“IT IS important that we now stop dealing with ourselves and start addressing the problems of the people of Slovakia,” said former justice minister Lucia Žitňanská on May 19 after her Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) party elected a new leader that was not her.
But it does not seem that by electing Pavol Frešo, the president of the Bratislava Self-Governing Region, to lead the party until now headed by Mikuláš Dzurinda for its entire history, that the party should actually stop dealing with its internal issues. On the contrary, this is exactly the point at which the SDKÚ needs to start its self-reflection. It could hardly be otherwise for a political party which after attracting 15 percent of the vote in June 2010, barely made it into parliament this March, receiving support from less than six percent of the voters.
Shortly before the March elections, when opinion polls signalled a deep dip in support, Dzurinda, the chairman of the party that had in the past been associated with political and economic reforms that earned Slovakia the sobriquet “Tatra Tiger”, said he had never been guided by opinion polls and would keep the party’s rudder firmly in his hands, hoping that he could still safely navigate a ship that was rapidly taking in water. Moreover, he must truly have believed that he and his party might receive support from right-wing voters as it did in 2010.
This was also when Žitňanská, who garnered credit for her brave efforts to reform the country’s judiciary, said that if she received strong support in preferential votes on the SDKÚ ballot she would seek the top post in the party after the election, and indeed she got that endorsement. She received more than 100,000 preferential votes, almost four times more than Dzurinda’s 27,000 and nearly five times more than the 21,000 that went to Frešo.
Political analysts warned at that time that Žitňanská’s announced bid for the leadership post might not be enough to persuade voters to put their faith in the sinking SDKÚ ship since no one really knew what would happen after the election and if there was a “bearable” performance Dzurinda could have easily changed his mind and remained at the helm.
After the dismal election results revealed that the ship was actually foundering, Captain Dzurinda dutifully left the bridge. But now the future of Žitňanská, who lost in a run-off vote to Frešo by a count of 242 to 154, is now rather uncertain after she refused to take a post as deputy chair within the SDKÚ. She specifically denied any “unwillingness to work with Frešo” as her reason for not accepting the post.
The Sme daily wrote that yet another woman, this time Žitňanská, had failed to make it to the helm of SDKÚ, a reference to the fact that Iveta Radičová never reached the top position in the party despite her personal popularity landing her the top spot on the SDKÚ’s candidate list in 2010 and then the job of prime minister. Commenting on the fact that only men have led the SDKÚ, Frešo said “I do not think that a distinction between sexes, hair colours, height or weight is decisive vis-a-vis one’s personal traits”.
Sme also pointed to another aspect of Žitňanská’s failed bid: before the vote she had said that persons like Ondrej Ščurka, who heads the Nitra branch of the party and whose firm Nitra Invest was involved in a rental deal roundly criticised by political ethics watchdogs, should not remain as regional party leaders. As for the role of the Nitra delegation at the congress vote, Sme wrote that “even if they did not decide the results of the vote they did not help Žitňanská”.
Nevertheless, it will not be enough for Frešo to offer only phrases like “I want the SDKÚ to be united” or to steer the party closer to citizens while having a more open ear for advice coming from party activists at the local level. First, the new leadership will have to figure out what kind of party the SDKÚ wants to be, who the party will talk to and the language it will use.
The content of the party’s message, given who rules the country now, is certainly an important matter but the bigger question is how genuine the party will appear in pursuing its goals: this is something that requires more of an ethical metamorphosis than an ideological one.