Friday, June 11, 2010

Fico & The Cult of Personality

A few months ago it was heavily anticipated that Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico would win reelection in June 2010. As polls indicated then and still remains true, Mr. Fico is considered the most trusted politician in the country. Moreover, his party, Smer, holds popularity amongst all parties in the country. However, in the weeks leading up to the actual election polls indicate something rather odd, though Smer will win the most votes it will not win a majority, thus necessitating a coalition. However, unlike in 2006, building a coalition may be impossible, thus giving the opposition parties a chance at governing. A situation that has happened before.

Regardless of what happens on Saturday, I thought it would be rather interesting to discuss the types of politics that has been created in the four years of Fico's tenure. Indeed, in an academic paper I go as far as to postulate that there will exist a new type of politics termed FICOISM. Here are some hightlights:

Cult Of Personality
A political cult is not a small group of people who have same beliefs or practices, but rather a large group of followers. As is true of any cult, there is a degree of misplaced admiration, but within the context of Slovak politics and its socio-cultural development, the electorate’s choice may be explained in rather simple terms.

First, Robert Fico is not Vladimir Meciar, the aging turncoat, whose populist language and political legacy is a contradiction. There is no such contradiction with Mr. Fico. His language may have been populist, but his electoral promises were rather modest.

While in opposition, and primarily during the 2006 election campaign it was convenient for Fico to vow to reverse and cancel the majority of the reforms undertaken by the government of Mikuláš Dzurinda, but Fico inherited a healthy economy, largely the result of said reforms, a record high GDP and Slovakia was fulfilling the Maastricht criteria required for the Euro currency adoption (Slovakia officially adopted the Euro on 1 January 2009, the first post-Communist nation to do so). As such, contrary to pre-election promises and declarations, most of the Dzurinda government reforms have remained with mainly cosmetic changes that analyst’s explain as Fico’s acknowledgement of the potential economic catastrophic consequences.

Second, Robert Fico is not a political neophyte as was in the case with Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, nor is he as young as Hungary’s Victor Orban when he became prime minister. These two factors are significant. In fact, Fico is closer in political comparison to France's De Gaulle.

Charles De Gaulle in France was known before he became its president. Popularly remembered as the leader of the French Resistance during the Second World War it was relatively easy to be elected to his country’s highest office. In the following twenty years it was his relationship with the French electorate that led to the presidential term years being extended from four to seven, a new Republic and Constitution to be created, and the various foreign policy endeavors: NATO independence, ECSC leadership, to name a couple. Robert Fico is well known for his opposition to the Dzurinda government.
The absence of a strong political culture throughout the infancy of V4 country democracy allowed for younger politicians to ascend the party hierarchy or break away and form a new party, as is the case with Fico and Smer.

Politics of Grandeur
Prime Minister Fico has dominated politics since coming to power in mid-2006. The lead he and his party enjoy in opinion polls has held, despite Slovakia's sharp lurch into recession. Allegations of crony behavior continue, but “the government's popularity did not seem to suffer unduly, as the feel-good factor deriving from Slovakia's position as one the EU's fastest-growing economies easily swamped any moral outrage the electorate may have felt.”

And in a style similar to that of the old General, Mr. Fico has dealt with these difficulties to the running of his premiership by either not addressing them, attack the ‘prejudiced media’, or by making the occasional ministerial head roll, that occurs more if the head belongs to a representative of one of his coalition partners, the populist People's Party-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS) or the right-wing Slovak National Party (SNS), and not his own Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD) party. Mr Fico is now attempting to bolster his credentials as a corruption fighter, not least because now EU authorities are shining a brighter light on the activities of the Slovak government—particularly those involving EU taxpayers' money.

