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A change of direction

LITTLE did Robert Fico know last December that when he invited foreign diplomats and state officials to the historical building of the Slovak parliament to ceremonially announce his presidential bid that he was heading towards his worst political defeat in at least a decade.

LITTLE did Robert Fico know last December that when he invited foreign diplomats and state officials to the historical building of the Slovak parliament to ceremonially announce his presidential bid that he was heading towards his worst political defeat in at least a decade.

The almost 20 percent that separated the prime minister from his presidential dream, not to mention his rival Andrej Kiska, essentially a greenhorn in politics, must be hard to swallow. Fico, as well as his ruling Smer, have been chewing on the defeat since election night but they have yet to come up with any strong message to share with those 900,000 people who still trust the party and its leader.

Some of those who said ‘no’ to the prime minister, in a vote that he himself called a “referendum on Smer”, might have anticipated a humbler Fico in his first appearance, refraining from statements bordering on arrogance. But the Smer boss is unlikely to offer this kind of satisfaction to his critics, even as sources close to the party confirmed for local media that Fico was completely crushed on election night.

Regardless of what interpretation Smer will finally attach to Fico’s political Waterloo, this is a crucial time for the prime minister, because he is deciding now on no smaller issue than whether his political decline is reversible and if not, how longer it will take until he follows his three-time predecessor Vladimír Mečiar down the road to oblivion.

Those who think that Fico will extract some wisdom from his defeat and that from now on he would no longer turn, for example, a deaf ear to the country’s ombudswoman, who has been struggling for months to discuss a report on alleged human rights violations, are wrong. Fico will not change; he never has, at least not on fundamental issues.

It is true that he no longer calls journalists prostitutes as he did during his first government, but he still completely ignored one of the country’s most important daily newspaper when he refused to answer Sme reporters’ questions and denied interviews during the presidential campaign.

Of course, Fico’s election humbling might have some added value for the society. If Fico and Smer would now actually pursue some of his campaign topics – most importantly that of purging the rotten judiciary – Fico will have a chance to prove how serious he was when he claimed to be “losing patience with the Slovak judiciary” as he launched a campaign crusade. With the upcoming election of the Supreme Court president, and the despicable Štefan Harabin’s possible appetite for re-election, there will be enough room for him to prove just how genuine such declarations were.

Perhaps it would also help if Smer focuses a little more on the traditional social-democratic agenda friendly to those otherwise marginalised by society, instead of doing the opposite: joining the “traditional family” talk targeted against the LGBTI community in Slovakia.

Indeed, Hannes Swoboda, president of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, reminded Smer about just how much it has deviated from those values when, heated by Fico’s presidential ambitions, it wed with Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) on a plan to amend the country’s constitution.

“Locking the definition of marriage in the constitution as a union between a man and a woman, under pressure from far-right and religious groups, would significantly reduce the possibilities for future governments to join the many other European countries where marriages between men or women are perfectly legal and enjoy equal rights,” Swoboda wrote in an official release. “We, the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, reiterate our unwavering commitment to inclusion and equal rights for everyone.”

Self-reflection should now be a buzzword for Smer if it was actually listening to the election message. It will take much more than Transport Minister Ján Počiatek saying that “from Smer’s perspective such [election] results are very favourable”. It will also take more than just cutting off a couple ministerial heads and replacing them with more party insiders who haven’t been rewarded with a high-profile position as yet.

Kiska must also live up to his campaign promises to bring decency and balance back to the presidential palace. Nearly 60 percent of voters believed it and he now carries a much heavier burden of public trust than Fico or anyone in the government. Perhaps, Kiska will be able to break the curse of greenhorns in Slovak politics. If not, society’s faith in its leaders will be even more damaged. Fico may be incapable of changing, but there may yet be hope that the country’s sour politics can improve.

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