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No Political Honeymoon in Slovakia

August 10, 2010 1 comment

In most countries, election winners enjoy a protracted period of public support immediately after taking office (the “post-election bandwagon effect”). Slovakia’s new government has had no such luck.

Former Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer party, which lost power in the June 12 general election with 34.8% of the vote, has seen its support jump to 42%, its highest level in 12 months, according to the most recent Focus Agency poll. Smer may be benefitting from an influx of support from former backers of Vladimir Meciar’s People’s Party – Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS), which failed to win enough votes to make it into parliament last June. But this cannot explain why overall support for Smer and its former coalition partners (Smer, LS-HZDS, and the ultranationalist Slovak National Party (SNS)) has increased from 45% to 50% in the two months since Slovak voters ousted them.  

One could argue that this also represents a bandwagon effect – Smer, which won more votes than any other single party on June 12, is becoming more popular. What is not typical is that the four-party right-wing/liberal coalition that replaced Fico (the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) and Híd-Most) has been unable to gain momentum since taking power; their poll ratings have either stagnated or edged up just slightly. This means that if elections were held now, Fico and SNS leader Jan Slota would beset Prime Minister Iveta Radicova’s government 48% to 40%. The upcoming corruption investigations and search for “skeletons” can challenge Fico’s popularity, but it won’t weaken the strong pressure from the opposition. And, if some austerity measures will be implemented, the populist rhetorics of Smer can remain attractive. 

One possible reason is the coalition parties’ squabbling over the governing program. Practically every member of the coalition, especially the SaS, was forced to compromise; voters may believe the parties they voted for two months ago have abandoned the most attractive parts of their election manifestos. This has also led to internal strife within the parties; some SaS caucus members have even threatened to quit the coalition.

These figures indicate Radicova will have a tough time governing and that Fico may find his way back to power. There is absolutely no guarantee the new coalition will be able to complete its four-year parliamentary term, especially given its paper-thin parliamentary majority (79-71) and a tough opposition like Smer.

What makes the government work a bit easier, is that after the forthcoming local elections in November, a period of 3 years will begin without any elections at all. Preliminary elections in the SK political system are almost impossible (it needs a constitutional majority: 90 votes out of 150 in the parliament), so the government should focus on maintaining its thin parliamentary majority. As the Finance Minister is drafting ambitious austerity measures, the real test will be the vote over the 2011 budget.

Péter Krekó – Csaba Molnár

Slovakia’s Language Law: The Clash of Insecurities

February 17, 2010 6 comments

Nationalism loves nothing like uncertainty. People who feel insecure about their place in the global pecking order compensate with patriotic zealotry. Politicians love to manipulate this anxiety with vague, hard-to-pin-down policies on national greatness. Ambiguity is key: It makes it easier to deflect criticism from uppity liberals at home and gives them broad wiggle-room in the face of international condemnation.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has demonstrated a genius for nebulous nationalism in his handling of Slovakia’s amendments to its language law. The new rules, which took effect in January, are designed to force Slovakia’s ethnic Hungarian population to speak more Slovak. Yet they are shrouded in such obscurity that people have broad freedom to read them as they please. This is a gift for nationalists not just in Slovakia, but in Hungary, with even Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai – not known for chauvinistic posturing – getting in on the game. The opposition Fidesz party, which is all but certain to replace Bajnai’s Socialists in Hungary’s April elections, is likely to escalate the tension. The ultra right-wing Jobbik party, which could conceivably beat the Socialists into second place next April, will certainly hold Slovakia’s feet to the fire.

Hungarian Communities in Slovakia: Red = >50%, Yellow = 10-50%, Blue = <10%

The gist of the law is that Slovakia’s 520,000-strong ethnic Hungarian minority can get fined up to €5,000 if they use any language other than Slovak in government settings, unless the local population is more than 20% Hungarian. This raises Fico’s standing among nationalist voters and scares the stuffing out of ethnic Hungarians, which increases the likelihood that Fico will keep his job in Slovakia’s elections in June. The fact that not a single individual has been prosecuted under the law – and Fico has pledged that none will – is immaterial.

Bajnai, who knows a vote-magnet when he sees it, established a HUF 50 million (€183,848) fund on February 1 to pay the fines of ethnic Hungarians who breach the language law. Anyone can contribute to the fund, raising the possibility that wealthy Hungarian emigrés will rally to the cause. The fund is fodder for nationalists. Slovakia’s Culture Ministry complained that Bajnai is interfering in Slovakia’s domestic affairs. The Slovak National Party, a member of the governing coalition, accused Hungary of encouraging Slovak citizens to break the law.

In Hungary, Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán pledged his wholehearted support for the fund. Fidesz takes a much more strident tone on Slovakia’s Language Act than Bajnai’s Socialists: “They need to get over the fact that we exist,” said Zsolt Németh, Fidesz’s point man on foreign affairs, in a July 2009 interview with FigyelőNet. “When [Hungarian diplomats] are on the offensive, their words must not be subject to interpretation.”

What is subject to interpretation is the Slovak Language Act itself. Under pressure from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Fico’s government adopted a set of 21 non-binding criteria under which the law is to be enforced. The guidelines say that any fine must be justified by at least six of these criteria; however, the law contains no such provision, according to Lukáš Fila, who writes on the language law at Slovak newspaper Sme. It is thus unclear what constitutes a punishable violation.

Fico’s criteria contain other absurdities. “You are not allowed to use a minority language when talking to the postman if you are in a place where fewer than 20 percent of the population belongs to that minority,” Fila said. “The guidelines say you can, providing you both agree to do so – and everyone else who is present also gives their consent.”

This is what happens when national insecurities clash: Fico, whose country has only existed in its current form for 17 years, sallies forth like Don Quixote to slay the dragon of Hungarian hegemony – a threat that does not exist. The Hungarians, still miffed about losing most of their land after World War I, rush to help their kinfolk fight a ridiculous law that has little chance of being enforced. All the more absurd, given that Hungary is Slovakia’s fifth-biggest foreign investor, having sunk nearly €2.1 billion into the country.

It is no accident that all this is happening against the backdrop of elections in both countries. The likely winners – Orbán and Fico – share the same admiration for big-government policies tinged with nationalist rhetoric. It is precisely this similarity that will make it impossible for them to cooperate.

Alex Kuli

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