Gaullism—Slovak Style
The Slovak presidential election of March 2009 and European Parliament elections on 6 June 2009 showed the prime ministers’ true influence. From campaign posters the message was subtle, but clear. If you were the voter who supported the president then the prime minister approved. If you were unsure of which presidential candidate to vote for, but had voted for Smer and Fico in 2006, then Smer’s endorsement and the prime minister’s image along with the candidate would help the undecided realize there was no better alternative. One slogan was blatant on this point: “Together For Slovakia.” What the recent presidential campaign introduced was an additional element to the electorate. The inclusion of the prime minister in a purported non-partisan election assisting in the campaign of an incumbent meant obvious support, but support on the level of direct personal endorsement. This endorsement ushered in Robert Fico, not the politician, prime minister, or even citizen-voter, but Robert Fico the idea. Moreover, it is the idea that contained direct and indirect messages from the man who also is Prime Minister, thus Ficoism. 

The personality politics of Robert Fico, the aforementioned ‘Ficoism’ is distinct from that practiced by former Slovak prime minister Vladimir Meciar, former Czech President Vaclav Havel and former Polish President Leah Walesa. In each case the followers were from across the political spectrum and in Meciar’s case, members or recruits to his tendency of political party reincarnation. Prime Minister Fico has recruited young and talented people to join his party, become elected, and mature under guidance. This is the model of De Gaulle.

De Gaulle did not form a direct political party until late in his political career. He also did not designate a successor, the result being after his death a movement, indeed an ideology without a captain. Fico is popular with the Slovak electorate to the degree that Slovak political analysts predict the government will win the 2010 parliamentary elections. That means four more years of Robert Fico and his brand of populism, four more years of personality politics refinement, and Slovak political cultural growth with a unique bent towards Ficoism.

I wrote the paper from which these exerpts were taken one year ago. If Mr. Fico is unable to retain power, I still would argue that the personality politics and Slovak political cultural growth has been forever influenced by him.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

When Anger Is Not Good

The recent twitter post by NPR entitled “How Emotive Should A President Be? made me think of the presidential campaign of 2008. Back then, then candidate Obama was loosely compared to President Lincoln; the historical perspective of Lincoln freeing black slaves and Obama being the first African-American to have a real chance of becoming president, as well as the fact that both men came from Illinois. 
Since, he became president, Obama has been compared to FDR and LBJ in his domestic achievements and vilified in the media, mainly Conservative press, for his attacks on the basic freedoms of Americans in making health care more affordable and banks for being accountable (please note my sarcasm). 
Now, in the literal wake of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and a Financial reform bill snaking its way through the Congress, but mainly with the governments response to the spill and BP’s actions, Obama is being criticized for not being ‘mad’ or angry enough. 
Here is a good question though, when does anger constitute what is appropriate from a president and be extension, make him a ‘good’ president?
In reflecting upon this I was drawn back to Lincoln and wondered if he had faced similar public outcry or media scrutiny during his time in the White House. Considering the list of events that transpired after his election; half the South seceding from the Union, a Federal fort being attacked, outbreak of Civil War between the North and Southern states, successive political-generals & general-politicians who lost battle after battle, a Cabinet comprised of men who all thought they personally would make a better president than him, Northern sympathizers with the Southern cause, Northerners who wanted an immediate peace with the South (Copperheads), Abolitionists who wanted immediate end to slavery, Democrats, Republicans, and let us not forget all the newspaper editors, Horace Greeley amongst them who daily berated the president for not doing enough or being seem to be too controlling! 
On second reflection, Lincoln is not the best comparison. There is a reason why American presidential historians rank Lincoln first in the poll of greatest American President. What maybe more important to remember about Lincoln was his style of governing. Therefore, back to Obama.
The fact that after a year of seeing the President Obama in ‘action’ and observing his style which all agree is deliberate, calm, and calculated why should one be surprised that he does not show anger? If he did, I have no doubt that it would be criticized as calculated. 
I am also reminded, and I think this is important for supporters and detractors of the president to remember, that during his campaign it was explained how he had a “steel hand within a velvet glove.” Also, shortly after the Wall Street bail-out of 2009 occurred and it was reported that the big banks such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America took some of that money and used it for other purposes than the intended financial aid, Obama got very angry behind closed doors and those on Wall Street soon discovered his anger. 
I have no doubt that within meetings in the White House, over the phone talking with advisors and BP executives, the president has shown his anger. Showing anger in public is not the best action.
Let us all except that this is the type of president we have and his management style. Period. 
There can only be one Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and yes, even George W. Bush. 

Monday, May 31, 2010

A Time of China's Choosing

The international situation on the Korean peninsula is not improving.

This is a time not so much for American leadership, but rather the opportunity for China to assume a greater diplomatic role.

This is the main thrust of the article in the Economist tweet today:

China's unwillingness or inability to deal with Pyongyang will have major short-term effects. In the long-term the delay of affirmative action does not bode well for China's neighbors.

Monday, March 22, 2010

US Passes Health Care Reform

Well, it finally happened. The major legislative push of the Obama White House in its first year; health care reform occurred. The brief details of the slim victory is included in the piece below.

So how should American's feel? I believe that at the end of the day, everyone, including the President of the United States will feel relief. Relief that it is over. Or is it?

The Republican Party, very much the party of "no" throughout this process of reform and national debate showed how much the issue of health care will be used in the upcoming midterm elections. In the following link, the NY Times author laments what President Obama has lost in his win. Namely, the promise of a postpartisan Washington.

However, I take issue with Mr. Sanger's very assertion.

The Republicans demonstrated from the very beginning of the Obama presidency that they were unwilling to work in a bi-partisan manner. And those few who did show an interest, any interest, were marginalized to the point that most moderate Republicans have left the party, either in retirement, disgust, or both. Meanwhile, the Party has been influenced by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin and is trying to co-opt the anger of the 'Tea Party Movement' for their own political advantage.

So, really President Obama did not lose anything. The aim of creating a postpartisan Washington D.C. was never a realistic option, however good the intention when the other side was unwilling to make it happen.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

After my hiatus, my return

After a brief (I think of my blogging absence within an Eastern mindset) hiatus from blogging I feel compelled to start up again.

So much has--is--happening in the United States and in the heart of Europe that it is important not to remain on the sidelines anymore.

To think of all that has happened since my last blog. To name a few:

A new U.S. President

Slovakia has joined the Eurozone

The start of the Great Recession

So much more and so much still yet to happen.

Let's see what I have to say.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Opposition leaders on Healthcare

Being in political opposition is an interesting position for politicians. It is fascinating at times, in its vagueness, while also providing the venue necessary for future aspirations. Most people might think of Winston Churchill’s ‘wilderness years’ as an example of a politician who benefited from the experience. Interestingly, Churchill was not active in politics at the time. Either was Ronald Reagan when he gave his “time for choosing” speech in 1964, sparking the interest of Republicans that cumulated sixteen years later with his nomination for the presidency.

Finding oneself in opposition after being in government is a much more difficult experience. One is forced to accept the loss while seeing your opponent’s smug face across from you. You may pout in the backbench as Mr Hague did in 1997 or sulk in rejected silence as fellow Tory and successor Mr Duncan-Smith did in 2001. It is a bit different in the United States though Mr Kerry’s performance post-Nov 2nd 2004 warrants mentioning. Opposition gives the Party or Party’s the duty to hold the government accountable. This is true in Slovakia though fiction is being created from fact.

Opposition leaders Mikuláš Dzurinda (SDKÚ), Pál Csáky (SMK) and Pavol Hrušovský (KDH) agreed at their meeting on May 3 that it is Prime Minister Robert Fico, rather than Health Minister Ivan Valentovič, who is to blame for the "miserable situation in the healthcare sector".

Economists and historians will tell you that there is a cycle of five to ten years to see the affects of specific governmental policies. The difficulties in the healthcare sector existed under the Dzurinda era too. It is a bit bold for Mr Dzurinda and fellow opposition leaders to place all responsibility on Mr Fico for within such blame lies the fallacy similar to the one Mr Fico has used taking credit within recent months of the strength of the Slovak economy. There is an overlap in policy execution from government to government that is seen over years not weeks. Interestingly, a point not commentated on by Mr Fico or Mr Valentovič.

The opposition has said it will not propose a no-confidence motion against Valentovič at the next parliamentary session due to begin on May 9. The parties will propose, however, a declaration obliging the cabinet to submit a report on "the miserable situation in the healthcare sector" to parliament. Such actions though appropriate for parliamentary procedure belie a fact the opposition seems to forget: you cannot fault the Prime Minister and then ask his Cabinet to answer before the Parliament. The Slovak Republic is a Parliamentary-style not a Presidential-style government. Questions and blame lay in the Cabinet. Yes, the prime minister is responsible for overall policy but questions on and blame for the execution of policy lies with respective ministers. Mr Valentovič should be no exception. That is why cabinet reshuffles are so anticipated and feared in British politics every time policy fails.

Anthony Eden, British Prime Minister following Churchill’s death did not repeal England’s National Health Service, legislation introduced under the Labour government of Clement Attlee, even though both Churchill and Eden opposed it from the other aisle when it had been debated in the Commons. The United State’s does not have a national health service, but an issue equally divisive is social security. Ridiculed by business and Republicans when Democrat Franklin Roosevelt introduced it as part of his ‘New Deal’, successive Republican Administrations have kept and expanded the system. The health sector in Slovakia, a homogenous remnant of socialism and a decade of democratic policy, is in need of cash and reform. It is hoped these facts will be remembered on May 9.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Media & Mr Fico

Those of us familiar with American politics may criticize the conduct of the media, generally dubbed ‘the press’ over its failure to keep the Bush Administration accountable over the past seven years. This criticism comes from a deep memory of the specific relationship the press has had with public officials, specifically presidents. Whether it be the dogged interview style of a female reporter that kept Mr Van Buren in the Potomac River naked until he answered her questions or an exasperated Mr Grant commentating on the number of press and office-seekers hanging out in the Willard Hotel lobby that gave a title to a new group of Washington insiders. It could be the friendly and almost equal exchange of favors and information that characterized the Roosevelt cousins or the media inspired, media driven Camelot era.

From Watergate, a new golden age began, and though charmed for eight years by Reagan the press never lost sight of its role within the public discourse, acting as advocate and at times mediator. It is this history and the similar histories of western European democracies in England and France and Germany that has inspired the press in former communist countries. If the model cannot be followed in content then the hope often is to replicate in at least style. Unfortunately, in Slovakia, even this has proved elusive since the new government took office in May 2006. Reviled at best, locked-out in typical ‘Soviet’ style at worst, the Slovak press and Slovak government have a horrible relationship.

This relationship between the government and the Slovak media grew even more tense last week. At a meeting in Veľký Krtíš on April 22, Prime Minister Robert Fico did not even try to hide his disappointment with the media's conduct. Spurning all questions, instead he spoke to what he saw as media bias. This is a mantra often tried by politicians around the globe and its moderate success has made such repeated efforts possible. The difference last week is in how Mr Fico treats the press. Unlike Mr Blair’s bright smile or Mr Bush’s nicknames given to the American press corps that follow him Mr Fico actions indicate clear disdain. You know you are on the s#*t list if Mr Bush revokes the nickname or worse calls you by an expletive. Losing access to Whitehall is Blair’s equivalent. Mr Fico does not even bother with a list.

For Slovakia to evolve in its democratic experiment all elements need to function. This includes dialogue between the executive and the fourth branch of government, the press. Mr Fico likes to tout his populist credentials, it is important for him to remember that the people also hear his message by reading newspapers and watching television.