Monday, March 31, 2014

Slovakia's 2014 presidential election, Part 2: Kiska wins

So, I realize that I completely dropped the ball on my promise to give you a presidential election update after the first round on March 15 (see first election post here), but I wanted to wait to see how the campaign between Robert Fico and Andrej Kiska developed, as some rather odd things were going on in those intervening two weeks. But then I got busy with various things and the days kind of whisked by, and suddenly here we are, a couple days after the second and final round of the election, where to the shock of many, Kiska, a former businessman, philanthropist and independent candidate with zero political experience, came out of nowhere to beat Fico in what has to be one of the biggest political upsets in the history of modern, independent Slovakia.

Here's how it went down. 

In the weeks leading up to the first round, the vast majority of the polls were saying that Fico and Kiska would advance to face each other in the run-off, which is obviously what happened. What pundits and pollsters weren't anticipating, however, is just how poorly Fico would fare in the fist round. He did manage to come out on top, but with only 28% of the vote, much lower than the 30-something percent or higher that many were expecting. Adding insult to injury, Kiska trailed him by a mere 4 points.

Another surprise in that first round was how well independent/right-leaning Radoslav Procházka did: third place, with 21% of the vote - considerably more than polls forecast (which often had him at around 12%), and losing to Kiska by a 3 measly points. Milan Kňažko came in fourth, with 12.9%, although interestingly, he won overwhelmingly in Bratislava, which prompted him to announce that he's now considering a run for Bratislava mayor in the next race. 

Pavol Hrušovský, the candidate of the KDH and the People's Platform (a coalition uniting all the centre-right opposition parties in parliament) and Fico's only opponent affiliated with/endorsed by any of parliamentary opposition parties, came in with a humiliating 3.33%. In fact, this crushing defeat has essentially ended the People's Platform. 

The campaign gets ugly

So, with the race narrowed down to Fico and Kiska, the mudslinging shifted into high gear. Fico hit hard by accusing Kiska of having ties to Scientology. Yup, you read that correctly. Apparently, Kiska wrote a book some years back which was published by a company whose owner is the president of the School of Management of L. Ron Hubbard. That publisher also wrote the foreword to the book. Kiska also participated in some business seminars/lectures put on by an institution that was also said to have Scientology links. But Kiska denied the allegations, saying he had no idea about the publisher's Scientologist ties, and that it was just an opportunity for him to get published, and that if he'd known about the Scientology thing, he'd have kept shopping his book around. Some have said they believe Kiska probably just made a simple, stupid mistake, and didn't properly vet who he was working with. 

But Fico refused to let it go. In one of several debates leading up to the run-off, Fico had the audacity to proclaim that since one of Kiska's former lending companies was called Triangel, and since Scientology uses the triangle as a symbol, therefore Kiska must be a Scientologist! You've got to love the logic of that. 

Kiska countered that the company had been created as a subsidiary of an already established US company called Triangel Int'l Group, and called Fico's accusation preposterous. 

Of course in the end, no actual evidence emerged of Kiska having ties to Scientology, and a representative of Scientology in central Europe made a public statement denying that Kiska had anything to do with the cult. (Let's just hope Tom Cruise never gets an invitation to the Presidential Palace). But the simple fact that the seed had been planted in the minds of the public had some people worried that voters in this deeply catholic country might get scared and vote for Fico. 

Fico also accused Kiska of having been a loan shark when running his money-lending firms. Now, Kiska had been facing these allegations even leading up to the first round, but no one seemed to be able to substantiate that claim with tangible proof. I would think it wouldn't be that difficult to track down and talk to some people who took out loans from Kiska's companies, or to locate some old contracts and read the fine print. One figure that was floating around was that he was charging 14% interest on personal loans (not sure if this was totally verified, though), which, while not ideal, isn't so different from what many banks would charge, and wouldn't qualify him as a loan shark. Keep in mind, there are some seriously sketchy non-banking money-lending companies in Slovakia who have been known to charge 100% interest, but no one produced any shred of evidence showing that Kiska was swimming in the same waters as those particular kinds of sharks. 

