A Referendum on the State of the Soul

15. 3. 2017

Slovakia’s presidential election will reveal the undercurrents in society

Last winter a photo went viral on the Internet. It showed two cars zigzagging down the road, one in Austria and one in Slovakia. The caption read: what is the difference between the drivers? And the answer went: the Austrian is drunk, the Slovak is sober. The joke was an allusion to the dismal state of Slovak roads, so riddled with potholes that any driver who was sober and did not want to ruin his car had to zigzag around them like a drunk. However, a few months later the joke lost its edge as by the summer most of the damaged roads, even in the remotest parts of the country, were covered with brand new tarmac.

Driving through Slovak villages on the new tarmac I—or rather, my car—have enjoyed this transformation, and what has struck me is that the houses have undergone a similar transformation. Newly waterproofed and with a fresh lick of paint, they sport new roofs and plastic windows and their gardens boast manicured lawns and wooden gazebos. While this does not apply to every single house enough of them have been benefited for Slovak villages to suddenly show a bright new face.

There are psychological reasons for both transformations. The government knows full well that the Slovaks are devoted to their cars and that they will bear an eternal grudge if their cars are damaged by potholes. That is why the authorities reached deep into their pockets and had the roads repaired in record time. But if there is anything the Slovaks love more than their cars it is their homes. So much so that they will immediately plough any money left over from their wages into making them more beautiful.

Both transformations are signs of the country’s rather stunning economic growth, which many Slovaks—to go back to psychology— associate with their Prime Minister, Robert Fico. For the past ten years his leading position in the polls has been unassailable and in the 2012 general election his party, Smer, which calls itself “social democratic,” garnered enough votes to secure a parliamentary majority and enable it to form a government without having to enter into a coalition with any other party.

Smer currently controls virtually all the state institutions including the judiciary and— in conjunction with the country’s oligarchs—also key parts of the economy except perhaps for the office of the President, held by the colorless outgoing Ivan Gašparovič, who was elected with the support of Fico’s Smer but is technically independent. However, Robert Fico has taken great pains to conceal from the Slovaks a shift towards a soft authoritarianism, leaving the public space, including the media, largely free and occasionally even making state funds available to support NGOs that have been critical of his government.

Fico seems to have worked out what makes the average Slovak tick: it is a longing for a strong leader who, at the same time, does not offend their longing for dignity and at least a semblance of freedom. He doesn’t impose any ideology on the people since he doesn’t really have one himself, even though he professes his commitment to the Left. He comes across as a determined man who can be quite rough in arguing his case with the opposition or journalists but his policies are in fact quite conventional and under his leadership the country has been running solely through the force of inertia.

In a way, Robert Fico’s story challenges us to seek the answer to a more general question: what is the meaning of politics. In Central Europe we seem to have got accustomed to regarding politics purely as a power struggle. But the reason why we see it that way is that power tends to be rather fragile and that is why it has to be constantly fought for. Only two politicians so far have so much power they no longer have to fight for it: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Slovakia’s Robert Fico.

So how did they use their power? In other words, what purpose does their power and, by extension, their policies serve? Orbán is determined to use his power to effect a complete transformation of his country, to imprint on it his own view of the past and the present. He understands power as a tool for implementing his vision (a vision that I, personally, consider insane). And Robert Fico? After devoting twenty years entirely to the pursuit of power and having achieved this almost absolutely, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it and, indeed, seems to be tired of exercising it. He has no intention of transforming the country because he lacks a vision he could impose on it. His great strength has always been grasping what the people want: well-kept roads and some extra cash to spruce up their homes. But is that it? What is it that he wants for himself? What is the point of politics if it is uncoupled from the struggle for power?

Fico has come up with the only possible way of avoiding the answer to this question: to stand for the office of president, which offers a type of power he has yet to taste.

Searching for a Cause

Regardless of the outcome, his decision will have a significant impact on the country as a whole. For the past two years under Fico’s premiership, Slovakia has been in a kind of political limbo, enjoying a respite from major scandals; the fragmented right-of-centre opposition has been absorbed in navel-gazing and the population has withdrawn into their private lives, greeting political debates on the TV with a massive yawn.

All this will change with the March presidential election. If Fico becomes President, his party will be also formally in control of all state institutions and offices. On the other hand, he is likely to be succeeded as Prime Minister by the current Minister of the Interior, Robert Kaliňák, who lacks Fico’s political talent and instinct, and without its leader (who has publicly pledged to give up the party leadership post if elected President) Smer will be weakened and may even splinter, opening a new chapter in Slovak politics. Should Fico lose the election, he will continue as Prime Minister although nobody, presumably including himself, has any idea how the defeat might change him and what its impact on his party will be. Besides— whoever becomes President—it will spell the end of Smer’s hegemony in Slovak politics.

It is already evident that the spring will bring a political awakening to Slovakia and that society will be stirred by new undercurrents that have been quietly swirling below the surface of apparent political stagnation.

What is the nature of these undercurrents? Nobody is quite sure, but the presidential campaign is likely to provide some clues. In spite of many disadvantages, the election of the president by popular vote has one indisputable advantage: it offers surprising key insights into society’s state of mind. Last year’s presidential election in the neighboring Czech Republic turned into a kind of referendum on the national character, as Miloš Zeman’s coarse humor, perpetual cigarette and glass of wine or vodka, and particularly his crude brand of nationalism, trounced Karel Schwarzenberg’s aristocratic refinement.

Until recently, nationalism served as a reliable path to victory and an almost indispensable part of campaigning in Slovakia. However, the issue has lost some of its luster now that all the candidates (save one, who represents the Hungarian minority and therefore, naturally, doesn’t stand a chance) have undisputed Slovak credentials and CVs graced with a more or less visible nationalist track record. As a result, homosexuality has emerged as the number one issue, having been bubbling under the surface since the Catholic Church brought it up last summer.

