Slovak politics, argues Róbert Fico, needs a new face and a new direction. Fico set up his own political party, Smer ("direction") in December 1999, promising it would provide the Slovak people with the new face and the new direction they required. Initially dismissed by some as a flash in the pan, Fico's support has remained strong. Recent opinion polls suggest Smer commands the support of 15 to 20 per cent of the Slovak electorate.
Fico's popularity stems from three factors. Firstly, Fico himself. He is a bright, articulate and charismatic politician who performs well on television. A man who appreciates the importance of footwork, he has spent much of his time over the past couple of years touring the country, meeting people and pressing the flesh.
Secondly, Fico has tapped into anti-minority sentiment. In May 1999, whilst still a member of The Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ), Fico criticized SMK, the Hungarian party in the governing coalition, for its regionally based policies. He has also capitalized on anti-Romani feeling in Slovakia. In January last year, in response to the waves of Roma fleeing Slovakia and claiming political asylum in the UK, Finland, Belgium and other EU countries, Fico proposed that citizens who travel for speculative reasons to a foreign country with the aim of demanding political asylum would, on their return to Slovakia, have their social benefit payments stopped for twelve months.
Moreover, after a recent notorious attack on a white youth (alleged to be a far right-wing supporter) by two Roma, Fico, a lawyer by training, has agreed to help the prosecution against the Roma suspects. Wherever the blame for the incident lies, Fico's involvement in such a case at the very least sends out a strong political message.
Popular by default
Arguably the best explanation of Fico's level of support is the unpopularity of Slovakia's government. The current administration, under the leadership of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda is a coalition of ideologically diverse parties encompassing former communists, economic liberals, Christian Democrats and ethnic Hungarians. The coalition was initially glued together by a loathing of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar's 1994-1998 government and a desire to speed up Slovakia's entry into both the European Union and NATO.
Although significant progress has been achieved, the current government has disappointed voters. Broken promises, incessant infighting between coalition partners and a more than a whiff of corruption have all contributed to a dose of disillusionment amongst large sections of the Slovak electorate. Of those less than impressed by the performance of Prime Minister Dzurinda's government, many would not vote for either of the other main opposition parties, Vladimír Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) or the Slovak National Party (SNS).
Sensing there were votes to be had, Róbert Fico stepped into this void on the Slovak political spectrum and has capitalized successfully on the discontent of many Slovak voters.
Fico has maintained his support thanks in part to his image-maker. As anyone from Blair's Britain can testify, image is no longer the icing on the cake of politics, it is a base ingredient of political success. To ensure the projection of the right image, Fico has employed the services of Fedor Flašík, Slovakia's image-maker par excellence, the man who claimed to be able to turn water into Coca-Cola. Previously a close associate of Vladimír Mečiar, Flašík attached himself to Fico soon after the 1998 elections. Indeed, it was Flašík who conducted the market research that yielded the name Smer for Fico's party.
Stung by criticism that Smer was just an ego trip for its leader, Fico has spent the past year building up a strong regional base and promoting other members of Smer. At a party congress last month, Smer elected three deputy chairs. Although Milan Murgaš, Dušan Caplović and Monika Benova are hardly household names, they do go some way to counter the argument Smer is just Fico's party.
Fico's support has also remained high, because he has assiduously refused to outline a detailed policy programme, preferring instead to concentrate on occasional eye-catching policy initiatives and parliamentary bills dealing with crime and privatisation. Speaking at the Centre for Independent Journalism in Bratislava last year he promised to outline the whole raft of his policies at least six months before the next election (due in autumn 2002).
Fico has eschewed all talk of ideology, preferring to describe himself as a "pragmatic" politician. One of Fico's underlings, Monika Benova, however, was more candid. Smer, she declared, wanted to listen to the Slovak people and give them what they want. With such rhetoric it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Smer is little more than an opportunist movement designed to further the political ambitions of its founder.
Given the fact that no party in Slovakia is likely to receive more than 50 per cent of the vote at the next parliamentary election, the central question concerns the likelihood of various coalition configurations. Speculation is a hazardous sport for political scientists, but assuming Smer got over the five percent threshold at the next general election what would Fico do?
Friend of foe?
The most popular party in Slovakia with 25-30 per cent support remains HZDS. Fico is keen to distinguish between the party and HZDS' leader. "If someone thinks we can ignore a political party with 30 per cent support and one million voters," argues Fico, "it would be a great mistake."
Simultaneously, he has singled out Mečiar for criticism. He told Mečiar last year that HZDS, with the former Prime Minister at the helm, has "no coalition potential." He has also been at pains to stress Smer will not be a springboard to power for Mečiar.
Relations between Fico and Mečiar have become increasingly strained. After meeting Smer's founder in January 2000, the three-time Prime Minister declared his trust in Fico. By April of this year, however, Mečiar preferred to describe Smer's leader as a "hopeless careerist." Since the Trnava Congress in March 2000, HZDS has tried to project itself as a party of the centre-right.
Recent reports suggested the former Prime Minister considers the Christian Democrats (KDH) and Mikuláš Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic Christian Union (SDKÚ) to be favourable coalition partners.
Suggestions that Dzurinda and Mečiar could happily sit together around the cabinet table, however, stretch credibility beyond breaking point. Moreover, HZDS' deputy chairman for the media, Jozef Božík, was keen to clarify Mečiar's words. "We would consider cooperating with any party," he told me, "which shared our priorities of NATO and EU membership."