At one point news emerged that the police were given orders from higher up to look back into cases of suicides by anyone who'd taken out a loan that they couldn't pay back. This was a pretty low blow, and needless to say, they didn't find anything. The Interior Minister denied that police were being misused to dig up dirt on Kiska, saying they were simply collecting statistics on suicides related to non-licensed loan institutions, but not the firms that Kiska ran. 

Kiska also claimed that former employees of his were allegedly offered bribes in exchange for any dirt that could discredit him. He even said that some people were offered a €10,000 bribe to provide false testimony. When asked if he thought Smer was behind this, Kiska said, "these people have confirmed to me that people who offered them the bribes were representatives of the ruling party," as reported by TASR newswire.

Despite no evidence to support these allegations, Fico maintained that Kiska was lying throughout the entire campaign. 

Kiska responded to all this by filing a criminal complaint against Fico for libel. He also made references to the controversial Gorilla file, a document leaked to the internet and the media in late 2011 that allegedly contains transcripts of recordings of secret meetings that took place between high-level politicians and prominent higher-ups with the Penta financial group back in 2005-06. Fico was alleged to have attended some of these meetings. 

Some pretty nasty anti-Kiska leaflets made their way around the country during the campaign as well, but Fico denied having any involvement in that. 

For the most part, however, Kiska refrained from fighting back with the same kind of desperate, below-the-belt tactics. He managed to get a few barbs in on the televised debates, but stood his ground when denying all of the crazy allegations. I think voters definitely took note of this. 

The bungled press conference

On Wednesday before the election, Kiska scheduled a live press conference at which Procházka and Kňažko were supposed to show up and publicly endorse him. On a televised debate prior to the first election round, all four of Fico's top challengers promised they would support and vote for whomever made it to the second round. So this conference was their chance to make good on that promise in a very clear and public way. Unfortunately, things didn't go according to the script. 

Firstly, Kňažko, inexplicably, did a no-show. Instead, he made a statement to the media that day that he'd already told the public who he was voting for and had said everything he'd wanted to say on the topic.

Procházka was at least kind enough to show up, but when the cameras were on him, he started waffling, and made kind of a rambling, awkward comment suggesting that people should just vote for whomever they want. Kiska was apparently flummoxed by the whole thing, and the media and Kiska's supporters immediately took Kňažko and Procházka to task. I mean, are these guys' egos really so inflated that they can't leave them at the door for just a few minutes to try and help the better guy win? I mean, come on. 

This perfectly illustrates why the opposition in this country has consistently failed to get its shit together in the two years since Smer took an absolute majority in parliament. Too much clashing of unchecked egos has resulted in the opposition parties splintering into smaller, ineffective factions and rendered them completely useless. This is why the opposition has been in a complete shambles, and Fico has been able to sit there and gleefully watch them self-destruct. 

At any rate, Procházka issued a statement the next day apologizing for his confusing non-endorsement, and said unambiguously that he would be voting for Kiska. Kňažko offered a similar apology. Still, one wouldn't be blamed for wondering how much damage this botched press debacle had done. 

Slovaks vote

Fortunately, it seemed to have zero impact on Kiska. He didn't just defeat Fico, he mopped the floor with him, winning with a whopping 20% lead (Kiska garnered a hair under 60% of the vote, while Fico got 40.6%). This was a colossal, stinging defeat for Fico, who just a few months ago seemed unstoppable. Kiska even won more votes than Fico's Smer party when it won a majority in the 2012 parliamentary elections. 

So, what the hell happened? 

Oddly enough, Smer supporters did go out and vote in pretty big numbers. The news reports are saying that Fico actually did do a good job of mobilizing his base. But it wasn't enough, obviously. There was something about Kiska that voters couldn't resist.

But Kiska didn't win on any particular message that resonated with the public. He is by no means a brilliant orator, he offered no new mind-blowing ideas, he's not cute, and he is a bit lacking in the charisma department. Kiska won partly because people are fed up with the established political parties. Yes, this can be seen as a referendum on Smer/Fico, but also on all of the parties currently in the field. There seems to be a strong anti-establishment mood among voters. I think people are sick of the sense of stagnation, of working hard and getting nowhere, and they genuinely wanted someone with no political baggage, some fresh blood, to come in with a different approach.