This is not entirely surprising given that Slovakia, like Poland, has a strong Catholic tradition. However, what distinguishes the two countries’ churches is the fact that in Slovakia the church disgraced itself during World War II by collaborating with Hitler and this dealt quite a serious blow to its moral authority and prevented it from regaining its once pivotal political influence. Nevertheless, last summer in Košice the Church managed to organize an 80,000—strong march—the largest rally since the mass protests of 1989. A kind of counter-event to the Gay Pride parade in Bratislava that attracted a mere 1,000 participants, it served as a test of the Church’s strength. Since then the Church has stepped up its activities, culminating in a pastoral letter before Christmas, which was read from pulpits countrywide and condemned a so-called “culture of death,” its term for the right to same-sex marriage and the right of homosexual couples to raise children. As these rights have the backing of the European Union, this was also an indirect attack on the Slovak government, which has pursued consistently pro-European policies.

Although Fico protested and asked the Church to stay out of politics, he kicked off his presidential campaign with a video in which he talks about his Catholic upbringing and regular church visits as a child (he conveniently left out the fact that as a young man he was a strict atheist and had joined the Communist Party).

Four Conservatives and a Liberal

Four of the presidential candidates who might face Fico in the second round (he is certain to get that far) participated in the Košice “March for Life” and have spoken out—some more strongly than others—against extending the rights of gay people. The four include political veteran and Christian Democrat Pavol Hrušovský; former dissident and founder of Slovakia’s Christian Democracy Ján Čarnogurský, who has mutated into an aggressive conservative and admirer of Russia’s President Putin; lawyer Radoslav Procházka, a relatively young Christian Democrat and intellectual heavyweight; and last but not least the rich entrepreneur, philanthropist and moderate conservative Andrej Kiska, who is currently the strongest among the these four candidates.

All four harshly criticized Fico for the country’s rampant corruption and crooked judiciary, as well as for his dictatorial tendencies and concentrating power in his own hands. All of them—again to varying degrees—have also defined themselves as more conservative than Fico. Hrušovský and Čarnogurský have gone as far as to demand a constitutional amendment that would enshrine marriage as an exclusive bond between a man and a woman. Čarnogurský has praised Putin for the Russian law banning homosexual propaganda.

The four candidates also have a weakness in common: a lack of charisma and the ability to stand their ground in tough verbal duels, something that Fico excels in. If any of them makes it into the second round, he is unlikely to mobilize and unite Slovak voters against Fico.

Insider rumors have it that the only rival Fico regards as a real threat is a candidate I have yet to introduce. He is Milan Kňažko, who came to prominence as an actor but is chiefly remembered for his rabble-rousing speeches during the November 1989 revolution. After a stint in politics, he was a head of a commercial TV channel before returning to acting. He is just as sharp-tongued as Fico and is famous for his sarcastic put-downs of his opponents. In a word, he is the same breed of alpha male as Fico.

His chances of making it into the second round are quite good and, should he succeed, the presidential election would move to a different plane altogether. Kňažko is a liberal and the only presidential candidate to openly support gay rights (Fico has painstakingly avoided the issue). Moreover, he represents the legacy of November 1989. His challenge to Fico would reopen the debate on how Slovakia has dealt not only with its communist past but also with 25 years of democracy, years the voters have too often entrusted to former communist officials, from the dictatorial Vladimír Mečiar to Fico. The result is relative economic prosperity on the one hand and, on the other, a profound disillusionment with the political elites, with their striking arrogance and contempt for ethical principles.

Shiny new roads and a fresh lick of paint on village houses are both a material and symbolic representation of the state of Slovak society: the surface has been fixed but what about what lurks underneath? Can a nation sustain itself forever without ideas, without a sense of nationhood and a vision for the future?

Dangerous Helplessness

The Slovaks have shown in the past that when push comes to shove they can make up their mind and mobilize behind an idea. This is exactly what happened in 1988 when Vladimír Mečiar was defeated, paving the way for the country’s accession to the European Union. On that day the Slovaks matured into a political nation that knows what it wants.

However, that was quite a long time ago. The evident helplessness of social and political elites has unleashed dangerous and powerful dark undercurrents, from the hatred of gays to the hatred of Roma, whose miserable life on social benefits in slums on the outskirts of villages gives rise to profound frustration and a sense of menace rather than sympathy. Last autumn a certain Marián Kotleba, a fully-fledged neo-Nazi, won a regional election in Central Slovakia following a campaign based on overt racism and Romabashing (and also gay-bashing, of course).

The presidential election will prove to be a catalyst of more than just political life, since it is likely to shake up the rather artificial and now rigid construction of the united Left that Fico has assembled. It will also reveal the real state of the soul of many Slovaks. The people understand that this election will not have a real impact on their living standards as the President’s relatively limited authority prevents him from exerting an influence on the country’s economic life. Rather, their vote will be a reflection of state of their soul, of their fears and dreams. Let us hope it does not all end up as a nightmare.

Martin M. Šimečka

Milan M. Šimečka is a Slovak author and journalist. He was one of the Slovak authors who published in “Samizdat literature” during Communism. His novel The Year of the Frog has been translated into English, French and other languages and he won the L. A. Times Book Prize in 1994. He was one of the founders of the revolutionary public movement against Violence in Slovakia in November 1989. Martin also founded the independent publishing house Archa. He later became editor-in-chief of Domino-forum. He acted as editor-in-chief of SME, Slovakia’s leading daily newspaper, and later as editor-in-chief of Respekt, a well-known Czech weekly. He has been a commentator for Dennik N, a newly founded daily newspaper in Slovakia since 2016.

Last edited October 2022.

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