Campaign gets rough and tumble

A STANDARD campaign with a lot of information: this is how Prime Minister Robert Fico, fuelled by presidential ambitions, described the battle between himself and Andrej Kiska, ahead of the second round of the presidential elections, which ended in the early morning hours on March 27. Kiska evidently did not share Fico’s assessment, as on March 26 he admitted he was worried that Fico’s negative campaign could impact the results, noting that virtually all of eastern Slovakia is flooded with billboards against him.

A STANDARD campaign with a lot of information: this is how Prime Minister Robert Fico, fuelled by presidential ambitions, described the battle between himself and Andrej Kiska, ahead of the second round of the presidential elections, which ended in the early morning hours on March 27. Kiska evidently did not share Fico’s assessment, as on March 26 he admitted he was worried that Fico’s negative campaign could impact the results, noting that virtually all of eastern Slovakia is flooded with billboards against him.

“I am sorry that the negative campaign continues and I do not know what effect it will have,” Kiska has said, as quoted by the SITA newswire, adding that the campaign featured insults and personal attacks by Fico. “I am sorry that the citizens could not hear in the debates more about visions for Slovakia.”

For his part, Fico argued that “if there was no campaign, we would know nothing about Mr Kiska”, adding that the campaign brought no new information about him because “practically nothing new could have come”.

However, in a campaign shift, Fico recently recommended that Supreme Court President Štefan Harabin not run for re-election, arguing that he “divides the judiciary”. The media also reported the prime minister as saying that if for any reason he fails to win sufficient support from his voters, he would consider ending his political career altogether. Fico, during a debate organised by the Hospodárske Noviny daily, called the report gossip, adding: “If I want to state something similar, I would say it to the cameras”.

Meanwhile, a press conference at which independent MP Radoslav Procházka and former actor and Velvet Revolution leader Milan Kňažko, who ended up third and fourth in the first round, respectively, were expected to voice unambiguous support for Kiska on March 25, took a surprising turn: Kňažko failed to attend, while Procházka called on voters to make their own decision, the website reported.

Kiska, nevertheless, excused Kňažko, suggesting that even if he could not come in person, he has already supported him in the race.

Procházka later described his action as “clumsy communication” and the next day voiced support for Kiska at a separate press conference. Kňažko wrote a blog post stating that he would vote for Kiska.

Fico and Kiska met in four major debates thus far. On March 22, they met in the building of the public-service radio for a debate that was also broadcast on the TV channel of the public-service RTVS. Contrary to the calm tone of that debate, on March 23, on the news-channel TA3, the candidates clashed somewhat harder. The presidential debate broadcast by private Markíza television on March 25 featured most of the previously voiced arguments and counter-arguments. The last debate ahead of the moratorium was broadcast by the public service RTVS on March 26.

Scientology accusations

Fico’s presidential campaign has revolved around insisting Kiska has an alleged connection to the Church of Scientology, and raising questions about Kiska’s business career heading rent-to-own companies Triangel and Quatro.

“One of your firms is called Triangel, right,” Fico asked during the TA3 debate. “The sign of the Church of Scientology is a triangle. Mr Kiska you are interconnected with this sect and you have not negated any of the evidence I presented.”

Kiska responded that the company Triangel was established as a sister organisation of the Triangel Group International, a company from North Carolina, owned by Kiska’s friend. “All companies in North Carolina, since there is a triangle of large cities, include the triangle word in their names. If you think that anything that appears anywhere and includes the triangle in its name has something in common with a sect, then that is ridiculous,” he said during the TA3 presidential debate on March 23.

Fico during the March 23 debate also has said he would have been happier if he faced Procházka or Kňažko because in that case he could be certain that the country would function normally even in the event of his defeat and that there would be no surprises.

If both candidates faced security clearings, Fico would be more in danger of failing to get a security screening, Kiska said, hinting at an audio recording featuring a voice strongly resembling that of Fico.

The recording, published a couple days before the parliamentary elections in 2010 by the Sme daily, suggested that Smer had accepted undeclared campaign contributions from off-the-books sponsors.

