SINCE March 12, 2012, Slovakia has been living the ‘Year of Fico’. Unlike the signs of the Chinese zodiac, this particular cycle will last not one but four years. While opposition ‘astrologers’ say the country has entered a cycle of astronomically high unemployment, deteriorating business conditions and increasingly unclear rules, those who run the country say that it is headed towards stability and ‘certainties’ for the socially weak.
To right-wing voters, and those who endured massive disappointment at the hands of the four right-wing parties who in effect facilitated his return to power by their inability to compromise, the prospect of living under the sign of Fico provokes apathy and weariness.
There are a couple of eager self-declared new leaders who say they are ready to take on the challenge, but they resemble lonely runners who never look back and assume that they are being pursued by an army of followers headed for the same destination. While they offer grand visions for the country, visions alone do not make anyone a leader in Slovakia – or anywhere else for that matter.
Robert Fico is now ruling Slovakia alone, unlike in his first period in government, when in 2006 he ushered back into power the notorious Slovak National Party (SNS) and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), with all their political baggage of nationalism and cronyism. He can rule alone not only because their term in power with Fico helped sink both Vladimír Mečiar of the HZDS and Ján Slota of the SNS – neither of whom even managed to make it into parliament in 2012 – but also thanks to his landslide victory, in which he harvested 44.4 percent of the vote and, for the first time since the fall of communism, a single-party majority in parliament.
But this also means that all the responsibility rests on his shoulders, which, given the fact that unemployment is now at almost 15 percent, its highest level since 2004, is heavier than anything he had to carry between 2006 and 2010.
Both Fico and his labour minister have been at real pains to argue that it is the global economic crisis and Slovakia’s troubled European partners, not their own changes to the tax laws or the Labour Code, that are exterminating jobs in Slovakia. Yet it now seems that even some of his staunch supporters might be having a hard time swallowing this, at least according to the most recent poll by the Focus agency, which showed Smer with 34.6-percent support – 10 percentage points less than in last year’s election.
Though the poll instantly prompted speculation about whether it really represented a trend, with pundits trying to interpret the drop and what it could mean, given the massive support that Fico still enjoys and the fact that he still has at least three years to go, it gives relatively little hope to those who are hunting for new voters. As Ján Baránek, a sociologist working for Polis, noted, those who abandon Fico will first go into the column of undecided voters – and linger there for some time. It is unlikely then that the ‘new leaders’ will benefit from them any time soon, if at all.
Commentators and analysts have also been busy trying to determine whether Fico’s ruling style has changed, and if so what impact this change will have on laws, policies and the way that those who did not vote for him, and never will, actually feel about their place in society.
As a matter of fact, Fico no longer calls journalists prostitutes or idiots and he is mostly able to contain himself during his encounters with reporters, but that is probably due to the fact that he has chosen a different strategy for polishing his image rather than his conviction that the public has the right to check him and ask questions – and that journalists are their voice, eyes and ears in doing so.
Fico’s recent heated comments directed at minorities, which suggested that he thinks Slovakia is for Slovaks, gives a pretty clear idea about how far any metamorphosis by Fico is likely to go, given the character of his audience.
When he said “we did not establish our independent state in the first place for minorities”, Fico was talking to an audience at Matica Slovenská, a state-funded cultural heritage institution based in Martin which political analyst Grigorij Mesežnikov, in a recent interview with The Slovak Spectator, characterised as an “outdated organisation which for years has been behaving as a de facto political party, [as] part of the nationalist block”. This certainly goes some way to explain Fico’s nationalist rhetoric. What is scary is that he seemed rather comfortable in the role.