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Old lions, Gorillas, and the future of the centre-right in Slovakia

Gorilla-Gate: negative stickers and posters such as this one, adapting the Slovak official coat of arms in a Gorilla fashion, have flourished all over the country.

Gorilla-Gate: negative stickers and posters such as this one, adapting the Slovak official coat of arms in a Gorilla fashion, have flourished all over the country.

By almost pure chance, 2012 is a year in which all three countries I am linked to will be voting in a general/presidential election. And as you readers have probably have read enough this week of French cheese and US giant burgers, I guess it’s time to have halusky for dessert, as Slovakia gets ready for its own general election this Saturday, March 10.

If I talked about chance (or bad luck for some), it is because the election was not expected this year. In fact, the last Slovak general elections were held just two years ago, and they produced a fragile but effective ruling coalition made of four centre-right parties (two Christian democrats, SDKU-DS and KDH; one new generation Central European right-wing Freedom and Solidarity – SaS; and one Hungarian-Slovak party named Most–Híd, ‘bridge’ in Slovak and Hungarian) and led by Christian Democrat Prime Minister Iveta Radičová. Because of the Greek crisis, this coalition exploded last autumn, when the Christian Democratic wing of the coalition decided to support the bailout for Greece (which was supposed to be the last by then) while SaS opposed it. The result was that the bailout was rejected once by the parliament  (which provoked a crisis at the European level), the government fell as the EFSF had been tied with a confidence vote, and all this pushed Iveta Radičová to call for early elections in exchange of the opposition’s support for the bailout in a second vote. In the end, the bailout was approved, Greece was “saved” (for a few months), and the anticipated elections are still on, with a conclusion expected on Saturday (at least in terms of the campaign).

With such a background, you would have expected this Slovak election to be all about the European Union, public finances and the economy, and all actors prepared for it to be the case. During the pre-campaign, the contest itself looked like it was going to be a fight between the two heavyweights of Slovak politics, the center-left opposition leader of Smer-SD Robert Fico and Foreign Affairs Minister (and, like Fico, also former Prime Minister) Mikuláš Dzurinda, leading the centre-right main party SDKU-DS. But the thing is: politics do not always turn out as expected. Instead of this high debate and two-man fight, the campaign went to a completely different direction in December and January, when the Gorilla scandal burst into the national scene.

“Gorilla” is the codename given to a wiretapping operation allegedly conducted by the Slovak secret service in 2005-06 (i.e. during MikulášDzurinda’s second tenure in office). It basically consisted in taping conversations in “safe appartments” in Bratislava and the Tatras Mountains between high profile politicians and members of the “business” sector (including foreign ones, but also most infamously representatives of group Penta, one of Slovakia’s biggest private equity firm, but which is also suspected of illegally financing Slovak political life). The “Gorilla files”, as they are known, tended to show the murky links between business and politics, with allegations that multi-million Euros bribes were paid to senior government officials to win various public-procurement and privatization contracts.

Mysteriously posted online by an anonymous source, the Gorilla almost immediately became a big story in the national media. The story was big, and so it exploded into the face of Slovak politicians with a force that totally changed the face of these elections. While pundits were expecting a difficult but serious debate between parties, the scandal mobilized public opinion and made the political atmosphere almost unbreathable, as every day was marked by a new release of a secret taping with a new politician and as mudslinging became daily routine.

The scandal concerns every party who was in the circuit at the time, from left to right (that includes opposition Smer-SD as well as SDKU-DS, or KDH). But public reaction was totally different depending on which parties were touched: for example, the Gorilla files show that Dzurinda never set a foot in the “safe appartments”, while transcripts suggest that Social-Democrat leader Robert Fico was present in at least one of these meetings. However, because Dzurinda and SDKU were in power at the time, and may be also because their initial reaction was one of outright denial, most of the blame has been put on the shoulders of the present leader of the coalition, while Smer kept its positions. And so while the centre-left party is set to record a historic, near-40% win which could give Smer-SD an absolute majority in the Slovak parliament, things have gone from bad to worse for SDKU, as they have plunged in opinion polls and are now credited with around 4.7-4.9 % of the votes, so less than the threshold needed for a representation in parliament (they were at more than 15% last time).

"Red or Blue?": this question is asked by SDKU in its latest billdoard... It looks like it's going to be red, this time.

