Fico on Dzurinda: What it’s all about.

/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;} smer_logo.gif sdku.jpgWhile I do not often write about particular political statements,  I am drawn to comment on today’s response by Robert Fico to Mikulas Dzurinda’s accusations that the government has failed to tap Eurofunds. 

I translate Fico’s statement as follows (and would appreciate any better translation):

My political conscience cannot be a person like Mikulas Dzurinda, who lies from morning until night.  He gouged us, surrendered our economy to foreign monopolies, evidently bought members of parliament.  A person who never wanted Slovakia, did not vote for the constitution of Slovakia or for sovereignty.  I will never respond to such a person, ” said Fico

“Mojím politickým svedomím nemôže byť človek ako Mikuláš Dzurinda, ktorý od rána do večera cigáni. Vydieral nás, spôsobil odovzdanie ekonomiky tohto štátu cudzím monopolom. Preukázateľne kupoval poslancov Národnej rady SR. Človek, ktorý nikdy nechcel Slovensko, nehlasoval za Ústavu SR, zvrchovanosť. Tohto človeka nikdy nebudem komentovať,” povedal Fico.,Pravda, 6 August 2009 

I have no interest in taking sides in this controversy, but the nature of the comment is worth some attention because, as sometimes happens (quite often in fact), a politician’s off-the-cuff remarks do an excellent job of summarizing how they think—and we too should think—about political competition.

Fico’s response follows this structure:

  1. A resolute moralism: “Dzurinda cannot be his conscience.”  Fico is a man of strong moral opinion.  He not only identifies his opponents as wrong, but also as morally flawed.  This is not particularly unusual among politicians, but it is strong in Fico’s case.  His is a tone of righteousness.
  2. An emphasis on corruption.  Fico’s first observation about Dzurinda is that “he lies”  Two phrases later, he reminds us of the scandals that were part of Dzurinda’s own period of government.  These are important:  not only was corruption an important theme for Fico (especially in 2002 but still to some extent in 2006) but his government’s own corruption scandals have caused the party to increase its emphasis on how bad corruption was under Dzurinda as a way of minimizing the current problems.
  3. An emphasis on economic injustice: “He gouged/stole.”  Fico’s best theme has been the overreach of Dzurinda’s economic reforms.  He has played this well and here he ties it in with the lying so that Dzurinda’s economic reforms presented not simply a different and incorrect economic formula but one which Dzurinda used for his own gain and with wanton disregard for (or indeed active malice against)  the average Slovak.
  4. An emphasis on patriotism.  Dzurinda not only hurt the economy but he did so deliberately to the benefit of foreign interests.  Two phrases later Fico suggests an even deeper lack of national feeling in Dzurinda dating back to the early 1990’s.  Dzurinda did not vote for the constitution (the final formal step toward independence), did not support “sovereignty” and did not even “want Slovakia” (phrasing which implies an even deeper antipathy than saying that he did not want “want an independent Slovakia.”  The vehemence of this critique should not surprise me, but it does, as it is so deeply resonant of the critiques of Dzurinda’s then-party, KDH, in the 1990’s by Meciar’s HZDS (back when Dzurinda was a minor player), and particularly the word for sovereignty, “zvrchovanost” which had a particularly strong resonance for Meciar and his supporters.  Meciar sometimes (though admittedly less frequently) applied similar critiques of lack of patriotism toward Fico’s then-party, SDL (back when he was a minor player).  Now Meciar is all but out of the game, and it is Fico who is applying the critiques to Dzurinda. 

All of fits nicely with what many of us have discussed and claimed:  Slovakia’s party system has at least two dimensions—one economic, one national—and the last 20 years have been a competition to see which one would be most important.  Meciar turned the axis in the direction of the national and held it there for most of the 1990’s.  Dzurinda turned it back primarily to the economic and held it there for the first half of the 2000s, with Fico providing a big assist.  Now in government, Fico has sought to shift the basis of competition by a half turn, linking the economic with the national so as to produce a single axis of competition between pro-national, economically statist parties on the one hand and non-national, pro-market parties on the other hand.  The positions of the players differ slightly: The Hungarian parties push hard on national issues and care little about economics (but tend to be a bit more market oriented, a legacy from its past coalition partners and internal debates) whereas SDKU pushes some economic questions and stays away from national issues at all costs.  On the other side SNS pushes hard on the national side and cares little about economics whereas Smer still pushes economic questions and plays slightly softer and more socially acceptable national issues.  Whether this is permanent is an open question (like all questions I ask about Slovakia’s future…I’ve been wrong too many times), but for the moment Fico has hit on a winning formula and has no need to change it.

