Slovakia Sees Red

After elections were marred by protests against corruption, can the winner re-build public trust?

The new prime minister Robert Fico crowd-surfing on election night. Now, he must get his feet back on the ground | Photo: Diana Cermakova/EPA /APA

SDKÚ leader Mikuláš Dzurinda after taking a beating at the ballot | Photo: Peter Hudek/EPA/APA

Prime Minister crowd-surfing

The new prime minister Robert Fico crowd-surfing on election night. Now, he must get his feet back on the ground | Photo: Diana Cermakova/EPA /APA

Spirits soared at the headquarters of Slovakia’s centre-left party, Smer (“Direction”), on the eve of the 10 March election: Preliminary polling numbers pointed to a solid victory. As an excited crowd hoisted Robert Fico onto their shoulders, it was plain to observers who the country’s new prime minister would be.

What they could not yet know, however, was that Fico had led his party to a landslide of 44% of the popular vote, winning an astonishing 77 of the country’s 79 districts, enabling Smer to form the first single-party government since the end of communism in 1989.

Now, Smer has again painted Slovakia’s political map red, the colour of the party’s campaign. And its victory in the capital, Bratislava, paid to the conventional wisdom that the leftist vote in post-communist Central Europe was confined to rural backwaters (the opposite assumption to Western Europe).

Yet Smer’s overwhelming majority marks not so much confidence, as anxiety. The vote came on the back of severe corruption allegations against a former government led by the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), Smer’s main rival. Protests rocked the capital for weeks in the run up to the election, and distrust towards the political system lingers. As Smer now holds 83 of the 150 seats in Parliament, the question is whether it can restore the institution’s credibility.

Political leader at a podium

SDKÚ leader Mikuláš Dzurinda after taking a beating at the ballot | Photo: Peter Hudek/EPA/APA

A few blocks away from where Fico was crowd surfing, Mikuláš Dzurinda quietly slipped away from the SDKÚ headquarters. Asked why the party leader was skipping his usual ritual of waiting for the final results, the 57-year-old veteran politician said he needed to rest, before the post-election political talk shows started. These promised to be tough for the leader whose party saw its support plunge to 6% – its worst result ever and only slightly above the 5% threshold necessary to get into parliament. In June 2010, SDKÚ had won 15% of the vote and 28 seats; now it was reduced to 11 seats.

The widening gulf

How can Smer’s massive victory and SDKÚ’s historic fall be explained? Voters first lost confidence in SDKÚ when its centre-right coalition under Prime Minister Iveta Radičová collapsed last October, following a row over Slovakia’s contributions to EU rescue funds. It was this spat that forced the early elections in March.

But the resulting frustration was nothing compared to the outrage caused by the publication of the so-called “Gorilla” file, anonymously posted on the Internet on 20 December. Supposedly leaked from within the secret police, the file contains alleged transcripts of wiretapped conversations suggesting that senior politicians received kickbacks for privatisations in 2005 and 2006 – when Dzurinda was prime minister.

The revelations lead to a string of protests, culminating in early February when some 15,000 people took to the streets of Bratislava. Activists pelted the Parliament with banana peels, calling for the “Gorillas” – as the politicians named in the file have become known – to vacate the building.

When Election Day came, citizens registered their disaffection by voting for tiny parties with little chance of making it into Parliament. These protest ballots absorbed a staggering 20% of all votes, sapping support from the right-wing parties. The direct beneficiary was Smer, and to a lesser extent the greenhorn party Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO) which entered parliament with 9% and 16 seats.

Glued to the chair 

Only two days after the elections Dzurinda, accepted the inevitable and announced that he would step down as party chairman, clearing the way for a leadership vote in May.

He should have stepped aside much sooner, political scientist Miroslav Kusý told The Slovak Spectator. His party’s crisis had been obvious at least since the government imploded last October. Yet Dzurinda – who had led the SDKÚ since it was founded more than ten years ago – resisted change until it was too late. He vehemently rejected comparisons with another former prime minister, Vladimír Mečiar, who had stayed glued to the party chair of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) until its demise – with less than 1% of the vote – in the March elections. Mečiar’s party had dominated Slovak politics through the 1990s and was in government as recently as 2010.

But the comparison was particularly biting because it had been Dzurinda himself who ousted Mečiar in 1998, after the autocratic leader had pushed the country to the verge of international isolation.

A fickle situation

In order to regain public trust, the new government will have to demonstrate it can clean up Slovak politics. No high-ranking official has been sent to jail for corruption yet, but the public is baying for justice.

Notably, Fico is under pressure to pursue an independent investigation into the Gorilla file. The matter is currently in the hands of the police force’s own anti-corruption department and an inspection office in the ministry of the interior; but critics view the state agencies as compromised in a case made public by a whistle-blower.

The new government also faces some tough economic challenges, with unemployment standing at a chronic high of 13%. The economy is growing at 3% of GDP, but shy of its pre-crisis levels of 6% in 2008 and 10% in 2007.

Fico has also inherited the task of cutting the budget deficit to below 3% of GDP by 2014, in line with Eurozone agreements. Resisting the wider EU drift towards spending cuts, Fico has vowed that he would mend the deficit through raising taxes, scrapping Slovakia’s long-standing flat income and corporate tax for a progressive system, higher duties on luxury products, and new taxes for the banking sector.

“There is now absolutely no political reason why Smer cannot adopt its entire political agenda,” said Kevin Deegan-Krause, a political scientist at Wayne State University and a veteran observer of Slovak politics. “But the question is what Smer’s political agenda will be.” Fico, it seems, remains somewhat of a mystery.

Yet with Smer the only party in charge, understanding what Fico and his associates are about matters more than ever. “It will be like the old science of Kremlinology,” says Deegan-Krause. “We must read hidden messages in the discourses of those who are all ostensibly on the same side.”

While the Kremlin comparison is ominous, the new concentration of power in fact provides a welcome change from the eclectic coalitions that have dominated Slovak politics for the last decade. Smer, too, has had some strange bedfellows, ruling with nationalists like Ján Slota and semi-autocrats like Mečiar between 2006 and 2010.

But Smer’s hold on power is also less solid than the analogy with Soviet politics implies. The party’s monolithic victory at the ballot box was borne out of political good fortune. To truly gain the electorate’s trust – and a second term in government – Fico now has to prove that he is serious about transparency and the rule of law. Ironically, he could take an example from his predecessor, Iveta Radičová, who published public procurement contracts online and advanced reform of the judiciary. Perhaps Fico needs a deputy?

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