Sunday, March 9, 2014

Slovakia's 2014 presidential election

Slovaks are electing their new president this year, as current president Ivan Gašparovič's second and final term is about to expire. Slovakia's presidential campaigns are mercifully short, which is especially odd to someone like me from the US, where campaigns drag on for nearly two torturous years. Officially, this year's campaign started on March 1, and on March 15 they will have their first round. If any one candidate nabs over 50% of the vote, he wins, but that rarely, if ever, happens, so they then have a run-off election between the two candidates who won the most votes in the first round.

Just because the campaign doesn't officially begin until a couple weeks before the election doesn't mean that the candidates can't spend any money or time getting their names on the public's radar. A few of the candidates started plastering their pasty mugs on billboards all over the country a year ago. Also, the various polling agencies started conducting their polls many months out. But the campaigning doesn't kick into high gear until a few weeks before the election, which is when they have televised debates and increase their public appearances.

This year there are 14 candidates, but only four of them are considered to be serious contenders.

The most favored to win is Prime Minister Robert Fico. He actually announced his candidacy pretty late in the game in December, well after most of the other players had thrown their hats into the ring. Some suspect that there may have been some hemming and hawing within Robert Fico's Smer party over this given that he is the prime minister. And because he is by far the most familiar and popular face within his party, people are kind of wondering who will be tapped to replace him for a role that holds far more responsibility and authority than the president.

See, in Slovakia the president is really more of a figurehead, a ceremonial position with very limited powers, while the prime minister is, for all intents and purposes, the real head of the government. The president can appoint various state officials and approve or reject appointments made by parliament, and he can sign or veto bills (which parliament can override with a majority vote). But the prime minister has a far more active role in influencing legislation and policy and, hence, the direction of the country. People have speculated that Fico would find the presidency boring and that it would not be surprising if he were to broaden the president's powers. In fact, Fico himself recently said that he would like to see the role of the president grow.

For this reason, it's ideal to have more of a neutral president, or at least someone who isn't necessarily closely allied with whomever has the parliamentary majority (and hence, rules the government), so he can establish more of a balance of power and step in when needed to help resolve disputes that parliament or the government can't work out themselves. But Gašparovič is extremely cozy with Smer, and has rarely ever vetoed their legislation or stood in their way. Some have accused him of being Smer's puppet.

Smer has an absolute parliamentary majority, which has rendered the opposition parties totally impotent. While Gašparovič may as well be a member of Smer because of his close ties, having an actual card-carrying Smer member as president would give Smer complete, unfettered control over the country (Gašparovič has vetoed a law or two of Smer's, or meekly raised the occasional objection, albeit totally in vain). As it stands, there is very little currently that can counter Smer's agenda, and putting Fico in the presidential palace would only exacerbate that.

This is why some suggest that whichever candidate goes up against Fico in the run-off may actually stand a good chance at beating him. In fact, a couple recent polls had independent candidate Andrej Kiska narrowly defeating Fico, while others showed him at least giving Fico a run for his money. Smer and Fico enjoy considerable popularity, but given that nothing has really improved since Smer came to power in 2012 in terms of unemployment, corruption, transparency, standard of living, etc., some Smer supporters may be losing patience, and recent polls seem to back this up.

All of Fico's opponents more or less call for the same things, like ending the rampant corruption in the judiciary, greater government transparency, boosting employment, opposing tax increases, and creating a friendlier business environment, especially with the aim of attracting more foreign investments. But like I mentioned above, the president can only do so much to even attempt to achieve these goals, so while these candidates can make a laundry list of promises, there may not be a helluva lot they can actually do in as long as Smer holds the majority in parliament.

Here's a run down on the candidates who are polling in the top four:

Robert Fico

Fico began his political career in the late 1980s as a loyal member of the communist party. Something about his glum, perpetually unsmiling face and deep-set, dark eyes just screams Soviet-era apparatchik. According to Anna Porter in her book Ghosts of Central Europe, he has referred to the Velvet Revolution as "an ordinary coup", adding that "he appears to be indifferent to the Communists' human rights violations, and rather nostalgic for their control of the press". Though he entered parliament in the early 90s, he really began emerging as a leadership figure in the 2000s, and in 2006 his Smer party won enough seats in the election to rule in a governing coalition with HZDS (Movement for a Democratic Slovakia) and SNS (Slovak National Party) for four years.