Other issues fight for prominence—some in KDH and all in KDS would like to see an emphasis on moral values, new parties and some in Smer continue to emphasize corruption—but these have yet to take hold in a fundamental way.  The values question probably has too little traction, for most Slovaks outside the (demographically declining) population of believers.  The corruption question is too hard to sustain because parties that get into power have a difficult time staying clean (and would have a difficult time persuading voters that they had stayed clean even if they could).

 Finally, two off-topic (but maybe not so minor) points:

  • It may or may not be a coincidence that he uses almost the same formulation—“from morning until night,” that Hungarian premier Gyurcsany used to describe his own party’s actions.   Comparing Dzurinda to a Hungarian would be a nice touch, but it may simply be a coincidence.
  • I am slightly shocked by Fico’s use of the word for lying—“ciganit”—which, though I may be mistaken, I do not recall hearing often from the mouths of politicians.  Not only is this particularly rough language but its relationship to the slang term for Roma, “cigan” makes it potentially problematic.  I know the word has taken on something of an independent existence in Slovak (much as “gyp” did in English) but it is hard to avoid the connection and it seems to be a word to avoid using.  It is perhaps particularly troubling to me because at a language law rally outside of parliament in 1995 I overheard a Meciar supporter talking to a friend about Dzurinda (at that moment speaking on the floor of parliament against the restrictive language law) and saying “Did you know he’s a Gypsy? (“cigan”).  Fourteen years later Slovakia has a new, relatively restrictive language law and Dzurinda is again likened to a “cigan” in the worst sense of the word.

Chickens, roosting

I was intrigued to see stories about a recent Fico appearance, particularly one in HNOnline entitled, “Fico: There is an artificially created impression that every politician is a thief.”

Fico: They have artificially created the impression that every politician is a thief

How did that impression get created?  I have a partial theory:

As they stole

The points Fico raises in the article are not at all inappropriate:  Politics is hard work and the “perks” of politics in many cases only amount to an amelioration of difficult working conditions (being a good politician–as Fico is–is probably easier than working in a mine, but the hours are long and the demands and stresses are extremely high).  As a political figure who does not appear to be using the office for personal financial gain, Fico must be particularly incensed.  Yet he did not shy away from such attacks while he was attempting to gain power and he must bear some of the responsibility for his own difficult circumstances.

The broader issue here is the question of corruption in the electoral politics of postcommunist countries (and elsewhere as well).  When corruption levels are high (or are perceived as high), corruption becomes an issue in itself and becomes for ambitious politicians to gain support (especially ambitious politicians who have not engaged in obvious corruption themselves).  This is often a pyrrhic victory, however, since success puts those same leaders in the sights of their own weapons: even if they stay clean, their associates may succumb to the temptation, and even if they do not, it is often difficult to persuade voters that the new boss is any different from the old boss, especially when they ride around in the same dark, powerful sedans.  And it is not suprising that Fico, even at the top of his electoral game, feels pressure from precisely the sense of cynicism toward elected officials that he participated in creating, the same sense that allegedly produced somebody to amend the above-mentioned Fico billboard to read “…and so they will also steal under me”

For more on the famous (in Slovakia) Fico advertisement, see:

For more on the dynamics of anti-corruption campaining, see:

Exit, [Void] and Loyalty

(or why Dr. Sean hits the nail on the head)

Kudos to Sean Hanley for his recent post, Do Slovak and Czech Christian Democrats have a prayer? Dr. Hanley, whose blog (Dr. Sean’s Diary, has long been my model for public, academc discourse on postcommunist Europe, yet again calls attention to precisely the questions I am trying to think about. Not only does he do an an excellent job of covering the dilemmas of the Christian Democrats in the Czech Republic, a realm that nobody knows better than he, but he also offers provocative thoughts about intra-party struggles, coalitions and election results in Slovakia:

And generational renewal? Commentators and politicians in CEE are always harping on about this, but it’s hard to see quite newer or younger will necessarily mean better. Such comments are, usually a disguised call for in political renewal or cleaner, better, more liberal government – amen to that, but even though there is no primaries system there is ample scope for new parties to emerge or young technocrats to parachute themselves into organizationally weak, elite-led parties. The Slovak experience suggests that many voters don’t want renewal of this kind, but stability. Is the Slovak Barack Obama actually Robert Fico?

Though the comparison may not be desirable to some partisans of Obama or of Fico, there are important similarities that must not be overlooked. I continue to wrestle with the concept of “populism” since in its common usage it is both vague and highly normative:

Populism Definition


But if populism does mean anything–and I think it does mean something despite all of the accretions over time–it is a sense that politics is broken. It is a feeling (though not quite an ideology) that those in public office–both those in power and those in opposition–are the cause of the problem. By this standard, of course, nearly every American politician is a populist, but if you compare them to many of their European counterparts, that is actually a fairly accurate characterization. While I have not done the spadework to explain why, I suspect that America’s relative exceptionalism in this regard has a lot to do with its presidential system, the dominant role of media, the relative absence of party organization. Many European countries are moving in this direction, however and postcommunist Europe appears to be in the vanguard. In this sense, both Fico and Obama have become preferred choice for those voters who are tired of “politics as usual” and who seek something different. Those are different kinds of voters compared to their overall electorates, but that is a different story.

Party renewal

There is a lot more to say about the question of populism, and I hope to do so over the coming months. In the meantime, however, I want to point out one very important difference between Obama and Fico and one that goes to the heart of Prof. Hanley’s question: Barack Obama is still a member of the Democratic Party and it is hard to imagine him leaving the party if he loses the nomination; Robert Fico, on the other hand, left his original party and formed a new one.

Fico is not alone in this. Indeed questions of internal-party change and party defection are central to the course of Slovakia’s politics and to the politics of many countries in the region. Dr. Hanley is right to point out that the question is not whether parties can achieve generational change; renewal can easily occur within a single generational cohort. Rather, the question is whether renewal can occur within a single party. Two phenomena mark Slovakia’s political party system: the relative infrequency of institutionalized leadership change and the relative frequency of party splits and splintering.

Loyalty: The Rarity of Party Leadership Change

Parties in Slovakia rarely change leaders and they almost never undergo institutionalized leadership transitions. Among Slovakia’s current parliamentary parties. As the table below shows, the average tenure of the chairmen of Slovakia’s current parliamentary parties is between 8 and 9 years (depending on the method of calculation), and this represents an average of 67%-71% of their parties’ respective lifespans.

Party Founding Date Number of leaders since founding Current leader Date assumed leadership Duration of leadership Length of leadership as % of length of party existence
Party of the Hungarian Coalition (MKP/SMK) 1990 2* Pal Csaky 2007 1 year 6%
Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) 1990 2 Pavol Hrusovsky 2000 7 years 41%
Slovak National Party (SNS) 1990 5 Jan Slota 1994 9 years/13 years** 53%/76%**
Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) 1991 1 Vladimir Meciar 1991 16 years 100%
Smer 1999 1 Robert Fico 1999 8 years 100%
Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) 2000 1 Mikulas Dzurinda 2000 7 years/9 years*** 100%
Mean scores 1993 2 1999 8-9 67%-71%* Party formed from merger of Hungarian Christian Democratic Party (MKDM) and Coexistence in 1998
**Jan Slota rejected his removal in 1999 and formed the rival “Real” Slovak National Party (PSNS) during his period out of leadership in SNS.
***Mikulas Dzurinda led the Slovak Democratic Coalition before leading the SDKU

Indeed three parties, Smer, SDKU-DS and HZDS (which together hold almost 2/3 of the deputies in parliament), have had the same leader for their entire existence. The same is true in practice for several significant parties that are currently no longer represented in parliament (ZRS, ANO). Other parties have undergone leadership transition by default as founding party leaders became president (SOP, HZD) or withdrew from politics (KDH). Only a handful of parties have enjoyed (though for them, “enjoy” may not have been the right word) contested leadership struggles that actually changed the course of party leadership. The Party of the Hungarian Coalition (MKP/SMK) resolved internal leadership questions when it formed from its component parties in 1998 and underwent a leadership shift again in 2007. The Party of the Democratic Left (SDL) underwent major leadership transitions in 1996 and 2001. The Slovak National Party (SNS) is the closest to demonstrating regular leadership change (1990, 1992, 1994, 1999, 2003) but change in party leadership after 1992 has been fraught with difficulty and appears for the moment, to be at an end.

