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EDITORIAL

Tending to the garden

PAVOL Paška’s position for some time seemed almost unshakeable in the ruling Smer party. Thus the recent resignation of Smer’s strongman from the post of speaker of parliament opens up questions about what is changing in Robert Fico’s political garden, which this year has seen the uprooting of three cabinet ministers.

PAVOL Paška’s position for some time seemed almost unshakeable in the ruling Smer party. Thus the recent resignation of Smer’s strongman from the post of speaker of parliament opens up questions about what is changing in Robert Fico’s political garden, which this year has seen the uprooting of three cabinet ministers.

After the scandal around a widely criticised tender for an overpriced computer tomography (CT) device slated for purchase by a financially ailing hospital first broke out, Fico indirectly sacked his health minister Zuzana Zvolenská and parliamentary deputy speaker Renáta Zmajkovičová with a promptness unusual for the soil in which Smer germinates.

For the sake of comparison, after the media first broke the story on one of the most notorious cases of cronyism, the fishy 2008 carbon dioxide emissions deal that saw the state short-changed by more than €47 million that was funnelled to a shell company, Fico tiptoed around the environment minister nominated by the infamous Slovak National Party (SNS) for months before sacking him.

Thus observers, rightly so, suspect that reasons for the fall of Smer senior officials isn’t some sudden development of a transparency instinct, but rather an effort to end unpleasant inquiries into how deep the rabbit hole might go in the case of the suspicious CT tender, for example, or how far Paška’s hands reached into health care coffers.

Still, the Fico government has not yet acquired the habit of calling resignations by their real name. The official leitmotif of Paška’s resignation was that he needed to “protect his family” and his party by saying good bye to the parliament that he and his friends treated over the past two years like a Smer clubhouse.

“He was a target and unbelievable things were rolling off him,” said Fico referring to protests in Bratislava and in Košice that took place in front of Paška’s house, when the crowd called for his resignation. “It went so far that protests were organised, and expressions of the balkanisation of Slovak politics were seen.”

Regardless of official talk, media has been speculating that the resignation is a sign that what journalists call the wing of the party from the eastern part of the country is losing steam and that Paška is no longer able to keep pace with his boss. It might also be that Fico himself is trying to regain strength after his defeat in the presidential election earlier this year.

Though he has made some allusions to the fact that he will not remain in power forever, in the case of politicians like Fico, it seems quite natural that he wants to secure continued influence. In a party like Smer, which has roots in classic populism, street protests are always a warning sign.

While his party remains within a sort of statistical safe haven according to public opinion polls, he understands that he partly owes this safety to the completely disjointed opposition and the parties which haven’t done much besides lick their own wounds while trying to figure out how to distinguish themselves from the myriad of equally confused clones.

Fico cannot continue to ignore society’s growing disillusionment with how politicians interpret public service, even if Smer voters have a strong general tolerance to cronyism.

Fico’s initiative from November 20, when he began heralding a proposed law that would ban shell companies from bidding on public tenders is a sign that the CT scandal might have opened up a Pandora’s Box. Political ethics watchdogs have called on the government for some time to pass rules allowing only firms with a transparent ownership structure to bid on contracts involving taxpayer money.

It is highly improbable that Fico would be rushing to have the law valid as of January 1 if there were no turmoil around the CT deal and subsequent information about related shell companies.

The opposition has already found what they call several loopholes in the law, which could in the end prove that this initiative is nothing more than a publicity gimmick faking transparency. The final effectiveness of the law and how watertight it is will show whether Robert Fico’s legacy includes actually removing the weeds that shell companies represent, or whether he is only clearing some out to make way for a fresh replanting in the spring.

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