But this is where things get tricky. While Smer call themselves social democrats, which would normally put them left-of-centre on the political spectrum, they are "leftists" only in a strictly economic sense; progressives or liberals in a contemporary western sense, they are most decidedly not. On social issues they are consistently conservative. While they're friendly with the trade unions and they eliminated (and increased) the 20% flat tax that the previous centre-right government put in place, Smer has a pretty deplorable human rights record (especially with regard to Roma and Hungarian minorities), until recently they've done virtually nothing to address the corruption and unreliability of the judicial system (Fico is reportedly on very friendly terms with the Supreme Court chairman, who many say is the primary source of this toxic corruption), and they have been at serious loggerheads with the teachers', doctors', and nurses' unions. I could go on...

Anna Porter describes Smer as "a peculiar mix of leftist economics and xenophobic populism".

In their first four years in power, 2006-2010, Smer governed in a ruling coalition with SNS and HZDS, two parties which became notorious for rampant corruption and their fierce nationalism and unapologetically racist sentiments (mostly against Roma and Hungarians). To put it simply, Fico and his Smer party members do not have a single progressive bone in their bodies. 

When Smer returned to power in 2012 they won an outright majority. This time HZDS and SNS failed to clear the 5% threshold needed to win seats in parliament, and Smer didn't need to form a coalition with any other political party. This means that Smer has eased up on the uber-nationalist, anti-Hungarian rhetoric a little bit, but problems with their handling of the Roma only seem to have gotten worse.

Fico's success lies in his ability to have manufactured this populist image that resonates strongly with older generations; people who lived much of their lives under communism and have a strange sort of nostalgia for that time. These people harbor deep fears that the free market will take away their social safety net, and they represent a very traditional segment of the population that is quite socially conservative and devoutly catholic. Importantly, they also get out and vote, and Fico has played right into this. (On a recent TV interview he talked up his intensely catholic upbringing, leading critics to point out the inherent contradiction in his status as a loyal member of the communist party before 1989). He's led them to believe that he's got their backs because he won't let capitalism destroy their lives and leave them out on the street.

He's cultivated this image as a strong, tough-talking leader, and seems to use a lot of folksy, idiomatic expressions when talking to the press, which are often difficult to translate into English. He's not afraid to toss out snarky remarks about the political opposition, and loves to blame or attack the media when some Smer-designed measure or policy gets any pushback.

A friend and former colleague of mine said Fico really doesn't have a clear or easy to pin down ideological agenda or stance. He seems to just do whatever he thinks is required to achieve his objectives. He has often described himself as pragmatic. To many observers, most of his efforts seem geared toward maintaining and strengthening his and Smer's political power.

Andrej Kiska

The first to announce himself as a presidential candidate, Kiska seemingly came from nowhere. He has zero political experience, and he's running as an independent. People seem to like that he has no political baggage and tend to view him as fresh blood that could perhaps breathe new life into a stagnating and partisan system. That's basically how he's touted himself in the campaign.

While for the past several years he's been heavily involved in philanthropic work, prior to that he became a self-made millionaire running a money-lending business. Some accuse him of having been a loan shark who exploited poor people by charging exorbitant interest rates, but I haven't really come across any hard proof of this - at least not in any English language media. He left the loan business to start his charity project, Dobrý Anjel, in 2005, which became quite successful, and largely supports cancer patients who encountered financial difficulty when dealing with their illness. He has made a point of not taking a dime from any political party or interest group, funding his whole campaign from his own pocket.

In terms of his political agenda, he is opposed to Smer, and paints himself as an independent and more viable alternative to the centre-right political opposition, who have been in total disarray since Smer took over the government in their landslide 2012 victory. Like all the candidates, he wants to make serious changes to the judiciary, fight government corruption, boost the rule of law, etc.

People say that Kiska lacks charisma or personality, which could hurt him in debates with Fico, and they also say his lack of political experience could hinder his ability to negotiate with Smer, if he's elected.

According to the Slovak Spectator, he plans to "insist that the government passes laws that would help create new jobs, to promote a competitive Slovakia, to promote health care as a priority, to call for a just social system, to call for a better education system, to call for an end to party nominations to important state offices, to fight against corruption, to promote a well functioning judiciary, to promote a better election system..."

