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.