Wednesday, March 7, 2012

No One Seems to Know Who the Hell to Vote For (Trying to Make Sense of Slovakia's Political Landscape).

Slovakia is having special elections this week, prompted by Prime Minister Iveta Radičová's governing coalition falling out of power after losing a vote of confidence in parliament back in mid-October. Radičová's coalition went down in flames after fierce debate over whether Slovakia should help bail out Greece. Parliament initially voted against it, but then held a second vote wherein the aid was narrowly approved. But that came at the expense of Radičová's coalition. 

I may be oversimplifying, but basically, most of Slovakia's general population resents having to help countries like Greece, because the amount Slovakia would have to pony up would put the country much deeper into debt, and more importantly, because average wages and retirement pensions are so pitifully and insultingly low in this country, especially compared with the rest of the EU. Overall, Slovakia is a poor country with staggering unemployment (as of February it was shown to be hovering just below 14%), with more than enough problems of its own, so people view having to help bail out Greece as a massive burden, from both a practical and symbolic standpoint. 

At any rate, with Radičová's coalition parties in total disarray after the vote of no confidence, the opposition, headed by the Smer party's Robert Fico, has been seen as a shoe-in. Fico's coalition led parliament from 2006-2010, and he's actually been around since before the Velvet Revolution. However, he is a controversial and polarizing figure. I get the sense that Fico gets a lot of support from people out in the country (mainly older and more rural voters), while I've met people here in Bratislava who absolutely detest him. 

Adding significantly to the chaos of the current political climate is the "Gorilla" scandal. Numerous elites on both sides of the political spectrum have been implicated in what has turned out to be a case of widespread corruption. Basically, during the government of Mikuláš Dzurinda, which held office from 2002-2006, senior officials were meeting in a secret apartment in Bratislava, making illegal deals with multinational corporations (most notably, the Penta Financial Group) regarding privatization and large-scale public procurement. Somehow catching wind of this, the police wire-tapped the apartment and recorded hours of damaging conversations among countless government officials from multiple political parties (including Fico's Smer). The transcripts from the wire-tapping, known as the "Gorilla" file, hung in a complicated political limbo for a few years until it was leaked to the media in December, which prompted the government to reopen the case, and resulted in widespread protests from a public that wants to see these politicians held accountable. (This article gives a good overview of the scandal). 

There have been numerous demonstrations, ongoing news stories, court hearings with politicians sitting on the stand listening to themselves on tape, etc., and it's pretty much put Fico's once formidable political opponents in complete disarray. Even though Fico's Smer party has been implicated in this as well, it hasn't seemed to damage his "brand" as much. Plus, he's such a well-known and familiar face, that he's probably going to get the vote based on name-recognition alone. 

In light of all this, Slovak evening news has been reporting that many people are at a total loss as to who to vote for. People are apparently sick of Fico, but they're kind of resigned to his winning back control of Parliament, because his opponents have not been able to get their proverbial shit together in the midst of the "Gorilla" scandal. Some people may simply sit this election out. At this point, nobody likes anyone! This reminds me of how former Italian Prime-Minister Silvio Berlusconi stayed in power through much of the 00s. Very few people actually liked him, everyone knew he was corrupt, but his opponents simply couldn't get it together and unseat him (at least not for any significant length of time), and many people voted for him simply because his was the only name on the ballot they were familiar with. At any rate, it'll be interesting to see what happens here.  

Ultimately, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the general political dynamic in this country. In doing so, I'm finding that it's impossible to fit the American "left vs. right" template over Slovakia's political divide. For example, Fico is technically considered center-left, but from everything I've read and heard, he is "left" only from an economic standpoint, and even then, partly because of his ties to the Communist regime from before the Velvet Revolution. Radičová and her coalition are broadly considered center-right (Radičová's own SDKU-DS party is technically "liberal-conservative"), but similarly, they appear to be conservative primarily from an economic "pro-business/laissez-faire" standpoint. This is where the "left vs. right" paradigm differs from the US, for obvious reasons. 

