“THERE WAS a woman who liked men and once she had three lovers at her apartment at the same time when her husband came home unexpectedly much sooner than usual,” starts the joke that presidential candidate Robert Fico chose to entertain Slovak ladies in Senica on the occasion of International Women’s Day.
The women who welcomed the Smer leader with applause might not be aware that the jolly gag has much less to do with celebrating their femininity than with the fact that Fico needs their votes on March 15’s first round of presidential elections.
Fico – who describes himself as “competent and experienced” in his campaign video, emphasising that he works for the “benefit of the people” – has rolled out a heavyweight campaign resembling that of his controversial predecessor, three-time prime minister Vladimír Mečiar, in his heyday of power.
Mečiar, the darling of elderly rural women who proudly carried photos of the man who promised to always defend their interest, also summoned his sympathisers to stadiums or cultural centres and entertained them with cheap, stereotypical jokes.
Fico claims on his campaign billboards that he is ready for Slovakia but, at least according to opinion polls published over the past two months, half of Slovakia might simply not be ready for him.
Perhaps half the nation hopes that Fico is now rolling towards a fate resembling Mečiar’s, who never did make it into the presidential palace.
Indeed, Mečiar was defeated by his one-time right-hand man Ivan Gašparovič, who during his two terms lowered the standard for the presidency. Perhaps the most positive aspect of Gašparovič’s presidency was how it started: by preventing Mečiar from becoming the head of state.
Gašparovič came to office as part of a lesser of two evils vote, but much survived from the era of Mečiar, when the constitution was treated as if it were made to be stretched and bent at will, like rubber.
Perhaps many Slovaks will once again feel that they are casting their vote not for a candidate whom they fully trust and who embodies their expectations of a good politician, but rather against Fico, who if elected will fundamentally change the country’s definition of the presidency.
Fico would make it possible for a certain political tradition - which many Slovaks had hoped in 1989 would be long gone by 2014 - to survive under the cover of bold statements about his heart beating for social justice.
By now, Fico has understood that his best-case election scenario is to win in the first round, since in the eventual run-off, regardless of whether his opponent is an ambitious young lawyer, a man whose face evokes the Velvet Revolution or a businessman without any political baggage, that otherwise divided and disillusioned right-leaning voters would unite against him.
Of all the candidates, the stakes are undoubtedly the highest for Fico. If Andrej Kiska loses he will go back to his philanthropic and business activities while using his strong showing to potentially found a new political party.
Radoslav Procházka as well might be using his campaign to transition into creating a new party.
Milan Knažko, who perhaps has the least to lose because he has already done it all, having tasted fame and power, actually said in one of the pre-election debates that he would vote for Procházka’s party if he creates one.
But if Fico fails it will open the first crack in his image as a leader. Perhaps initially a very small one, but one large enough to know that while the ship is not necessarily sinking, it is indeed leaking. He would know it is there and that his ship is now leaking.
That would be the brighter side of the story; who would follow as president would be a new concern, but one that is certainly preferable. Much like when Mečiar ran for the post, there is no ideal candidate, but there are certainly choices that are less bad.
Fico’s power has been fed by the grand failures of his opponents and until this fuel is cut off, he will continue harvesting huge applause with cheap jokes each time he walks onto the political stage.
Here’s hoping someone else has the last laugh.
10. Mar 2014 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová