Monday, 12 March 2012

Slovakia Turns Left (Interview with Lubos Blaha)



The Slovakian left won an historic victory in Saturday’s elections. The party Direction – Social Democracy (SMER – SD), led by former PM Robert Fico, gained 44,41% of the vote, giving them 83 out of the 150 parliamentary seats.

Below I reproduce an interview with Dr Lubos Blaha, a Slovakian political scientist who has become an MP after standing in the elections on SMER’s electoral list. The interview was carried out by the Ferdinand Lassalle Centre for Social Thought and first appeared on theirwebsite in Polish.


Michał Syska: What was the main topic dominating the election campaign in Slovakia? The economic crisis? Corruption?

The central issue was corruption, as the second Dzurindás government (2002-2006) was accused of huge corruption through the so-called ‘Gorilla affair’. The Liberal SaS was also mired in a corruption scandal, with the leader Sulik recorded meeting and speaking in a friendly manner about  internal political issues with  a Mafia-suspected businessman. After the Gorilla corruption case there was a wave of rallies against this model of representative democracy, which is full of corruption, and supporting more political participation and direct democracy. This was the very central issue of the campaign. SMER was lucky to be almost completely untouched by the corruption scandal, which primarily concerned the right-wing parties, especially Dzruindás SDKU-DS.

The second issue was stability. The Radicovás government was full of divisions and instability as it was made up of six coalition partners. It was obvious that such a right-wing coalition cannot be sustainable. SMER offered the prospect of a stable and strong coalition that would be able to offer solutions to people’s problems during a period of crisis.

The third issue was the economic crisis and the classic cleavage between a social democratic Keynesian model and a right-wing neoliberal one. It was concentrated on two issues: Firstly,  taxes - the left-wing SMER wanted to cancel the flat-tax rate and raise the taxes for the rich and the banks from 19% to 25%. In contrast the right-wing parties wished to sustain the flat tax and raise the rate of VAT, thus imposing a bigger burden on the poor. Secondly was the matter of economic growth and public investment. SMER was for public investment, such as the construction of highways through private-public projects (so-called PPP) which could drive  economic growth. The right-wing parties were against this and favoured policies of austerity.

The last issue was the EU, although this was a very marginal issue. Except for SaS and the National Party SNS, all the parties were for the European Stability Fund and all the new European measures designed to solve the debt crisis. Paradoxically, even SaS was not very vocal about this issue, which had been the reason for it breaking with the Radicovás governemnt in 2010.

It was very pleasing that the Hungarian issue was totally absent from the election campaign.

2) What was the main message of SMER during the campaign?

The key issues for SMER-SD were stability and social security, the policies against precariousness and the support for a modern social state. The crucial idea was that the poor should not be burdened by the raising of VAT as its effect is regressive. Rather, the banks (with its huge profits) and the richest in society (earning more than 33 000 Euro annually) should pay a tax rate of 25%. Also public investment was an important issue for SMER. Furthermore, the issue of reintroducing a more protective Labour Law was proposed, after the right-wing government introduced a typical neoliberal Labour Act, enabling, for example, management to fire employees more easily. This was a classic neo-Keynesian programme. SMER was also strong on the EU agenda and offered support for united EU solutions to the debt crisis.

3) What kind of challenges will the new government face?

The condition of the state following the Radicovás government is disastrous. Firstly, the tax office is not under control and there is a serious problem with collecting revenue. The state budget has been underestimated and the fiscal deficit will therefore grow automatically.
It is written in the Slovakian constitution (which was supported at the time by SMER) that the budget deficit cannot cross 3% of GDP. This could restrict the possibility of the government carrying out a Keynesian policy of public investment. It is most likely that the SMER government will have to introduce some policies of public spending savings. These will not however be as drastic or painful as those proposed by the right-wing parties. The trust in the political system after the ‘Gorilla case’ is very low and SMER has to be very careful in what policies it introduces. The turnout at the election was almost 60% and this therefore provides SMER with a large social mandate and legitimacy.




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