The rise of cronyism in Slovakia

Pre-election excitement in Slovakia is reaching its peak. The upcoming general election, on 29th February, has mobilized the whole political spectrum, from alt-right to far left. For many, this is another crucial chance to get rid of a government known for bribery, lies, and its contacts with the mafia responsible for murdering a young investigative journalist, Ján Kuciak.

Fortunately, after two years of hard policework and to frenetic media coverage, a lawsuit was launched two months ago. On Monday, 13th January, the gunmen finally confessed and thus, the others involved in a ghastly assassination of a 26-year-old journalist and his fiancée will hopefully be held to account.

But the government, led by Róbert Fico, who stood down after months of demonstrations from tens of thousands of citizens, and then by Peter Pellegrini, have been long prepared for the general election. One of their main preparations was to pass a bill which effectively blocks “small” candidates and parties from raising sufficient campaign funds.  

But how have they been able to do this?

Each political party in Slovakia nominates 150 candidates to the National Council, our Parliament. The candidates are organised from 1 to 150 according to their prominence in the party, so number 1 is usually a party leader.

Interestingly, there are no constituencies. The country is one big election district. Because of that, a candidate can win a seat and become an MP by having votes from all-around the country. And election preferences are scattered through-out the Republic too.

Voters can cast a vote not only for a party, but also for four specific candidates they wish to see in the House. But if you only vote for a party without casting your preferential vote, your vote will be counted as a preferential vote for those at the top of the party list.

Now, it is an unlikely scenario that a political party would fully – or even partially – fund all their candidates. After all, if you are number 138, you have an infinitesimally small chance to be elected, because you need so many preferential votes gained from all regions, all classes, all nationalities (Slovaks, Hungarians, Roma, Ruthenians…). To win a seat from that position, you need campaign money, which you will never properly receive from your party.

Successful political parties which get into Parliament gain access to a state funded subsidy that helps them to cover their costs. Many of them will reserve this windfall until the next election to have a large enough starting budget.

Now, this may not sound like there is a problem. However, the Slovak government is known for its corruption and there has been a clear shift towards an oligarchical political system – where money guarantees victory. Large corporations have been benefiting from deliberately overpriced state contracts and despite some of the most well-known businessmen facing court action, crony interactions between politicians and businesspeople are still rampant.

This context is what makes the purpose of the so-called “Third Parties Bill” so obvious. It cements the existing political leadership by effectively preventing low-ranking and poorly connected candidates from ever being elected.

There is a very real chance that Slovakia will fall into an entrenched loop of nepotism if things do not change. A low-ranking candidate needs at the very minimum at least €5,000, when the average monthly wage is less than €1500, for a successful campaign. For that reason, you need people to not just vote for you, but also to donate part of their hard-earned salaries.

But in practice, you cannot run a fundraising campaign because the new law creates undue bureaucratic restrictions. Voters just won’t follow through the process, which includes; filling out the necessary papers, going to a notary for certification, and finally, prior to transferring money, filing the documents with the party headquarters. Simply put, there is no legal way to have a simple “click the ‘donate’ button on my website” fundraising system anymore.

This is not a problem for those in government or at the top of the party lists. These influential politicians will have a history of interaction with big business and other major organisations, will have worked on many lucrative government contracts and will work on many in the future. These businesses are willing to undergo the donation registration rigmarole as they can afford to and maintaining their “friendly” politicians is to their benefit.

The 2020 general election is – after the 1998 election – another turning point in Slovak democratic history. Only hard work, unflagging effort, and rock-solid endurance can save the country from falling again into the hands of thieves, liars, and – God forbid – murderers.

The government has been ready for months. The country needs to be ready now.

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