The Slovak Spectator's got an interview with Kiska here.

Milan Kňažko

Kňažko is the oldest and most politically experienced of Fico's potential opponents. Kňažko spent much of his time under communism as a popular actor, and he played a prominent role in the 1989 Velvet Revolution, having been a fierce opponent of the communist regime. He was a founding member of the Public Against Violence (VPN) movement, and after the revolution he landed a gig as an advisor to Czechoslovak president Vaclav Havel.

He co-founded HZDS, which would normally be a pretty dark stain on anyone's CV, but to his credit he left the party in 1993 and quickly distanced himself from the party's leader and prime minister, the uber-controversial Vladimír Mečiar, whom many credit as being chiefly responsible for Slovakia's international isolation and reputation as the "black hole of Europe" in the 1990s. Kňažko served as an independent MP until '98, and as the culture minister from 1998-2002 under the centre-right government of Mikuláš Dzurinda (the government that cleaned up Mečiar's mess and got Slovakia into the EU). He left politics in the early 00s and went back into acting for a few years before serving as general director for the JOJ television network.

While Kňažko has been polling behind Kiska, political analysts still view him as a potential challenger to Fico in the second round.

Unfortunately, I'm having a difficult time trying to find out (at least in any English-language media) what Kňažko actually did during his tenure in politics. What was his legacy? Did he have a hand in crafting (or fighting against) any particular legislation? All I'm really finding is that his efforts were generally aimed at fighting Mečiar.

His main theme is that Smer's single-party majority rule is increasingly coming to resemble life before the revolution in 1989, and he wants to act as a counterweight to their far-reaching influence. His campaign motto is "There is much at stake again". He has said he would refuse to sign any law that increases taxes or "bullies" the self-employed.

You can find a short interview the Slovak Spectator did with him here.

What makes Kňažko stand out, though, and makes me wonder if he is perhaps the least repellent of the bunch, is that he is the only candidate to clearly state that he supports registered domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. Kiska has hinted that he supports this and Procházka (who we'll discuss next) has at least said he's not particularly interested in actively denying this to the LGBT community, but that's it. Of course, it'd be nicer if he'd have come out in support for full-on gay marriage, but in such a deeply conservative, catholic and homophobic country where a majority of the population opposes gay marriage (according to polls), maybe it's more realistic to take things one step at a time.

Kňažko is known for his biting sarcasm and sharp wit, and some observers have claimed that he is the one Fico fears going against the most in the run-off.

Political scientist Eduard Chmelár was quoted as saying that Fico allegedly fears Kňažko more than Kiska, "because his rhetorical abilities combined with a significant volume of sarcasm are giving him higher chances to succeed in a tough verbal fight, which will probably decide everything," as reported  by the Slovak Spectator.

Radoslav Procházka

At 41, Procházka is the youngest of the top contenders. While he's still a bit green politically, he has a strong legal background and is said to be an expert in constitutional law. He was originally from the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), but left last year over disagreements with the party leadership.

Procházka was widely seen as the favorite to run against Fico in the run-off, and I think that had a lot to do with name recognition. Like Kiska, he announced his presidential bid early in the game and his boyish face started appearing on billboards over the summer last year. But in January Kiska started eclipsing Procházka in the polls, and since then, Procházka's chances have seemed less certain.

One of the main criticisms leveled against him from voters is that people think he's too young. Some of his billboards say something along the lines of, "A young president? Why not?" Some of his political colleagues describe him as arrogant and unpredictable. Observers say he's really just using the campaign as a way to gain visibility and advance his political career. My main problem with him is that he tends to be frustratingly vague.

His former party, the KDH, harbors some pretty hardcore religious/social conservatives, and Procházka has said that unlike some in that party, he's more open to discussing taboo topics, like same-sex partnerships. But he still touts his conservative credentials and maintains that he's a regular church-going Christian. And, it should be noted, he publicly supported a massive pro-life/pro-traditional marriage rally that took place in Kosice last September.

He is really the only self-proclaimed conservative among the top four running in the race, and he is polling much higher than the candidate that the established conservative parties put forth - Pavol Hrušovský. Of course all the candidates espouse varying degrees of economic and social conservatism, but Procházka is the only one of the top four with a bonafide conservative political background.