A subsequent poll conducted among voters found the following: 89 percent voted for Kiska because they saw him as non-partisan, 84 percent said they liked Kiska’s character, 80 percent appreciated his charity work, and 20 percent said they voted for Kiska to prevent Fico from winning. So, it seems most people were drawn to his not being affiliated with any party and saw him as a kind of neutral personality.

(Interestingly, Terezia's mom worked at the polling station in the village of Lovinobaňa, where she said they got a lot of invalid ballots where people crossed out both names and wrote in things like "piča" [which is Slovakia's term for the English c-word] down below).

I also get the sense that Slovaks aren't as accustomed to negative campaigns and attack ads. In the US attack ads are ubiquitous come election time, and they can be pretty hostile, manipulative, dishonest, and disgusting. No one likes them, but we've come to expect them and roll our eyes when subjected to them. But I think Slovaks aren't so used to this and find the whole thing very off-putting. Several pundits here have said that Fico's negative campaign tactics may have backfired in the end.

The whole Kiska thing reminds me a bit of Ross Perot, the independent candidate who ran against George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton back in 1992. Perot, as you may recall, was that billionaire businessman with a heavy Texas drawl who ran as an independent and funded his whole campaign from his own pocket. He actually managed to garner considerable support from frustrated moderate voters who were disappointed with the Republicans, but not convinced by the Democrats. In the end Perot won no states, but did get 18.9% of the popular vote. His performance had few precedents in America's two-party system, and he played on a similar kind of voter dissatisfaction with the established parties. 

The problem is, we really don't know that much about Kiska. He's made a lot of general promises, offered some not-too-in-depth views on various things, but we really have no way of knowing just how effective he'll be once in office. We don't know quite what to expect. Voting for Kiska was definitely a gamble. 

While many are relieved that Fico lost (myself and Terezia included), there are a few too many unknowns with Kiska for comfort. Clearly he was the lesser evil, but let's hope he can master what will no doubt be a steep learning curve and be that counterweight to Smer that he promised to be.

That's partly why I was interested in Kňažko. He actually had a political history that one could draw on; although I admitted in my last post that I was having difficulty finding very many details about his years in politics (he mainly spent his time combatting the autocratic Mečiar, but also did a four-year stint as the culture minister. The only negative thing I found were a few articles that made vague references to Kňažko having bought some palatial home in the Bratislava hills whose worth exceeded his salary, implying he may have lined a pocket or two; but I couldn't find anything concrete on this). But the point is, at least he has firsthand experience with the system, and you'd kind of know what to expect.

So, we'll just have to wait and see. Some suspect Fico may try to make life difficult for Kiska. One pundit quipped that Fico might shut off the power to the Presidential Palace. I think the whole nation is wondering how this will all play out.

Of course, Kiska certainly wasn't someone who Terezia and I could get excited about. To us, a vote for Kiska was, like for many people, more a vote against Fico, rather than a vote in support of Kiska. It's always a bummer to have to vote for the lesser evil, when there's no truly inspiring candidate. But coming from the US, I can at least say that I'm certainly used to it. 

So, who voted for Kiska?

Take a look at this interactive map by the news outlet Sme (you can click in the center of each circle to see who won and by what percentage). Kiska (shown in orange) won in all of the bigger cities, and he also got solid support along the southern border with Hungary, where most of the ethnic Hungarian minority in Slovakia lives (Fico has made a habit out of alienating Hungarians). Fico (shown in red) did much better in a lot of the deep rural areas, in those small towns and villages in the sticks (but some of those went for Kiska, too). Fico also did quite well in the adjacent Trenčín and Žilina regions, both of which are located more in the northwestern part of the country. While Kiska still won in the main cities of those regions, Trenčín and Žilina, Fico did really well in the towns that surround them. There is quite a lot of industry in those areas, especially car and auto-parts manufacturing, and Fico is on friendly terms with the trade unions, so that could partly explain it. Also, this part of the country, especially Žilina, is said to be a hotbed of nationalism, and Fico has maintained close ties to certain segments of nationalists (as I mentioned in the last election post, Fico ruled from 2006-10 in a governing coalition with SNS and HZDS, two political parties notorious for their unapologetically nationalist and xenophobic views). Kiska also came out ahead in some of the bigger eastern cities, like Poprad, Prešov, and Košice. But in the more remote far eastern part of the country, it was almost solidly Fico (except down south by the Hungarian border, of course).

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