Fico plays rough in campaign

PRIME MINISTER Robert Fico, who in the first round of presidential voting failed to carry anywhere near the vote count his Smer party did in the 2012 parliamentary elections, has his campaign reloaded and ready to go as he takes on philanthropist Andrej Kiska in the second round run-off scheduled for March 29. Based on recent evidence, the country looks set for confrontational days ahead.

Andrej Kiska during election night on March 15. Andrej Kiska during election night on March 15. (Source: Sme)

PRIME MINISTER Robert Fico, who in the first round of presidential voting failed to carry anywhere near the vote count his Smer party did in the 2012 parliamentary elections, has his campaign reloaded and ready to go as he takes on philanthropist Andrej Kiska in the second round run-off scheduled for March 29. Based on recent evidence, the country looks set for confrontational days ahead.

Fico has made Scientology a buzzword of the day, accusing Kiska of links to the Church of Scientology with the philanthropist calling the allegations preposterous, while appealing to the prime minister to focus on the country’s problems and on what the president can do about them. Meanwhile, information that Fico’s own government-approved subsidies to a company run by a scientologist has surfaced, dragging the level of discussion down further.

Police might be abused as a tool in the heat of the presidential campaign, Daniel Lipšic, the leader of the extra-parliamentary NOVA party, warned on March 19. He pointed to a recent email from regional police officials to district police directorates throughout Slovakia demanding statistics on suicides related to the operation of non-banking institutions, purportedly to defame Kiska, who once ran a consumer lending business. The police have confirmed that they sought the data on suicides that might be linked to activities of unlicensed financial institutions with Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, but deny the motivations alleged by Lipšic, the Sme daily reported.

Though Fico won the first round of the election with 28 percent of the vote, with 531,919 people backing him, Kiska finished just 4 percent behind at 24 percent, backed by 455,996 voters. Fico has several times restated that he is the winner of the first round and said he has the right to mobilise his voters. Meanwhile, all the parliamentary parties except that of Fico’s ruling Smer rendered their support for Kiska, including the two independent candidates, Radoslav Procházka and Milan Kňažko, who came in third and fourth with 21.2 percent and 12.9 percent, respectively.

Meanwhile, all three presidents of the post-revolution Slovakia, Michal Kováč, Rudolf Schuster and Ivan Gašparovič, entered the campaigning and in a joint statement called on the nation to vote for whom they called an “experienced and internationally accepted politician”.

The initiator of the call was Gašparovič. Kováč refused to disclose the circumstances of the initiative, while Schuster did not answer phone calls from Sme, according to Sme.

Fico’s campaign revolves around stressing his experience and international contacts. Political scientist Juraj Marušiak from the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) told the TASR newswire that the ex-president’s statement is a clear recommendation for whom to vote.

By March 17 Fico was already on the attack, citing Kiska’s lack of experience in foreign policy. He also said that it is irresponsible for the opposition to support Kiska only to prevent Fico from becoming president.

“I am calling on all the people to reject the hazard of the right wing, which in the name of fighting with Smer is ready to do anything,” Fico told the SITA newswire. “If the Antichrist entered the second round the right wing would support him.”

Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs, (IVO) said that he was surprised by Fico’s weak performance.

“I had expected that he would get at least 35 percent,” Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator, suggesting that Fico’s voters might have just assumed that Fico would make it to the second round even without their help.

He also faulted the way Fico and his party campaigned, focusing on discrediting Kiska, mainly towards the end of the campaign.

New buzzword: Scientology

Fico summoned a press conference on March 18 only to restate his earlier claims that Kiska is close to the sect of Scientology, adding that he would not take back his words even if Kiska sues him. “Mr Kiska lied to Slovakia on a live broadcast,” Fico said. “He knows people from this sect, has been meeting and cooperating with them.”

Kiska, who has several times described claims linking him to Scientology as nonsensical, has filed a criminal complaint over some of the statements Fico made during the televised debates, which Kiska called libel and false accusations, SITA reported.

Fico argued that the Scientology sect is not registered in Slovakia, adding that abroad the church established by L. Ron Hubbard is considered a security risk, while in Slovakia several firms have lost their security clearance due to contacts with this sect.

However, it later emerged that Fico’s own government approved state funding for a firm led by a man openly declaring links with Scientology, warned chairman of the non-parliamentary party OKS Ondrej Dostál, as quoted by SITA.

Fico’s government provided the subsidy to the firm PSS Svidník via EU funding through the Economy Ministry, Dostál said, explaining that more than €200,000 went to support the firm.

“State subsidies for technology, which do not require security clearance, do not have anything to do with the fact that presidential candidate Kiska was found publicly lying that he is not connected with the Scientology sect,” Economy Ministry spokesman Stanislav Jurikovič told SITA.

Kiska responded that it is Fico who represents a security risk for the country.

