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Campaigning hit by early blizzard

POLITICAL parties are lining up their campaign artillery in preparation for the March 10 general election – and some of the weaponry looks very similar on both sides of the line. The centre-right parties, for instance, are using some of the left’s traditional big guns, such as the promise of new jobs and solutions for the country’s high unemployment. However, none of the parties are likely to find an issue big enough to immediately divert attention from the ongoing debate over the Gorilla file, an as-yet unverified document containing the alleged results of a covert investigation by the country’s intelligence service suggesting there was high-level corruption during the second government of Mikuláš Dzurinda in 2005-6. The file has been dominating politics since Christmas.

POLITICAL parties are lining up their campaign artillery in preparation for the March 10 general election – and some of the weaponry looks very similar on both sides of the line. The centre-right parties, for instance, are using some of the left’s traditional big guns, such as the promise of new jobs and solutions for the country’s high unemployment. However, none of the parties are likely to find an issue big enough to immediately divert attention from the ongoing debate over the Gorilla file, an as-yet unverified document containing the alleged results of a covert investigation by the country’s intelligence service suggesting there was high-level corruption during the second government of Mikuláš Dzurinda in 2005-6. The file has been dominating politics since Christmas.

The Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) launched its campaign dressed in white jackets, suggesting that their “white campaign” symbolises the “purification of public life” and offers an alternative to “socialist red”. Yet the KDH campaign instantly attracted criticism. Commentators suggested that in a country with such a large Roma population, “white Slovakia” is a worryingly insensitive campaign slogan for a party which claims to be part of the democratic mainstream.

Meanwhile, passengers taking the train from Bratislava to Košice could have bumped into the leader of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), Mikuláš Dzurinda, who began his working life on the railways.

He has chosen trains as his campaign stage and says he intends to spend as much as three-quarters of the election campaign travelling around the country by rail. One of the messages that Dzurinda has recently been trying to get across is that the SDKÚ will not form a coalition with the opposition Smer party.

Smer chairman Robert Fico, meanwhile, tried to use the unemployment rate, which was measured at almost 13.6 percent in December, to criticise the centre-right governing parties, suggesting that the SDKÚ, KDH, Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) and Most-Híd have contributed significantly to the growth in unemployment. Smer is offering what it calls societal stability and “guarantees” for the people as part of its campaign.

However, blogger Marián Jánoš noted that parts of Smer’s election programme were lifted from a study by the Slovak Academy of Science (SAV) without crediting it as the source, the Sme daily reported. The 2006-10 Fico government paid the SAV €900,000 from public funds to conduct the study. Smer spokesman Erik Tomáš said that his party openly declared that it was using the study, produced by more than 100 SAV experts, in its election programme and expressed surprise that other political parties had ignored the document, Sme reported.

That mini-controversy aside, Ján Baránek, sociologist and head of the Polis polling agency in Slovakia, said that the parties’ campaigns were boring.

“I am missing some original thought in there,” Baránek told The Slovak Spectator. “I am mainly disappointed by those so-called older parties; by their shallowness and uninventive approach. If they translated them into Hungarian, they could simply run their campaigns in Hungary.”

Sponsors’ message or political ad?

Over the past couple of weeks the most visible political message on TV screens has been that of civic organisation 99 Percent, whose political wing 99 Percent – Civic Voice scored 4.6 percent in the most recent Focus poll, close to the threshold necessary to win it seats in parliament.

Slovakia’s main private television stations have broadcast paid-for slots in which candidates of 99 Percent – Civic Voice deliver political messages.

The Council for Broadcast and Retransmission (RVR), also known as the Licensing Council, has launched a proceeding against TV Markíza and TV JOJ as well as Fun Radio on suspicion of broadcasting political advertising in contravention of electoral rules. Political advertising via electronic media should, in theory, only begin 21 days before the parliamentary elections, SITA reported on January 25.

The television stations have denied breaking the rules and say they are not broadcasting the messages in their advertisement blocks. Instead, they say, they are classified as “sponsorship messages”.

Meanwhile the political ethics watchdog Fair Play Alliance blogged via the Sme daily website that “the massive broadcasts of television spots promoting political slogans of candidates of the 99 Percent – Civic Voice party are such a serious violation of the law, ignoring the rules for party financing and intervening in the equal chances of [all] candidates, that this cannot be overlooked in silence”.

The white campaign

In response to the KDH campaign some human rights watchdogs promptly denounced any slogan that calls for a “white Slovakia”, pointing out that such terms are most commonly found on the websites of extremist and racist groups.

“It is inappropriate,” Irena Bihariová of People Against Racism, a Roma rights watchdog group, told The Slovak Spectator.

KDH spokesman Matej Kováč rejected any suggestion that his party was racist.

“The colour white is just like any other colour, and at the time of the KDH’s establishment in 1990 it was precisely the colour white that the KDH took as its own,” Kováč told The Slovak Spectator. “As early as [current party leader] Jan Figeľ’s return from Brussels in 2009, the KDH departed from yellow and returned to its original colour, white.”

Baránek said he believed that there was no racist intent on the part of the KDH and noted that in late 1989 and early 1990, when the KDH was created, slogans like “no Red Slovakia”, which expressed people’s opposition to the communist regime, were common. At that time the KDH picked white as its party colour, later switching to the Vatican yellow before going back to white.

“The fact that racists are using this expression is an unfortunate accident and I think that they [the KDH] were not aware of that,” said Baránek.

Nevertheless, several observers and journalists were surprised by the KDH’s decision not only to use the colour white but to do so in combination with references to statements by interwar nationalist leader and priest Andrej Hlinka. Hlinka’s party led Slovakia to short-lived independence under the patronage of Nazi Germany following his death in 1938, and the party militia, the Hlinka Guard, became notorious for its part in the wartime deportation of Jews.

The KDH referred specifically to a 1920s statement by Hlinka, who said after losing parliamentary elections to the Social Democrats that “I will work day and night until red Slovakia turns into a white Slovakia, a Slovak Slovakia and a Christian Slovakia”.

Kováč said that Slovakia is again at a crossroads and that “red symbolises the socialist heading, which leads to indebtedness and bankruptcy” and that, in his words, the KDH offers an alternative to the vision of Smer.

Bihariová told The Slovak Spectator that she did not think the KDH would deliberately “play a racist tune”.

“However, I am convinced that given its experience this unfortunate double meaning could not have escaped the party’s attention,” Bihariová said. “By building its campaign precisely on this, it unfortunately joined those parties which are using such controversial rhetoric as a PR tool and as a populist move. Perhaps the ambition was to appeal to voters who are quite open to similarly coloured messages.”

Peter Bagin contributed to this report

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