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Not a Done Deal

Slovakia’s leftist prime minister seems to have a lock on the president’s office, but there are other candidates who could surprise him. by Martin Ehl 14 January 2014

It's not a sure thing that Robert Fico will become Slovakia’s president in two months, as today (almost) everyone there thinks – and that’s not just according to the 14 other official candidates and their political staffs.


At first glance, the Slovak prime minister and leader of the governing party, Smer - Social Democracy, holds all the cards for a direct election. He is constantly on television. He is the country’s most popular politician. He has on his side left-wing and patriotic voters. A professionally made (but unconvincing) video of his alleged Catholic childhood is circulating on the Internet as bait for conservatives. He is an excellent speaker and communicator. In addition, a week before the first round of elections is International Women's Day, an opportunity Fico managed to use masterfully for political purposes two days before the parliamentary elections in 2012. "It's hard to find a weakness,” said sociologist Martin Slosiarik from the Focus research agency. “Perhaps only if he behaved arrogantly, but he’s a professional and that’s unlikely.”


Nevertheless Fico still isn’t a shoo-in. His voters are, indeed, disciplined, but they can’t do it alone. He needs votes from the center and from the conservatives, as the production of that video suggests.


The Slovak center-right opposition is fragmented, which plays to Fico in this situation. The conservatives alone have two candidates, and at least three candidates will be seeking the votes of liberal voters. The hope of the opposition is that voters will be so terrified of having an active President Fico supported by a parliamentary majority that they will rally around any other candidate.


Jan Baranek, an analyst from the Polis agency, said the current president, Ivan Gasparovic, is passive. But he says, “If Fico sits in that office, your Milos Zeman will be just a weak imitation,” referring to the Czech president, who has been accused of taking too-active a role in the Czech political process despite the constitutional limitations of the office. Baranek said besides Fico, four others have a real chance to advance to the second round.


And here we get on very thin ice. Official nominations were closed just last week, so the existing voter research can only provide some indirect clues. For instance, Milan Knazko, a popular actor connected with the struggle for democracy, joined the pack of candidates at the last minute. Still, the latest survey is worth attention – quite unexpectedly, it suggests the possibility of a win in the second round for Andrej Kiska.


His personal story could really grab the Slovaks. Kiska comes from Poprad, a city in northeastern Slovakia that serves as a gateway to the High Tatra Mountains. In the 1990s, he founded three financial installment companies. In 2005, he sold shares in them and established the Dobry andel (Good Angel) charity, which helps families of children suffering from cancer. Dobry andel became a phenomenon in Slovakia, raising money from tens of thousands of donors and helping more than 5,000 families. But even so, Kiska is not known by the wider public, because his campaign started just a year ago. While it is possible that his rivals could pull something out of his business past, this 50-year-old is, for now, associated mainly with good works.


It's a big advantage at this moment to be a “civic” candidate, because many voters simply reject the established politicians. “The fact that he's gained on the political matadors testifies to the disappointment among voters following the elections in 2012 and that there's a mood here against the politicians who have ruled for the last 20 years,” Slosiarik said.


Political analysts see at this moment two weaknesses for Kiska: he has no experience with politics and government institutions, and he appeals to a similar constituency as the popular Knazko. “As president he should know the state institutions. For now he speaks more about values, but less about the state of which he wants to be president,” said Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs.


The question is whether, after years of corruption scandals and dysfunctional government, knowledge of political institutions is what Slovak voters are really looking for.


A bit dramatically, it would be possible to write that, similar to how Dobry andel provides a certain hope to families whose children have cancer, Kiska could, in the eyes of the voters, represent hope for the future of Slovakia. If he advances to the second round, it wouldn't be possible without the support of political parties and the endorsements of kindred candidates. That's no certainty, as we saw in 2009 when, unexpectedly, Iveta Radicova advanced but didn't get the blessing of prominent conservative politician Frantisek Miklosko and lost a substantial number of his supporters, losing to Gasparovic.


“Let anyone advance to the second round – it will then depend on whether the center-right can make this a clash about the character of the country and the state,” said Polis's Baranek. That’s the only hope for anyone who will duel it out with Fico in the second round.

Martin Ehl
 is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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