Despite a very organized and effective campaign (at least by Slovak standards),  SDKU is facing the prospect of parliamentary extinction, although it is also true that opinion polls always tend to underestimate the electoral potential of the coalition leader. If SDKU’s defeat was to be confirmed by Saturday’s vote, it would be a terrible end for Mikuláš Dzurinda, the man who led Slovakia at a turning point in its history and transformed it from the black hole of Central Europe it was right after the fall of the semi-authoritarian system of the Vladimir Mečiar years to the dynamic European economy it has been since his tenure in office. As Prime Minister, Dzurinda was bold enough to introduce a flat-tax system andto make the country and “investor’s paradise” (according to Steve Forbes) and the “car factory of Europe” in just a few years. During his tenure as Prime Minister, Slovakia became a member of, NATO and the EU, and became the most dynamic country in the region, with economic growth then at 6%. However, despite these incredible accomplishments, Slovaks have never fallen in love with Dzurinda for many different reasons (the perceived cost of this dynamism, the social difficulties many Slovaks still face despite the modernization of the country, scandals as well as a Dzurinda-fatigue), and his credibility ratings have fallen to abysmal levels. It looks like this time, Mr. Dzurinda will pay a heavy price for his unpopularity, and the relative or absolute decline of SDKU will pose the question of leadership and structure of the Slovak centre-right in the immediate future.

At some point, it may have looked like newcomer, new generation right-wing party SaS party may actually benefit from SDKU’s difficulties, as Freedom and Solidarity was left untouched by the Gorilla scandal (as it didn’t exist at the time). But the latest “Sasanka” scandals, describing the relationship between the party chairman, Richard Sulík, and controversial businessman Marián Kočner, have also tainted SaS who is now credited with a weak 6.2% of the vote, while Most-Hídremains stable at 5-6%. The ”winner” on the centre-right may then be Jan Figel’s Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), who may benefit from his leader’s seriousness and the Eliot Ness-like image of Interior Minister Daniel Lipšic, as it is expected to record a record 12-13% of votes on Saturday.

The future therefore seems difficult for the Slovak centre right, as they seem bent to be kicked out of power by the electorate. With Dzurinda in great trouble (but you never know in politics,…), the question of the future of the Slovak centre-right is posed, as the model that has lasted for the past few years is crumbling. Shall it reconstruct themselves around two or three nucleuses, with a Hungaro-Slovak party remaining alongside a Central European New Right nucleus (represented by SaS or the “Ordinary Slovaks” list which may get represented in Parliament) and a Christian Democratic wing with KDH and SDKU? Should it merge into a single coalition? Who should be its leader? How can they organize better to win the communication battle?

That makes a lot of questions, and do not expect the anticipated future Prime Minister Robert Fico to make things any easier for the Slovak right. Mr. Fico is a very good tactician (even a ruthless one, as he didn’t hesitate to ally himself with the Slovak extreme-right in order to become Prime Minister, a move that surprisingly didn’t get much publicity among his Centre-Left friends in Europe, usually so prompt to give morality lectures to their counterparts), and you can expect him to play the game of divide and conquer inside the center right. Rumors have already circulated that he may well invite KDH and/or Most to be a junior partner in a ruling coalition whatever the results, and this would most probably give a blow to prospects for unity within the Slovak Christian-Democratic movement. You never know what the future holds in politics, but it goes look that some very tough times await the Slovak Center-Right.

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3 comments on “Old lions, Gorillas, and the future of the centre-right in Slovakia

  1. One bone of contention – the socialist group in the EP did exclude Fico’s SMER back when he first went into government with Meciar and Slota. It’s true, however, that they later took him back, a decision that I always thought was extremely cynical and quite disgusting.

    Despite my centre-left convictions, I don’t think I could ever bring myself to support Fico.

    I agree, however, that the left was generally pretty silent on the matter, though, which goes against everything we profess to believe in (I stress the word profess)

  2. Thanks for your comment Evan; Smer was actually just suspended (which I agree is still something in European terms, but still fell short of exclusion), and that would probably have been fine if, as you said, they had not reintegrated him so quickly.

    Anyway, in Fico’s defense, it is also true that he used the coalition to destroy SNS and blame them for everything that went wrong under his government. This is also why his potential allies in the next parliament (KDH and Most) are not necessarily looking forward to enter into coalition talks with him. Picture should be clearer, though, Sunday morning, and I guess many people in the two afore-mentionned parties would prefer Fico to have a majority in parliament by himself so that they don’t have to think about joining him..

    • I would imagine that while he’d like to go into coalition with a bigger party (KDH or Most) to destroy either of them later on, he’ll probably end up forming a government with a smaller party – one of the new ones like 99% or OL or something?

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