Corruption rife, but fails to rile Slovak voters

By bne IntelliNews April 14, 2010

Tom Nicholson in Bratislava -

It had all the elements of a political bombshell. Only weeks before parliamentary elections, leaked police documents showed that two businessmen with ties to the Slovak ruling coalition had orchestrated last year's sale of carbon emission credits for half their market value, costing taxpayers €50m-75m. The scandal had already led to the dismissal of three ministers for the Slovak National Party, a junior coalition partner, in 2009; now it threatened to taint Prime Minister Robert Fico's ruling Smer as well.

But with the Slovak voter as preoccupied as ever with unemployment and social spending, this was one bomb that (so far) failed to explode. Claiming to be the architect of the emissions sale - as well as a confidant of "the Sultan of Indonesia" - colourful local entrepreneur Rastislav Bilas called a press conference on March 24 at which he claimed to have acted alone, without political backing. Even before Bilas promised to return the emissions quotas and the money, interest in the story began to ebb.

Eight parties in Slovakia stand a chance of winning seats in parliament in the June 12 ballot. Fico's left-wing Smer remains far ahead of the field, with nearly 40% in most polls compared with the low teens for the main opposition challenger, the centre-right Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU). Six others have a chance to scrape in over the 5% threshold for representation - Fico's two coalition partners; two ethnic Hungarian parties; the Christian Democrats; and a new entry, the free-market Freedom and Solidarity. "These elections will be about one thing - which party manages to convince the voter that it is most likely to ensure their economic well-being," says Grigorij Meseznikov, the Russian-born director of the Institute for Public Affairs, a Bratislava think-tank. "Indicators show that corruption in Slovakia has increased [since the Fico government came to power in 2006], while the quality of democracy has decreased, but most voters do not register these things."

Indeed, as Fico's enduring popularity demonstrates, corruption is a non-starter as a political topic. Slovakia dropped half a point last year in Transparency International's corruption index, from 5.0 to 4.5 out of a possible 10 points, the worst score in Central Europe and one of the biggest downgrades in the world. Scandals like "emission-gate" have been weekly fare in the local press. And yet the prime minister's political fortunes remain unaffected. "Long-term poll results show that Slovak voters place economic concerns above all else, and that trend has only been supported by the financial crisis," says Meseznikov. "Besides, voters are not convinced that this government is any more corrupt than those that have gone before."

Rise of the right

During his first term, Fico has increased spending on the poor - a Christmas bonus for pensioners, increased payouts for first-time parents - while rolling back some of the previous SDKU government's most unpopular reforms, such as a fee for visiting a doctor or filling a prescription. At the same time, he has resisted the temptation to tinker with former PM Mikulas Dzurinda's more successful moves, such as introducing a flat tax and entering the Eurozone. As a result, he can claim to have introduced a "social state" without endangering public finances. "We intend to preserve all of the social benefits we introduced since 2006," said Fico as he unveiled his Smer party's programme on April 6. "We aren't going to take money out of people's wallets."

Smer's continued success with building its "social state" has brought the opposition SDKU towards the centre. The party that earlier this decade reformed the tax, pension and healthcare systems, and sold off most remaining state companies is now proposing subsidies for the middle class and families with young children, as well as increased spending on education. "There is more than one kind of social state," says the SDKU's election leader Iveta Radicova. "We'll see which one convinces voters."

If there is a wildcard issue in these elections, it may be the rise of the radical right in neighbouring Hungary, where the black-uniformed Jobbik party captured almost 17% of the vote on April 10.

The presence of Jobbik in the Hungarian parliament will help Fico legitimize cooperation with the Slovak National Party under their gypsy-baiting leader Jan Slota. Fico's Smer party was initially suspended from full membership in the Party of European Socialists due to its coalition with Slota, but his status was restored last December. A defiant Fico refused to rule out working with the nationalists again after

June elections. "We will not exclude anybody, nor will we let ourselves be pushed into anything," he said.

Jobbik's success will also boost the election fortunes of the Slovak National Party, for whom Hungary-bashing is its political raison d'etre. "The results of elections in Hungary are bad news for Slovakia, because they continued the long-term trend towards the radicalization of Hungarian politics," says Anna Belousovova, the party's deputy leader.

And as much as some opposition parties would like to replace the nationalists in a second Fico government - the Christian Democrats and the two ethnic Hungarian parties have not ruled out working with Fico - the prime minister may have little motivation to change his current coalition make-up. "Fico's government is internationally accepted, and he has shown he can carry out a social programme, give or take the occasional corruption scandal," says Meseznikov. "I am told he promised the European socialists privately that he wouldn't work with the nationalists again, but I'm sure in a pinch he could argue that he had no alternative."

While the outcome may be in little doubt, the election campaign still promises to be entertaining. Fico has vowed to travel to Switzerland personally to expose "money laundering" in the financing of his SDKU rivals, while Swiss police documents seem to show that the emissions scandal profited one of the sponsors of Fico's Smer. Stay tuned.

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