According to the Slovak Spectator, Procházka (a bit like Fico) seems to desire a stronger presidency, which he believes is necessary to counter Smer.

The Spectator added:

He is making several pledges as a sign of how active he would be, including plans to participate in
cabinet sessions at least once a month, evaluate how the government fulfils its programme twice a year and participating in drafting the state budget. One of the biggest steps Procházka promises is to change the top judges at the Constitutional Court.

Strange bedfellows

The other significant rightwing candidate, Pavol Hrušovský from the parliamentary opposition party KDH, has been polling in the top five, but considerably lower than Fico's other three main opponents. His backing among rightwing voters is pretty shaky, and his utter lack of charisma is seen as a major liability. The mere fact that he's from the established centre-right parties may also hurt him, as these parties have been in a total shambles ever since the centre-right coalition was booted after a no-confidence vote in late 2011.

What's odd about the KDH is they recently allied with Smer on a surprise joint agreement whereby Smer promised to support KDH's proposal for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages, and the KDH agreed to support Smer's package of judiciary changes. There was absolutely zero debate within Smer about supporting the KDH's homophobic provision (further proof of Smer's social conservatism), and while the KDH had some reservations about Smer's plans for the judiciary, they were willing to compromise and ink the deal.

The natural question is, doesn't the KDH have anything more pressing to do than deny equal rights to LGBT folks? I mean, given all the problems that plague this country, should discriminating against same-sex couples really be a top priority? But the rightist parties in this country are in serious decline, they're desperate, and I think the KDH is trying to play on the social conservatism/catholicism of most of this country's inhabitants. That would also explain why Smer had no qualms about backing this amendment.

But why is Smer suddenly concerned about the judiciary? For eons, NGOs, foreign chambers of commerce, embassies, opposition politicians, and legal experts have been complaining ceaselessly about the deep, rampant corruption and ineffectiveness of Slovakia's judiciary. And Smer has done absolutely zippo about this until now. Naturally, critics are saying that this is just a politically calculated campaign maneuver, and some believe Smer's proposed measures won't go far enough.

Most people ultimately struggle to see how the KDH could possibly benefit from this.

Hold your nose and vote for the lesser evil

I obviously can't vote, not being a citizen, but Terezia is at a loss as to who to support. Clearly, this is a case of voting for the lesser evil, as none of the candidates are people who either of us could get enthusiastic about.

There's not a chance in hell we could support Fico, Procházka is just too conservative, and there are too many unknowns about Kiska. Kňažko seems to be the least offensive, but again, I just can't find enough information to form a truly informed opinion about him.

The main problem for us is the utter lack of any clear progressive voice. Coming from our liberal-progressive-hippie bubble of the Bay Area, it's downright surreal to live in a country where there is no meaningful progressive movement. Progressive types do exist here, but they represent such a tiny minority, they are so few and far between, that they essentially have no voice and very little power to have much of any influence. Most progressive advocacy work in Slovakia is carried out by a variety of NGOs and civic organizations.

The only liberals in parliament are few in number and had to align with the centre-right parties in opposition to Smer. SaS, the sole liberal party, splintered last year after a falling out among its leadership, and their influence has waned considerably since.

Both Kňažko and Kiska believe in decriminalizing, or at least softening penalties, for drug users. Neither appear to be opposed to registered domestic partnerships for LGBT folks. These are steps in the right direction, indicating the sort of progressive leaning that we can relate to, but it's not enough - I want to know more.

A lot of people will vote for Fico simply because he's familiar and they feel they can trust him (or at least the image he's cultivated) more than the others, for whatever reason. Others will likely hold their nose and vote for Procházka, or shrug their shoulders and vote for Kňažko or Kiska.

Things will really get interesting in the second round. That's when all of the people who oppose Smer/Fico band together in an effort to prevent Fico from winning. And whoever winds up being Fico's opponent will have to figure out how to unite all these disparate people.

I'll be sure to give an update about the first round of the election after March 15.


  1. No update yet? Kiska seems like the lesser of two evils.

    1. You probably saw my update by now, but at least the lesser evil won.

  2. This was really interesting and clear. I feel like I have a good understanding of the situation. It was fun to read, too!