“This is a typical game of the prime minister, he is worried of losing,” said Kiska, as quoted by TASR on March 18. “The security risk for this country is the prime minister, because he is unable to solve the problems of the people. Discontent is rising here and this is the risk.”

Ahead of the first round of presidential elections, the Pravda daily reported that recently Kiska’s activities evoked doubts, as it turned out that he lectured for a society with a Scientology background and a similar group published his book ‘Take your life into your own hands’. Kiska’s book was published by Ladislav Pavlík, who is the president of the School of Management of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology in the US. Kiska also granted an interview to a magazine with Scientology links. Fico now keeps restating these claims, while adding that Pavlík wrote a foreword to the book.

“After I left business, I very frequently lectured; about business, life, charity,” Kiska wrote on his website called where he responds to criticisms. “I had dozens of lectures annually because I wanted to share my experiences.”

When Pavlík offered to publish the book, Kiska said, “I paid for the publishing on my own and I used the services of Alert. I had no knowledge that Mr Pavlík or Alert would have been associated with Scientology or advocated its ideas.” Kiska added that if he had the slightest idea about the connection he would have never agreed with publishing the book nor the interview.

“I have never been interested in it [Scientology]; do not let us be dragged in by the prime ministers’ games,” Kiska said on March 18, as quoted by TASR.

Kiska has called on Fico to discuss the country’s problems rather than disseminate false accusations. Kiska assumes that Fico does not want the campaign ahead of the second round of the presidential elections to be about the scandals of Fico’s own government.

“Let’s talk about how we see Slovakia and the president,” he said, emphasising that he wants to be a non-partisan candidate who will be a counter-balance to the government.

Suicide rates

After allegations that police were being mobilised to dig up dirt that could harm Kiska’s campaign, Kaliňák denied that any such thing was underway. The police were collecting statistics on suicides related to the bankruptcy of unlicensed non-banking institutions BMG Invest, Horizont Slovakia and Drukos and the activities of freelance sellers who exploit the elderly to sell them poor-quality goods, but the police were certainly not collecting material to be used against Kiska, Kaliňák said, as quoted by TASR.

“I feel like vomiting,” said Lipšic, as quoted by Sme, suggesting that such abuse of the police force had not emerged even under the rule of Vladimír Mečiar, Slovakia’s controversial three-time prime minister.

Fico has several times accused Kiska of earning his money unethically, using the word ‘usury’ to describe his activities. Fico even offered to provide evidence from court cases showing that Kiska’s former rent-to-own companies, Triangel and Quatro, misled people and lied about the terms of loans. Kiska has denied any unethical business conduct.

Lipšic suggested on March 19 that many people might confuse the instalment companies co-founded by Kiska and sold to VÚB bank in 2005 with unlicensed non-banking companies providing loans to low-income groups at unethically high interest rates. Fico, well aware of this, is attempting to misuse this confusion, said Lipšic, as quoted by TASR.

“It is absurd and ridiculous to use this accusation in the presidential campaign,” Kaliňák responded to the allegations of mobilising the police on the issue.

Foreign policy

Fico has made foreign policy his first campaign battlefield, arguing on March 17 that Slovakia aspiring to be part of deeper European integration while having to defend its national interests is now facing some tough decisions, as well as the challenge of the rotating EU presidency in 2016. Fico panned Kiska’s statements that he would acknowledge Kosovo, adding that Slovakia has not recognised Kosovo’s one-sided declaration of independence.

Fico has called Kiska, “just an adventurer in politics”.

Yet, MEP Eduard Kukan of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) defended Kiska on March 18, saying that he does not see any reason to question Kiska’s abilities to represent Slovakia abroad.

“There are many examples of European politicians who started without previous foreign political experiences,” said Kukan, as quoted by TASR.

When responding to Fico’s criticism, Kukan added that Kosovo is not the main problem of Europe today: “It is Ukraine today, and here Mr Kiska has taken a more principled stand than Prime Minister Fico”. He spoke about occupation and aggression in association with developments in Crimea much sooner and more unambiguously than the prime minister, Kukan added, according to TASR.

The first debate

Just as before the first round, Fico once again ignored the debate organised in Bratislava by Sme and the Trend economic weekly, on the grounds that Sme has not apologised to him for what he considered misleading reporting. Nevertheless, Kiska showed up and responded to journalists’ questions on March 18.

One of the worst things that can happen to a society is when politics become intertwined with the business world, Kiska said, referring to cases such as the infamous Gorilla file, pointing at corrupt links involving top politicians and financial groups.

“We are talking about a couple million euros for different projects, but on the other hand, billions of euros are disappearing exactly because politics and financial groups are intertwined,” Kiska said at the debate which also featured former prime minister Iveta Radičová and former Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg.

Michaela Terenzani contributed to this report

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