On social issues, Fico fits right in with hard-line American conservative values: he's extremely nationalistic, anti-immigration, and has supported hugely xenophobic and discriminatory policies. He has also allied his Smer party with extremist Jan Slota's dangerously nationalist Slovak National Party, by including him in his governing coalition. Fico (in cahoots with Slota) was instrumental in passing laws that made it illegal for people to speak Hungarian in "official" settings, as well as outlawing dual-citizenship with the sole aim of thwarting Hungarian citizens' requests for Slovak citizenship. Any of this sound vaguely familiar? Cough.. Arizona. (Hungarians make up 10% of Slovakia's population, and many families were severed when the border between the two countries was drawn, while others fled south under apparent pressure, resulting in lots of dual-citizenship requests). Several years ago, before the language law was passed, a Hungarian woman in Nitra, named Hedvig Malina, was savagely beaten by some nationalist thugs who overheard her speaking Hungarian on her cell phone. Fico had the gall to accuse her of making the whole thing up. Not a likable guy if you value things like ethnic and cultural diversity.  

By contrast, when her coalition came to power, Radičová worked "to rebuild links with Hungary that were badly damaged by the adoption of contentious language and citizenship laws." Based on what I've read, she condemned these laws as distractions from more important issues at hand. She worked with the Slovak-Hungarian Most-Hid party to at least amend some of the laws. 

What was troubling for me is that when I spoke with some Slovak people about Fico's nationalistic, anti-Hungarian tendencies, they just shrugged their shoulders and said, "Well, he had to do that to secure enough votes from his base - from all the people out in the country." I tried to explain that that's no excuse - it's still blatantly discriminatory, and that alone would be enough for me to not support the guy. But they didn't seem particularly bothered by this. 

Obviously attitudes like these are quite problematic for me since I spent 30 years of my life in the ethnically diverse cultural stew that is the San Francisco Bay Area. I value that kind of diversity, and find it sad and unsettling when others don't. Now, on one level, I think Slovakians are wary of Hungarians based on events that happened in the past. Slovakia was part of (and Slovaks were ruled by) Hungary for many centuries. As a result, I suspect Slovakians feel a need to assert their own cultural/national identity. But even so, I still think it's hugely important that these two societies learn how to coexist without animosity or hostility. As such, I think Fico and his nationalist cronies have done quite a lot of damage, and I really hope they don't pick up where they left off, should they win this election. 

At any rate, I could be severely oversimplifying things here, but I'm getting the sense that Fico's "center-left" coalition is basically made up of old-school Communist types. Fico has his roots in the pre-Velvet Revolution years, when he held some rookie position in the government. These Communist-era relics, despite whatever economic policies they espouse, seem to appeal to an older, more rural, and more socially conservative voter base, and would appear far-right on many issues by American standards. 

But this isn't a clear case of role-reversal. The center-right parties, while less interested in making life difficult for Hungarians, are far from being flaming liberals. They seem to appeal to the younger, money-making yuppies that populate Bratislava, and seem to be pro-business in ways that might make your typical Berkeley liberal roll his or her eyes. Their policies are said by some to have benefitted big-business while doing harm to lower classes and the unemployed.  

Terezia (who, having lived in the US for 15 years, is trying to get a handle on all this as well) suspects that it's simply a matter of Slovakia being such a staunchly conservative country, that there really is no "progressive left" as we know and define it in countries like the US. For starters, Slovakia is nearly as catholic as Poland, and due to its time spent isolated behind the iron curtain, and by dint of it not having any larger, more ethnically/culturally diverse cities or greater metropolitan areas, it has remained more traditional and conservative overall. I think there could be something to this. 

But, I digress. Getting back to my original point, I'm curious to see how these special elections pan out. Plus, like I keep saying, I'm still just trying to make sense of all this, and this post should only be seen as the rambling observations of a foreigner who is trying to sort it all out. 

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