Bratislava, Slovakia – Corruption is not only the central issue in the upcoming Slovak elections, it is the only issue.
Slovaks go to the polls on February 29 with demands for the deep cleansing of a state in which many fear democracy is at risk from deep-rooted corruption and organised crime.
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People here may complain about the underfunded health service, underpaid teachers, and the lack of transport infrastructure connecting the underprivileged east of the country, but corruption is the only game in town ahead of this vote.
The murder of journalist Jan Kuciak two years ago is the primary reason. Marian Kocner, the oligarch suspected of ordering the hit, has become the poster boy for the corruption of Slovakia’s state, as his deep reach into politics, the judiciary and the police has been revealed in a daily court saga.
The smorgasbord of centrist opposition parties fighting the election were in a confident mood a week ahead of the polls opening, with as many as eight parties expected to win parliamentary seats. Polls suggest the opposition finally has a chance to unseat Smer; the nominally centre-left populist party that has ruled for 12 of the past 14 years looks set to be punished by voters for having allowed corruption to flourish.
The “Carpathian Tiger” has raced to catch up with its regional peers economically over the past 15 years. However, an abundance of big corruption scandals has helped to limit the benefits felt by the wider population and deepen concerns that links between officials, oligarchs and organised crime threaten democracy.
It is as “if we have forgotten that democracy … is mainly about the spirit of freedom, of justice, tolerance, and solidarity”, President Zuzana Caputova, a former liberal political activist who swept to the post last year, told the Munich Security Conference in February. “These are bound together by the rule of law.”
This bid to clean up Slovakia is nothing new. Like its peers in the region, the country’s corrupt networks survived the chaos of the communist collapse in 1989, and quickly thrived in a new system hastily cobbled together by former dissidents and activists.
“Corruption is almost a basic requirement in Slovakia,” Arpad Soltesz, editor-in-chief of the Jan Kuciak Investigative Centre, told Al Jazeera. “It has remained the way things are done here since the 1990s.”
After Czechoslovakia split in 1993, Slovakia became “the black hole of Europe” under authoritarian populist Vladimir Meciar. The erstwhile premier was accused of rampant criminality, including ordering the kidnapping of the then-president’s son, and the murder of a detective investigating the crime. This complicated Slovakia’s European Union membership and NATO accession.
The country is yet to truly confront these issues, commentators agree. Meciar has never been convicted of any major crime, and with nationalist populism on the rise, he has even flirted with a return to politics.
Robert Fico, the Smer “strongman” that took Meciar’s mantle to dominate Slovak politics simply “updated Meciarism”, political scientist Tomas Koziak tells Al Jazeera.
Analysts discuss how 40 years of communism trained Slovaks to accept and even admire corruption, of how EU-mandated anti-corruption legislation is made impotent by the capture of the institutions that spend state money or are meant to investigate and prosecute criminal activity.
The Council of Europe’s anti-corruption watchdog GRECO said in a report released last year that Slovakia faces many “crucial issues” in politics and other state institutions.
The “Gorilla” case, which exploded in 2011, was Slovakia’s highest-profile corruption case before the Kuciak murder. Transcripts leaked online detailed alleged security service recordings of secret meetings in 2005 and 2006 between senior politicians and Jaroslav Hascak, head of the powerful Penta financial group.
Privatisations and other backdoor deals were discussed.
Fico, on the cusp of the first of three prime ministerial terms, was reported to have been a frequent visitor who would sip soda water on the financier’s sofa.
The premier’s populist tirades against immigration, the Roma and the EU have over the years often appeared designed to distract from corruption scandals. From questionable contracts on giant infrastructure and IT projects to Fico’s residence in a building at the centre of an alleged tax scam, the suspicion of corruption rarely subsided under his watch.
The inflow of billions in EU funds since Slovakia joined the bloc in 2004 has only turbo-boosted corruption, say observers. The country ranks among the highest in terms of misuse of subsidies, according to EU statistics.
The problem, suggests Gabriel Sipos at Transparency International Slovakia, is that there have been very few high-profile convictions. That has created a sense of impunity.
However, a court in Pezinok near Bratislava is expected to deliver a verdict on charges against former Economy Minister Pavel Rusko and Kocner just two days ahead of the election. Prosecutors are seeking 20 years for each for their alleged attempt to defraud the Markiza TV station of 69 million euros ($75m).
Both men also face even more serious charges. Rusko is accused of plotting the murder of his former business partner. Meanwhile, prosecutors say Kocner had Kuciak killed because the journalist was investigating his alleged network of bribery, theft and blackmail.
The trial has helped burn the urgent need for an anti-corruption fight into the psyche of the wider electorate.
Dozens of officials in politics, the judiciary and the police have already fallen due to their links to the oligarch.
Many more may yet be devoured, especially should Smer fall short at the ballot box.
Unsurprisingly, the party stresses that it is not solely to blame for the corruption in Slovakia, and that it is ready to change.
“Kocner is a product of life in Slovakia in the 1990s and he’s linked to many political parties,” insists Peter Kmec, a policy adviser to Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, Fico’s successor. “Every official that has been connected to him has now stepped down and is being investigated,” he told Al Jazeera.
However, support for Smer has dropped dramatically. Polls suggest the party is set to win just 17 percent of votes – compared with close to 30 percent at the last election in 2016. That would likely push it into opposition.
“The murder was grossly abused for political purposes,” claimed Fico, who remains Smer chairman, on the February 21 anniversary of the deaths of Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova. “If there was no murder, I’d stand in front of you as the PM with 30 percent support.”
He reportedly declined to offer condolences to the two families.
Two years ago I would never have dreamed of joining a political party. But corruption is now so rampant it's sucking money out of our health and transport systems.
By way of contrast, the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (Olano) party is reaping dividends from the focus on corruption. Polls suggest the party’s populist anti-corruption platform may put it in pole position to lead the next government.
“The murder delivered proof that Slovakia is a mafia state, and Olano’s DNA is anti-corruption,” Jaroslav Nad, a senior party official, told Al Jazeera.
Predictably, the other parties jostling to lead the hoped-for “democratic opposition” coalition rue the fact that corruption has become the only issue in the election.
Rivals and analysts are wary of the unpredictability of Olano leader Igor Matovic, a billionaire with a taste for political gimmicks and showmanship, as well as his party’s shallow organisation and single-minded emphasis on corruption.
It takes the focus off the other vital issues Slovakia is facing, such as the struggling health and education systems, says Pavel Sibyla of Progresivne Slovensko (PS).
But so pervasive has corruption become that all roads lead to it, for now at least.
“Two years ago I would never have dreamed of joining a political party,” says Jan, a 42-year-old teacher busy handing out PS leaflets in central Bratislava. “But corruption is now so rampant it’s sucking money out of our health and transport systems.
“Things have to change,” he concludes. “Or I will have to leave Slovakia.”