|Training at the border|
quarta-feira, 10 de fevereiro de 2016
We protect Slovakia’
We protect Slovakia’
Voters worry about jobs and health care — but the PM is obsessed with non-existent migrants.
By BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM 2/10/16, 5:30 AM CET
BRATISLAVA — Slovakia is hardly the destination of choice for migrants to the EU, but that doesn’t stop Robert Fico railing against them and using the refugee crisis to boost his chances of winning a third term in next month’s parliamentary elections.
Fico is opposed to opening the doors of the EU — and Slovakia — to migrants, playing on fears fueled by the Paris terrorist attacks last November and the sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne by gangs of men who included asylum seekers.
“The only way to eliminate risks like Paris and Germany is to prevent the creation of a compact Muslim community in Slovakia,” said Fico, Slovakia’s prime minister from 2006 to 2010 and again since 2012.
“The idea of multicultural Europe failed and the natural integration of people who have another way of life, way of thinking, cultural background and most of all religion, is not possible,” he said last month.
It’s part of an attempt to harness anti-immigrant sentiment in a country of 5 million people that didn’t experience the post-war mass migration that dramatically altered the composition of many Western European countries.
“The only way to eliminate risks like in Paris and in Germany is to prevent the creation of a compact Muslim community in Slovakia.” — Robert Fico, Slovakia’s prime minister.
Fico has said his government monitors “every single Muslim” in the country and that “Slovak citizens and their security is of higher priority than the rights of migrants.” The security threat for Slovaks is “immensely high,” he warns.
With the general election on March 5, Fico’s fixation on migrants has drowned out most other issues. His center-left Smer party has released just five sentences by way of an official election platform.
So far, it’s working. Smer gained some 7 percentage points in opinion polls in the second half of 2015, topping out at around 40 percent support at the turn of the year. If that translated into votes on election day, it would enable Fico to return at the head of another single-party government.
Andrej Kiska, Fico’s political foe who beat him in 2014’s presidential election, has tried to push back.
“We have no migrants,” Kiska told POLITICO. “Slovakia is not being touched by this issue. We have our own problems and we should focus on them.”
No love of migrants
But Kiska is an isolated voice. Every party running in the Slovak elections is wary of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, and Fico’s language is in line with talk coming out of Warsaw, Budapest and from Czech President Miloš Zeman.
Though nominally left of center and a member of the Party of European Socialists bloc in the EU, Smer (which means “direction” in Slovak) peddles an amalgam of soft nationalism, social conservatism, corporatism and state largesse.
The party has used its outright parliamentary majority to increase the minimum wage, grant free rail travel to more than half the country, offer investment incentives to attract a new Jaguar Land Rover factory and give more power to the intelligence services.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for the ruling party. Scandals in the health care sector forced out Smer’s parliamentary speaker and health minister in late 2014, then came a government bailout for an insolvent construction company whose owner is closely allied to the party, all of which undermined its support in opinion polls. For a while, Fico’s prospects for re-election — at least without having to rely on a coalition partner — looked in doubt.
Then came the refugee crisis, late last summer. Fico went back on the offensive.
Slovakia voted against other EU leaders at September’s summit when they decided to allocate asylum seekers around the bloc, then challenged the qualified-majority voting mechanism used to pass the scheme at the European Court of Justice in December.
Those moves were genuinely popular at home, even though Slovakia had only been asked to take in 803 refugees. In one poll, 89 percent of Slovaks said they were opposed to implementing the EU’s relocation policy.
Slovaks are more concerned about unemployment, the economy, health care and the cost of living than immigration, according to a Eurobarometer poll conducted in November.
“When the migration crisis hit, a lot of the leaders from the opposition parties were not willing to stand up and talk about how we should orient our country on the modern principles of Europe,” Kiska said. “We are missing these new charismatic leaders who are able to bring these voters from the center to the right together.”
The divided, ineffectual opposition is no match for the Smer political machine and Fico’s political savvy. Six weeks before the election, his government sent checks to every household, ostensibly rebates for savings accrued by low natural gas prices.
Fico has succeeded in leveraging the migration issue despite Slovaks’ apparent lack of concern about the issue. Unlike Hungary next door, Slovakia has not seen its borders overrun with refugees making their way to more prosperous EU nations.
Slovaks are more concerned about unemployment, the economy, health care and the cost of living than immigration, according to a Eurobarometer poll conducted in November. Only 6 percent of Slovaks list terrorism as one of their top two concerns.
“When you talk to people, it is very difficult for them to define the reasoning behind their fears,” said Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava.
Although Slovakia doesn’t have many new migrants, it is no stranger to ethnic tensions. More than 9 percent of the population is ethnic Hungarian, and there have long been tensions with neighboring Hungary over their status. Between 2 and 8 percent, depending on who is counting, are Roma — a minority that, historically, has been subjected to fierce discrimination.
There is no denying that Fico’s confrontational approach to refugees has paid political dividends so far. Other issues pop up, like labor unrest among teachers and nurses and media allegations that two top government ministers took part in a fraud scheme that cost the state €75 million in lost VAT revenues.
But there is little sign of Fico going off-message. Last week, he held a news conference telling teachers he would only talk with them after the election. Meanwhile, Smer billboards across the country promise: “We protect Slovakia.”
There is a risk for Fico that he may have played the anti-immigrant card too early.
“If, based on temporary or permanent quotas, someone forces us to import 50,000 people with completely different habits and religions — and these are mostly young men — I can’t imagine how we could integrate them,” Fico told the Czech daily Pravo.
Still, there is a risk for Fico that he may have played the anti-immigrant card too early.
“Fico loves to position himself as a defender of the country against external threats,” said Milan Nič at the Central European Policy Initiative think tank in Bratislava. “When you look at the polls it worked, but people are already tired of it.”