Monday, September 7, 2009

Birth of a dangerous populist

One of the favorite way to conceptualize the present tensions between Slovakia and Hungary is to emphasize the populist politics and the according personality of Robert Fico, the Slovak prime minister. (Ironically, Mr. Fico almost never forget to portray the present Hungarian opposition and quite probable governing party after next spring, and its leader Viktor Orbán as dangerous populist and nationalist.) This line of reasoning has as its starting point the economic problems caused by the crisis and its consequences and as a consequence sees in the nationalist political measures and manoeuvers an attempt to preserve electoral support by way of diverting the public's attention.

Although there are plausible elements of this line of reasoning explaining some parts of the present dire relationship Fico's alleged, perceived and real populism is not the result of today's not-so-bright economic situation, rather the economic success of Fico's predecessor, Mikulás Dzurinda. As it is (was) the case in many ECE countries, Dzurinda, after an electoral cycle of reforms - in the low tax, low redistribution sense - lost the elections, with a comparatively large margin. But Fico, after campaigning with promises to eliminate a series of cuts in the social systems and reversing the introduction of private pensions and private health insurance, decided to take a less drastic course for years only making slight modifications. The result: as long as Slovakia experienced a robust growth, Fico was capable to fulfill some minor promises, while he was treated by many as an ordinary politicians, understanding the necessity to delude the people but in general serving the interests of the economy. Even though his coalition partner, the extreme rightist and corrupt Jan Slota was seen as an intolerable person, on the whole he was considered as a reliable politician. But as it turned out with the crisis, that his government is not capable (although tries to suggerate the contrary) to rein in spending and control budget deficit and Fico himself became more adamant on reversing pensions reforms his image was in general injured. Embracing nationalist actions only aggravated the picture and was not really its cause.
But if one considers the developments another interpretation is possible: Fico, although campaining and winning on social issues (and corruption) in a country where economic success was not accompanied by a real rise of living standards for many, hoped for a more comfortable and less confrontational course, comply with some promises through redistributing the surpluses yielded by fast growth. (Incidentally it was the core idea of the program of the socialist designated Hungarian prime minister, Péter Medgyessy, whose measures now are seen as the original sin.) As long as the fast growth existed Fico was tolerated as speaking populist but acting reasonably. But with the crisis this peaceful option ceased to exist. Fico on the one hand began to press on some key issues, especially regarding the modification of the pension reform (eliminating private pensions would immediately mean budget revenues and lower sovereign debt) and on the other hand he pressed nationalist action as well. Now his policies are certainly populist ones, but seen from this angle his original approach was less so. After abandoning a social correction of Dzurinda's reforms in favor of a less confrontational course (and euro introduction) and therefore renouncing the accumulation of reserves and a certain redistribution of wealth he was not considered as populist, only cynical. (And cynicism, conscious lying for the electorate, if it favored the "reforms" wasn't really seen as a problem, neither for moral, nor for the political culture. Something similar happened in Hungary where the dominant public perception focused not on lying as a means of gathering electoral support, but on certain lies, leading to policies different from the expectations of "analysts" and "economists" and elevating to a model role other lies, followed by more "business friendly" politics.) But after reinvigorating some elements of his original program he once again became populist. One can conclude, that Fico's populism was born out of not a conscious leftist stance, rather from an episode of politics trying to reconciliate opposing aims.
(The reasoning above has of course nothing to do with Fico's perceived nationalism, and attempts to subvert the status quo. It is just an interpretation trying to highlight how a dominant discourse can stigmatize people and relive from those stigms.)

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