job of Bratislava’s mayor – consistently filled by centre-right occupants for the last 20 years – is at stake. While this is just one of the lessons that the ruling coalition parties will have to learn from late November’s municipal elections, in which independent left-wing candidate Milan Ftáčnik, who was backed by the opposition Smer party, won the mayoralty of the capital, it is a significant one.

Observers were quick to note that Bratislava locals have not metamorphosed en masse from right-wing voters into left-wingers; just that they are rather more discerning about what they are offered than the centre-right parties supposed.

Magdaléna Vášáryová, the right-wing candidate for Bratislava mayor, was less than convincing. It was clear from the beginning that her “good political housewife” billboard campaign – which depicted Vášáryová posing with a clean half-cut apple, or covering the city with a pristine glass cover – would not be enough to win over some right-wing voters.

While right-wing voters have in the past voted for a lesser evil to block undesirable candidates – most notably HZDS boss Vladimír Mečiar in his two bids for the presidency – this time they were not ready to compromise. Also, voters are probably fed up of voting with one, or even both, eyes closed.

Even though Ftáčnik, a former education minister who in 2002 resigned from the troubled Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ) to become deputy chairman of the short-lived Social Democratic Alternative (SDA), declared that he was independent, many right-wing voters fear that he shares the political genes of Smer boss Robert Fico. They cannot have been reassured when, once the vote tally predicted Ftáčnik’s victory, Fico rushed to his campaign headquarters to share in his victory.

Though Vášáryová was one of the most publicised problems of the right wing, she wasn’t the only one: Košice, Slovakia’s second largest city, sent František Knapík, backed by the ruling SDKÚ and KDH, plus the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), into retirement and instead picked Smer candidate and former health minister Richard Raši. He also enjoyed the backing of the Most-Híd party, which is part of the government. Centre-right parties lost the mayoralty of Žilina, while the only regional city to reconfirm its centre-right orientation was Trnava.

Although Smer lost one of its strongholds, Banská Bystrica, it still picked up 200 more mayoral positions than in 2006. But no matter how well Smer sells the municipal election results to its believers, its main dilemma remains unresolved: political isolation. The late-November elections confirmed the decline of its main potential coalition partners, namely the Slovak National Party (SNS) and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), with whom it governed until this summer.

The setbacks of the right-wing parties did show that Fico could deliver on his pre-election promises. As sociologist Pavel Haulík pointed out, Smer ran an enormous number of candidates – more than any other party in the history of Slovakia. Yet he was under much more pressure than the right-wing parties, which after Fico’s four-year rule are now back in government: Fico had to produce some “promising results” to keep hope alive among his camp of patrons of the prospect of future good deals.

Another important message for Slovakia’s politicians is the success of independent candidates, who won the largest number of mayoral seats, confirming that those without party affiliation are able to pick up support from voters, at least in municipal elections. For the next four years, Slovakia will have 979 independent mayors, 33 percent of all the mayoral seats in Slovakia. This suggests that there is a demand for people who stand – or claim to be standing – for their own values and not those of the parties.

Political parties need to revise their approach to candidate selection and recognise that merely having someone wearing a blue T-shirt or a red tie might not be such a good way to win voters’ trust. Weaning parties off their habit of using nominations to reward loyal party hacks will not be easy. But if Slovak voters continue to turn against nominees with poor credentials and instead plump for principled – or just disgruntled – independents, the parties may have no choice but to change.


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