Benjamin Cunningham in Bratislava -
Slovakia’s divided centre-right opposition has long struggled to beat Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer party in a general election, and the next poll, due in spring 2016, looks no different.
What hope there is rests on the Sieť (“Network”) party, founded by 43-year-old Yale-educated Radoslav Procházka on the back of a third place finish in the 2014 presidential election. Led by former politicians from the SDKU and KDH parties, but attracting many people with no previous experience of politics, it has been the most popular opposition party for the past year.
However, the party’s attempt to brand itself as the newer, cleaner face of Slovak politics was nearly immediately muddied by questions about how Procházka financed his presidential campaign. Leaked audio recordings, in which he attempted to negotiate a discount on campaign advertising, appeared to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of campaign finance laws.
“My campaign was a true startup and you have to do things on your own, our party was funded by a bank loan,” he says. “I was absolved of wrongdoing, there will be people who will always say I have not expressed enough remorse. I made a mistake at the beginning, I learned from it, I apologised and I did not lie.”
Still, there is little denying that the scandal damaged the party’s promising prospects early on. A poll by the Focus agency released on June 16 confirmed that Smer remains by the far the most popular party, with 35.3% support — up 2% on the month before — but still with no natural coalition ally. The centre-right Sieť finished a distant second with 10.9%, followed by the socially conservative Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) at 9.5%, Hungarian minority party Most-Híd with 7.8%, populist Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO) at 7.7% and hard right Slovak National Party (SNS) with 6.4%.
The pollsters translated Smer’s support into 69 parliamentary seats, short of an outright majority in the 150-seat parliament. A coalition of centre-right parties face their own challenges in forming a government with, for example, what would be a messy coalition of Sieť, the KDH, Most-Híd and OĽaNO only controlling 69 seats themselves.
Notably, two of Procházka’s preferred collaborators, the liberal Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) and conservative NOVA, do not meet the 5% threshold to reach parliament in the Focus poll, with SaS getting 4.6% and NOVA just 2.5%. Barring an upset - such as that which helped independent Andrej Kiska beat Fico to become president a year ago - any government without Smer therefore looks unstable to the point of being an impossibility.
“Between 2010-2012 the [coalition centre-right] government spent much of its time and energy on internal disputes, it was a sorry sight,” Procházka says. “We are not going to be a member of a five or six-party coalition, that would simply not serve any good.”
Procházka says 20% of his candidate list will be under 30, and include “a lot” of women. The party’s platform will focus on cleaning up corruption and improving the efficiency of the state. Its two key policy issues are an outright ban on shell companies in the public tender process, and civil liability for public officials when it comes to spending funds.
Meanwhile, Fico’s campaign is likely to be run on numbers — convincing ones. Registered unemployment in May was at 11.48%, a six-year low. The economy is set to grow at more than 3% this year, and the OECD forecasts 3.4% next year. It grew at 3.1% in Q1 2015, the fastest rate in three years. The OECD also forecasts deficits well below the European Union’s important 3% benchmark and falling, 2.7% this year and 2.3% in 2016.
Wearing its leftwing ideology lightly, Smer is looking to team up with a right-leaning party to form a working majority after the election, adopting conservative social policies to draw in the Catholic KDH, or tacking nationalist to draw in the SNS — a formula Fico used in his 2006-2010 government.
Procházka insists his goal is to “replace”, not work with Smer. “I would never sit on the same government with Robert Fico,” Procházka says, though his position is less definitive if Fico were willing to step aside in favour of, say, Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák. “Right now Fico equals Smer,” he says.
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