Thursday, June 01, 2006

Slovak elections

Wise, blue or lost in translation in Slovakia?

By Edward Lucas

A bunch of besuited government ministers on an open-air stage solemnly singing a pop song is a rare sight - unless you are lucky enough to be covering a Slovak election.

I was watching the prime minister, Mikulás Dzurinda, who was campaigning, accompanied by his leading ministers, pretty girls in blue uniforms, a rock band and a lot of other razzmatazz, in the small south-western town of Senec.
It's not just the music that makes it an odd election to outside eyes. The numbers show Slovakia doing amazingly well: growth of 6%-plus, booming foreign investment, a flat-tax and so on. A mythical country populated by readers of The Economist (call it Hayektopia, perhaps) would love that. But Slovaks don't. Dzurinda is, sadly, heading for defeat on 17 June. As he made his speech in Senec, his campaign team outnumbered the voters.
One reason is Slovaks' understandable reform-weariness. Another is that they just want a new face. Dzurinda is the region's longest-serving prime minister, having served nearly two full terms since he replaced the thuggish Vladimir Meciar in 1998.
A third reason is that Dzurinda's government - a rickety minority coalition - has been distracted, or outright incompetent, when it comes to selling its reforms. The election campaign (singing and all) is an attempt to show his party as consisting of warm, likeable people, instead of soulless neo-liberal policy wonks.
But I was puzzled by the song's words. I barely speak Slovak, but I assume (arrogantly if accurately) that with a mixture of Polish, Russian and rusty Czech I will pretty much manage. As far as I could tell, the refrain being sung with such glum and toneless determination by Dzurinda and his colleagues was "Dobra i Modra".
Dobra was easy: it means "good" in every slavic language. But "modra"? It must, I reckoned, be from the same stem as the Polish word "mØdry" (pronounced, roughly, "mondry"). So they were singing, in effect, "we are wise and good".
Hmm. What an interesting insight into Slovak political culture, I thought, wondering how this unselfconscious arrogance went down with the voters. Then my journalistic instincts kicked in. I asked Ivan Miklos, the ultra-brainy finance minister, what the song actually meant.
Ulp. Modra means "blue", not "wise". And it was "je" (is) not "i" (and). So it wasn't arrogant at all, just a rather cheesy song about the party's colours.
Blushing inwardly at my mistake, I headed back to Bratislava, for an award ceremony on corporate responsibility awards. I rather soured the self-congratulatory atmosphere by chiding the head of Citibank, the event's sponsor, for wasting his shareholders' money on something not related to profitability (That's The Economist's editorial line. Personally, I think that you can perhaps justify some corporate do-gooding as part of the marketing budget).
But what really puzzled me was that all the speeches started off with the salutation "Mr President", and the man thus addressed actually gave out one of the prizes. Yet he looked old, almost doddery, and Ivan Gasparovic, the current president, is a sprightly 65-year-old. I concluded that high office in Slovakia must be a wearing business. The only place where I have seen people age this fast is Russia, where the bright young reformers I knew at the beginning of the 1990s became paunchy and pompous almost overnight.
Again, luckily, I checked. It was not Gasparovic, but his venerable predecessor, the 75-year-old Michál Kovác. Of course: just as American ambassadors retain their title when they retire, so do central European presidents. Phew. At least I didn't compliment him on his wisdom.

Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist.

© Copyright 2006 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

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