While arguments related to the balance of power have primarily structured the presidential campaign in Slovakia, the pre-election discourse gives us also a few hints related to themes marking the Slovak national identity. Although the candidates for the office of the president have so far largely avoided directly tackling issues that are immediately related to the questions of national identity, several recent developments captured by the media are suggestive of the atmosphere in which the election campaign is being conducted. This short contribution briefly addresses issues covered by the media with regard to the presidential campaign in the last month that may be of relevance in reflections on Slovak national identity and collective self-perception. Attention is particularly brought to those themes related to national identity which the presidential candidates seem to consider to be potentially powerful in activating voters. The three candidates which according to various opinion polls conducted in January 2014 have the largest chance to succeed in the forthcoming election, Robert Fico (Smer), Andrej Kiska (independent) and Milan Kňažko (independent), will predominantly be the focus of this brief commentary.
A presidential candidate to whom opinion polls results generally give the greatest reason to be optimistic is Robert Fico, a candidate representing the social democratic party Smer who currently serves as the country's Prime Minister. Known for his often less than savory statements regarding the Roma population in Slovakia, it must be concluded that two months before the election term, Fico's public appearances have not ceased to demonstrate this quality. Even though in his campaign Fico stresses he would like to become “the president of all of Slovakia,” stating he “will make all the effort to understand the Slovak society and support themes and ideas that will unite it rather than those that are controversial, divisive or ones disturbing the coexistence of our citizens.” “I will make sure,” he continues, “that also members of national minorities consider our [home] country (vlast) their home.” Nevertheless, Fico continues to make explicit distinctions between the Roma and the rest of the population, generalizing that the Roma do not have much respect laws and order: “Why today do we have so many problems between the Roma and the rest of the population? Well, because the Roma often conduct them badly.” In this context, he asks whether we should really protect those who often steal, disturb order and cannot even keep their surroundings clean. He argues that “the Roma do not have only rights, they have also some obligations.” He continues to make his case in the following manner: “For several years I was the chair of the prison committee and I know all prisons in Slovakia. You know well that the record is not kept on who is a Roma and who is not. I guarantee you that every second incarcerated person is a Roma.” Considering that the Roma form ten percent of the Slovak population, the argument continues, Fico argues that this is telling – especially as these are often instances of violent criminal acts. He concludes that the situation has in this regard gotten out of hand and that Slovakia cannot solve this problem in the framework of its internal politics. What served as a spark for this rhetoric in January was the criticism of the fact that the government had refused to give the Slovak ombudswoman, Jana Dubcová, floor at its regular meeting, when she wanted to address the police intervention that took place last summer in a Roma village Moldava nad Bodvou. Not disappearing from the public sphere, the Roma issue clearly continues to be a salient political theme in Slovakia, the current presidential campaign not being an exception. The continued use of the Roma issue in Slovak politics is indicative of the fact that at a minimum, it does not overall politically hurt those using it, and at a maximum, it suggests that this theme continues to resonate with the Slovaks' perceptions of the self and the other. Considering that no Slovak nationalist party has presented their presidential candidate, this theme is up for grabs – as are the votes of those who like to hear that this issue is addressed in a firm manner. It is certainly not unimaginable that in his campaign Fico will take advantage of this niche.
Campaign and national identity and the "others"
As has been indicated above, a topic that to a large extent drives the pre-election discourse among the presidential candidates is that of the balance of power and, more generally, the democratic quality of the Slovak government. Many of Fico's rivals, including Ján Čarnogurský (independent), Milan Kňažko (independent), Andrej Kiska (independent), or Pavol Hrušovský (KDH, Most, SDKÚ), for example, are strongly opposed to the possibility that the Prime Minister Fico, his political party Smer and the people affiliated with it, would dominate not only the National Council, but also the Presidential seat. The underlying argument is the alleged need to maintain an effective balance of power between the different branches of the Slovak government, whereby the President should serve as a check against the governing party and its majority in the Parliament. First of Kiska's twelve-point program, for example, is titled “A Counterweight to Every Government” - Kiska states that as a president, he would serve as a counterweight to any government, as this quality is currently missing both in the Parliament and the opposition. Similarly, Kňažko's slogan says that “Again, the stakes are high.” Former dissident who entered into politics at the time of the regime change, he refers to his concern that Slovakia may be returning to a one-party rule and that even though various institutions appear to be independent, they are in effect independent only formally, being under the strong influence of one person. Robert Fico naturally rejects these appeals. Firstly, he ardently defends himself against the charges claiming that he plans to strengthen the role of the President and overtake the country. Secondly, he argues for the need to achieve stability and social peace, which in his view can only be upheld by the joint effort of the President, the Prime Minister and the Chair of the Parliament. This argument is framed in terms of the narrative of the “Svätopluk's rods” tradition, which is based on an old legend whose morale tells us that it is in unity that we prevail. Arguably, the presidential campaign has given rise to a new identity consideration. Fico's opponents have to a considerable extent framed the upcoming election as amounting to a choice between a democratic course on one hand and a direction that could, in the words of the candidate Kiska, turn Slovakia towards a Belarusian path, on the other. To what extent the desire to be identified as democratic will resonate with the Slovak population and activate it to vote for candidates who claim they will protect the Slovak democratic regime from Fico's authoritarian tendencies remains to be seen.
Related to reflections on Slovak national identity and self-perception is also Fico's recent decision to identify himself with catholicism (despite previously describing himself as an atheist). After more than twenty years in high politics – and perhaps somewhat surprisingly considering his membership in the Communist Party of Slovakia – Fico has at the beginning of January 2014 decided to made public his catholic upbringing. While his relationship towards the Catholic faith may in the minds of some raise question marks, this step provides us with a curious insight as to what aspects of Slovak identity may be important. As a presidential candidate, Fico arrived at the conclusion that the catholic tradition is an important aspect of being a Slovak and as such could likely materialize into political success. Nevertheless, as can be concluded from Fico's recent speeches, other – perhaps more traditional – aspects of Slovak nationalism remain relevant as well. In his public addresses and interviews, Fico managed to get across also nationalistic appeals abounding in references to the imperative for patriotism and a confident Slovakia, as well as the need to uphold the values of the Slovak National Uprising. It can be concluded that while other candidates are attempting to reframe the pre-election discourse as one where the democratic quality would be the main feature, Fico has placed his bet on traditional appeals to catholic faith and demands for a strong and confident nation with a degree of patriotism. The next two months will show with what the Slovak population will choose to identify.