Not another strong man in Central Europe

For the first time since 1989, Slovakia will be ruled by a single party. But incoming social democrat PM Robert Fico would be wise not to follow the example of counterpart Viktor Orbán next door in Hungary, argues a Pravda columnist.

Published on 13 March 2012 at 14:53
Slovakia's Prime Minister in waiting, Robert Fico (Smer-SD).

In addition to the exceptional chance it now has to shape government policy to its liking, Smer-SD is now solely responsible for what the government does. Its leader, Robert Fico knows how to fight his opponents. The challenge for him, though, will now come from public opinion.

Even if Smer does succeed in bringing in measures to strengthen social cohesion, for example by introducing progressive taxation or strengthening state control over the health care and pension systems, dissatisfaction with the unpopular cuts in public spending that are expected will focus solely on the party.

Robert Fico seems aware that the coming developments in Europe will require a broader social consensus. That is why, apart from his desire to dispel fears of a repetition of the Budapest scenario, the election winner is offering seats at the round table to the losers. Because of the majority he won, though, he can’t count on any doling out of ultimate responsibility.

The absolute majority in Slovakian politics raises an almost atavistic reflex to colonise all state structures, ranging from the civil service and those elements of the state that wield real power, to state-owned enterprises, public contracts and the public media. The international discrediting of Hungary’s Orbán government, and Slovakia’s own Gorilla scandal, should, however, serve as some deterrent.

A new consensus

If corruption and the arrogance of power exceed tolerable levels, the legitimacy of the Slovak political elite could be shattered virtually overnight. Finally, the shock following the publication of the Gorilla file even indirectly helped Smer win an unprecedented victory. Smer should be aware that part of the agenda of a welfare state is also to eliminate the risk of corruption, which ultimately harms society’s weaker strata.

The failure of SNS [Slovak nationalist] and SMK [Slovak-Hungarian coalition - representing the Hungarian minority] to return to parliament confirmed that ethnic tension is not a priority of Slovak society. The challenge rather is how to offer jobs and career prospects to Hungarian-speaking youth in Slovakia.

The elections have confirmed the failure of policies based on social and ethnic division and deepening of conflicts. The splintered Slovak conservatives will have to reflect that the right-wing parties that fared best in the elections were those that talked more about the need for more social alternatives to existing policies. Following the neo-liberal consensus, which even the post-communist left in Central Europe accepted and helped create over the last two decades, there is evidently looming a new consensus, the result of which will be a greater responsibility for social cohesion falling on the better off in society, and on large business groups.


Populist or consensus politician?

In Austria, Der Standardnotes that the "Gorilla" corruption scandal decided the result of the general election. For the Viennese daily, notwithstanding Slovaks’ discontent with their parliament —

Robert Fico continues to be the most popular politician. In contrast to his first mandate, he defended a pro-European line, which well before the election, gained him the political approval of Hannes Swoboda, the Austrian leader of the social-democrats group in the European Parliament. Notwithstanding his absolute majority, he is hardly likely to turn out to be a 'left-wing Orban'.

The main "touchstone" to gage the extent of Fico’s transformation from populist to consensus politician will be his policy with regard to the Hungarian minority (9.7% of the population), affirms Der Standard

In the wake of his triumph, Fico can, adopt a more tolerant approach to the Hungarian minority, which is expected by the EU and which has been lacking for some time, and thereby isolate the extremists on both sides of the house.

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