“A voice resembling yours spoke about how he secured Sk75 million for illegal financing of a political party,” Kiska said during the TA3 debate. “You were in the government when it was miraculously allowed to rob all our people of almost €50 million through emission allowances.”

Kiska also reproached Fico for failing to answer whether he ever visited the apartment on Vazovova street featured in the so-called Gorilla file, which contains transcripts of conversations covertly recorded at that apartment by the SIS intelligence agency in 2005 and 2006 involving a financial group and high level political figures.

Speaking on Markíza, Fico lashed out at Kiska, suggesting that he no longer can call himself an independent candidate because he is being supported by opposition parties which in the past formed what Fico called unsuccessful governments. Fico, nevertheless, claimed that his candidacy is supported by, among others, French President Francois Hollande and Catholic Cardinal Ján Chryzostom Korec.

Kiska rejected Fico’s claims, arguing that “all the political parties had their own candidate” and added that he had made a public promise that he would not take a single cent for his election campaign from political parties.

“I cannot imagine that someone has his whole campaign paid for by a party and that this man then stands up and says that from now on he is independent”, Kiska said.

Bizarre press conference

At the rather confusing press conference, Procházka did not clearly endorse Kiska, saying he respects voters enough not to recommend whom they should vote for: “It is important that people will choose [the candidate] on their own,” he said on March 25.

Kňažko let Kiska know that he would not show up at his press conference only a couple minutes before. Kňažko explained his non-attendance by saying he had already made a clear statement on whom he supports in the run-off. He stated yet back in February that in the run-off he will support any rival of Fico, the Sme daily reported.

Kňažko then explained for Sme that he missed a working meeting at which it would have been determined who says what.

He later that day wrote a blog post stating “you know me and I will be voting for Mr Andrej Kiska”. The next day, on March 26, SITA published Kňažko’s public statement, which was identical to his earlier note saying he will vote for Kiska.

Procházka however, after rather fiery responses on the web and social sites, wrote an entry on his social site profile claiming that “I admit, I underestimated the need to restate why I will vote for Andrej Kiska. My bad, Sorry. Will fix it soon”. The next day, Procházka summoned a special press conference at the parliament and announced that he will vote for Kiska.

“Slovakia needs a change and a hope and it is Kiska for Slovakia,” said Miroslav Beblavý, former member of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), now without affiliation, who accompanied Procházka along with Andrej Hrnčiar from Most-Híd, Sme reported.

Meanwhile, Procházka, on March 27, announced that he will give up his parliamentary mandate after the May parliamentary session, as he is ready to found a political party and has a network of people who will join in the project.

“They tried to talk me out of this, but in vain,” Procházka said, as quoted by the TASR newswire.

Kosovo and Hungarians

Fico even targeted the ethnic Hungarian population in municipalities where they live in higher concentration. Fico’s billboards in southern Slovakia feature the “thanks for your support” slogan in Hungarian language.

“It will not help him,” said a local woman from Gabčíkovo.

In 361 municipalities where the ethnic Hungarian population exceeds 50 percent Fico received 7.68 percent of the vote while Kiska was supported by 22.2 percent.

However Fico brought the Hungarians into his campaign also through a completely different issue: the independence of Kosovo. Fico has been panning Kiska for his statement that he thinks it would be correct to acknowledge the independence of Kosovo, calling the philanthropist a threat to Slovakia’s national interests.

During the March 25 debate on Markíza Fico restated: “Kosovo is a good example for us to show what a huge risk it is when a man who does not have all the necessary information enters top politics.”

Fico hinted at relations with Hungary stating that even though these links are good but if one reads the programme of parties such as Jobbik, an extreme-right group in parliament, one can see why Slovakia could never acknowledge Kosovo.

Fico did play the Hungarian card by hitting some Slovaks at their sore spot: the fear that ethnic Hungarians would want to separate from Slovakia. Kiska responded that Fico is only trying to scare people.

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