Exit: The Frequency of Party Splintering

New party leaders in Slovakia are more likely to be leaders of new parties than new leaders of old parties. Whereas the six parties listed above have collectively only experienced seven or eight leadership changes (depending on calcuations), they have collectively experienced at least ten significant splits and splinters of parliamentary deputies or prominent party leaders. Secession is far more common than succession. It is difficult to find struggles between party incumbents and party insurgents that have left a party intact: SDL in 1994 (to the extent that Peter Weiss’s withdrawal was not entirely voluntary), SNS in 1992 and 2003, and MKP/SMK in 2007. Far more common is struggle followed by departure of the loser to form a new party: SNS in 1994 and 1999, SDL in 1999 and 2001 (and, to the extent there was a real struggle, with the departure of Luptak in 1994), KDH in 1991, 2000 (related to the dissolution of the SDK coalition) and 2007 (just last week, in fact), SDKU in 2003 and the seemingly annual HZDS splinters in 1993, 1994, 2002, 2003, (and in miniature formjust recently). In fact the only parties in which party struggles have not led to departure are the Hungarian Coalition (which is limited by the inability of Slovakia’s 11% Hungarian population to support two parties that can overcome the 5% threshold), new parties that have died before a split could occur (SOP, ANO, ZRS) and a variety of smaller parties that never by themselves passed the 5% threshold (indeed Slovakia’s small parties such as the show more robust leadership rotation and a greater ability to survive leadership struggles, perhaps because they are too small to lose any members without disappearing entirely. See The People’s Front of Judea).

Why do Slovakia’s parties splinter so easily? This is a complicated and fascinating question that I am currently working on in greater detail. Institutional barriers to entry for new parties are low, but not much lower than in other parliamentary/proportional-representation systems in Europe. A stronger answer may lie in perceptions of cost and benefit. The perception of departing may be relatively low in Slovakia because certain splinters have demonstrated electoral success (DU and ZRS in 1994, Smer in 2002) and other parties have demonstrated an ability to go from nowhere to election in a matter of months (SOP, ANO). I do not, however, have the evidence to say whether these cost perceptions are lower than in countries with fewer splinters. The second part of the answer may lie in the perceived costs of remaining within a party. This in turn relates to the perceived absence of voice.

Voice: It’s (Not) My Party

My initial observations suggest that Slovakia’s centralized party organizations make it difficult for dissenters to remain. When parties remain in the hands of their founders, as in the case of Smer, HZDS and SDKU, or become tightly bound up with a successive leader, as in the recent case of SNS, those who wish to change the party may have no choice but to go elsewhere, particularly if they openly challenge the leadership. The strength of this conclusion is mitigated somewhat by the fact that even the more collegial SDL and KDH have produced a significant share of Slovakia’s splinters, and even some in the vulnerable Hungarian Coalition appear to have considered departure. Nevertheless, it is hard for me to believe that structures more conducive to internal democracies, structures that took party control out of the hands of the founder, could produce more renewal and fewer departures. I have not read Hirschmann in a long time, but it seems like introducing genuine opportunities for voice could provide an alternative both to frustrated loyalty and to destabilizing departure.

In this regard, recent discussions within the current opposition are a very positive sign. It would appear that the current infighting within parties that are already at a low point in their political fortunes will only make matters worse–and in the short run this is true–but in the long run, the kinds of discussions emerging among second-rank leaders in SDKU, KDH and MKP/SMK are potentially conducive to long-term survival, party renewal (much needed) and electoral success. By this standards the current governing parties have a short-term advantage in internal cohesion, but are at greater risk of long-term difficulties because they include some of the most centralized parties that Slovakia has ever seen. In terms of broader patterns, the news is good because it is potentially quite normal: parties in power put themselves at risk by failing to adapt; parties out of power learn how to renew themselves and eventually rise to the challenge. If Slovakia’s current opposition can manage to find mechanisms for voice and reform from within, Slovakia could experience the novelty (for Slovakia, at least) of an opposition-coalition struggle that is not also the struggle between old parties and new.