Slovaks veer left after scandals

By bne IntelliNews March 12, 2012

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The opposition leader and former prime minister Robert Fico completed a remarkable comeback on March 10 when his leftist party Smer (Direction) won a landslide 44% share of the vote, giving it 83 seats in the 150-member assembly. It is the first time since Slovakia became independent in 1993 that any party has won enough seats to rule without a coalition partner and left it just shy of the three-fifths majority that would have allowed it to unilaterally amend the constitution.

President Ivan Gasparovic said at a news conference after the results were in that he would ask Fico's party to form a new government. Fico's previous coalition partner when he was prime minister between 2006 and 2010, the Slovak National Party, did not clear the 5% threshold for representation in parliament this time.

Five other parties cleared the 5% threshold - just. Almost tied for second place, on 8.8% and 8.6% respectively, were the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and Ordinary People and Independent Personalities, which campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket. Then came Most-Hid on 6.9%, followed by the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) on 6.1% and Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) on 5.9%.

Fico said he would strengthen the social safety net for the poor while also pledging to adhere to the EU-mandated deficit target of below 3% of GDP for next year, in part by ending Slovakia's flat income tax and raising rates for high earners and corporations to 22%.

The fresh elections were held more than two years early because the previous coalition under the leadership of PM Iveta Radicova fractured in October over legislation to expand a euro bailout fund. After Radicova lost a vote of confidence on the measure, Fico and his party agreed to supply the votes needed to pass it, but only in return for these early elections.

But what dominated the campaign - the dirtiest, said many, in the country's young history - was a toxic series of corruption scandals that rocked the coalition.

Dirty war

The first salvo in this dirty war was the publication last December of a secret service file, code-named "Gorilla". The 100-page Gorilla document comprised a dozen transcripts of conversations that were allegedly recorded in a bugged residential apartment in Bratislava in 2005 and 2006. In the file, a cabinet minister, a senior government bureaucrat and a shareholder in the shadowy Penta investment group appeared to discuss kickbacks for the sale of state assets, such as electricity and heating plants. The original audio tapes were destroyed in 2008 by the secret service, but the transcripts were described as "authentic" by Justice Minister Daniel Lipsic in February.

"Gorilla" dealt a heavy blow to Radicova's coalition, since those parties were in power at the time the tapes were made and appear to have regularly taken kickbacks from privatization sales. Two of the parties that anchored the Radicova government, the pro-business SDKU and the free market SaS, were polling numbers ahead of the election that suggested they would have trouble surpassing the 5% threshold to get into parliament.

The news got steadily worse for SaS leader Richard Sulik with the publication in February of another series of intercepted conversations, codenamed "Sasanka" (sea-anemone). These tapes, recorded last year, caught Sulik discussing sensitive political matters with a shady local businessman Maros Kocner, and revealing that he had been ready to help oust Prime Minister Radicova.

Then it was the turn of one of the newest entrants on the Slovak political stage - the populist 99% party, which ended up with less than 2% of the vote. Slovak police in late February began investigating allegations of fraud involving the party's registration form. Police chief Jaroslav Spisiak revealed that many of the 10,000 signatures the party was required to submit to the Interior Ministry at its founding were provided by people who at the time had been in prison, in hospital or working abroad.

Months of incessant scandals have swollen the ranks of disgruntled votes. The worry was that voter turnout would be less 50% as a result, but in the end the turnout at 59.1% exceeded analysts' predictions. "Even more dangerous than these individual scandals is the fact that people's faith in country's institutions, such as parliament or the secret service, is being eroded," says Alexej Fulmek, publisher of the country's leading broadsheet SME. "The irony is that no fundamental tragedy is occurring in Slovakia, certainly not in comparison with other countries in the region."

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