Slovaks Start on Colorful But “Empty” Election Campaign

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Slovaks Start on Colorful But “Empty” Election
Campaign

Slovakia’s election campaign got off to a
colorful start on 21 August, a month before parliamentary elections
are due. Some analysts have warned that it may be too colorful,
however, saying that marketing and a paucity of ideas threaten to
undermine what is possibly the most important vote in independent
Slovakia’s history.

The country is due to find out in November
whether it will be asked to join NATO and in December whether it
will be among the first wave of entrants into the European Union.
For both supranational organizations, the results of the
elections–and, more specifically, whether scandal-sullied Vladimir
Meciar wins a fourth term in office–could have a critical bearing
on their decision.

The importance ascribed to the “Meciar problem”
has dominated Slovak domestic politics and foreign policy for the
past four years. A string of warnings from NATO issued in recent
years that an electoral victory for Meciar would spell defeat in
Slovakia’s application effectively reduced this week’s colorful
kick-off to the elections–including food and houses colored blue,
a red London double-decker bus, and a tank–to a formality. In any
case, the parties themselves had already been in full campaign mode
for months, touring the country and holding rallies and photo
opportunities since early spring.

The battle to force Meciar out of power was the
key unifying feature of the 1998 elections. Eventually, a makeshift
coalition succeeded in ousting him, although Meciar still won the
largest number of votes. The struggle to keep Meciar out of the
prime minister’s seat is once again a main feature of the campaign,
but this time only a few members of the coalition look likely to
make it into parliament.

The coalition has had a rough-and-tumble four
years since 1998, including the formation of a new party around the
figure of Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda. Current opinion
polls suggest that his Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU)
is trailing badly, in fourth place with eight percent. The basis of
the SDKU campaign is the area in which it has enjoyed most success:
progress towards the EU and NATO, and a positive image abroad.

That is also alluded to in its party slogan:
“There is only one small step missing–you can make it with us.” In
the meantime, it is trying to limit the damage caused by a
springtime scandal over government contracts and party finances, in
which senior SDKU members were involved.

At first glance, Meciar is faring significantly
better. He has consistently topped opinion polls, with 19.2 percent
of the prospective vote in August. However, his support has fallen
sharply since March, when his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia
(HZDS) had over 30 percent in polls and a towering lead. At this
point, it looks unlikely that he would be able to form a governing
coalition.

One factor may be the repeated warnings from
NATO and senior foreign politicians (including U.S. Senator and
former presidential hopeful John McCain, who visited Bratislava on
22 August), though perhaps its most important influence was to cut
short Meciar’s attempts to recast himself as a strong supporter of
both the EU and NATO.

Also, the arrest of the head of secret service
in the Meciar era, Ivan Lexa, has forced Meciar on the
offensive–and his subsequent release has begun to confuse voters.
Erik Lastic of the Political Science Department of Bratislava’s
Comenius University told TOL that Lexa’s return “might gain
supporters for the current governmental parties” but the “whole
case” and his release from detention “is a very complicated legal
problem and incomprehensible to most people.” The net effect on the
elections will, he believes, be small.

The most important factor has therefore been a
split within the HZDS, which led to the creation of a splinter
party called the Movement for Democracy (HZD) in early June. Since
then, it has emerged from nowhere to command 8.7 percent support.
The party is headed by many disaffected senior HZDS figures who
left after not being nominated to stand for the HZDS. The HZD has
ruled out the possibility of entering a government with Meciar.

The campaign has seen the traditional
image-massaging. Leaders have been snapped as they hike in the
Tatra mountains, and Dzurinda has been filmed white-water rafting.
The campaigns are also leveraging off powerful symbols. The tank is
being used by the Democratic Party to remind people of the bleak
communist past, while the Social Democratic Alliance (SDA) claims
the double-decker comes “directly from Tony Blair” and shows it as
a modern European Social Democratic party.

However, analysts suggest that the parties’
manifestos and presentations are particularly short on substance.
All the major parties are publicly supporting accession into the EU
and NATO, they all are calling for economic reforms, less
unemployment and more social security. To distinguish themselves,
they use the marketing tools, particularly the younger parties.
Czech analyst Jiri Pehe, a former advisor to Czech President Vaclav
Havel, argues that empty populism is the hallmark of this campaign.
“The less content in the campaign, the more populist it is,” he
told daily SME on 26 July.

While opposition to the Meciar campaign ensured
an animated campaign in 1998, one of the leading figures in this
year’s battle–Robert Fico–has said that cases such as Lexa’s
detention are no longer of interest to the Slovak public. He has
stuck firm to his belief. A former left-wing parliamentarian, he is
now feeding his supporters a very different diet, focusing instead
on cutting criminality and social benefits. This diet, amplified by
criticism of economic policy and washed down by eye-catching
billboards, has been working well. His Smer (Direction) party is
now second only to Meciar, with 14.6 percent.

Among his most controversial posters features a
family whose bare backsides are turned to passersby, and reads “To
the European Union? Yes–but not with naked bottoms!” This, plus a
strong undertow of criticism of the Roma minority (perceived as
drawing heavily on social benefits and contributing to petty
crime), suggest that Fico might not prove an easy politician for
the EU to handle.

Another young party ANO (Yes)–an acronym
standing for The New Citizen’s Party–is relying less on Fico-style
sensationalism and more on the breadth of coverage. Its leader,
Pavol Rusko, owns the popular private television Markiza, a daily
newspaper, a radio station, and several weeklies. Despite his
promises, he is using his media to sell the message that Slovakia
needs new faces (like his) and a pragmatic approach to policy
within a liberal packaging. Much of ANO’s campaign focuses on
health care. So far, it has 9.5 percent support.

While Meciar, Fico, and Rusko are ensuring that
populism remains a prominent feature of Slovak politics, the power
of the right-wing extremists has in some ways waned. In 2001, the
nationalist camp split into two parties–the Slovak National Party
(SNS) and the True Slovak National Party (Prava SNS) led by Jan
Slota. As a result of the split and antagonism, neither party
commands more than the five percent needed to keep their seats in
parliament. Both parties are leading a nationalist, anti-Hungarian,
and anti-NATO campaign. Another 18 parties are unlikely to enter
parliament.

That leaves two stalwarts of the Slovak
political scene. The Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) has 11
percent, and is the only member of Mikulas Dzurinda coalition not
to have lost support in the past four years. Secure in the backing
of the country’s large Hungarian minority, SMK is now reaching out
to some Slovak voters. Sensitive issues in Slovak-Hungarian
relationship, such as a re-evalua tion of the Benes Decrees under
which some Hungarians were expelled from Czechoslovakia, remain on
the agenda, but the change of the government in Budapest in April
and the ouster of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has cooled the once
fiery debate about the Hungarian Status Law, which accords a raft
to entitlements and support to Hungarians living abroad.

The other party likely to make it into
parliament is the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH). Its support,
though weaker than in 1998, is relatively solid, at seven percent.
An established party, with a clear (and traditional) conservative
profile, it also has a pro-EU trump card in the form of the
country’s highly popular chief negotiator in talks with the EU, Jan
Figel.

To read more about the candidate countries,
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