The communist party officials regarded all their subjects as an undifferentiated gray mass: the people, a collective noun, like the herd. The officials liked to flaunt their Soviet people, their Czechoslovak people. Everything they did was on behalf of the people and for their benefit, and all their decisions were ostensibly based on the will of the people. Weighing and measuring the will of the people was, of course, impossible, but that’s what we had the officials for, so that they could predict it in retrospect and interpret it.
The mantra of our present-day politicians and their election slogans is human beings. Though no longer a herd of people, it is still a rather abstract entity. Politicians claim that everything they do they do for human beings as such, jealously guarding this wondrous discovery and ruthlessly attacking anyone who also tries to capitalize on it. See [Prime Minister] Robert Fico‘s attacks on [the leader of the opposition SDKÚ] Iveta Radičová.
But in fact, they don’t have much to disagree on. All political parties claim to have been established for human beings and to serve human beings, and this is precisely what makes the designation for human beings in their election slogans somewhat superfluous. It’s as if a baker advertised his goods by saying bread was for human beings whereas, in fact, his business does not depend on the general designation but rather on his product’s specific taste.
The same applies to political parties, whose slogan for human beings does not give any indication of the taste of their political programmes. To achieve this effect, the parties are trying to pinpoint specific kinds of human beings: families, mothers, patients, the unemployed, senior citizens etc, to show which specific human beings they have in mind. Yet there is one category that is sorely missing from this list: citizens.
For political parties have not been established by human beings as such, or by human beings in their capacity as families or mothers with children, as homeless people or even as patriotic Slovaks, but solely by human beings in their capacity as citizens, i.e. political entities, the original bearers of power, which they have entrusted to the state. These are the human beings who have a stake in the administration of public affairs. And they express their idea of how and to what end they want the public affairs to be administered through political parties, through their programmes and representatives for whom they vote in elections.
In the political programme of Fico’s Smer the word citizen occurs marginally only twice and even his human beings feature prominently only in his election slogan (For human beings, for Slovakia). The text itself stresses the need for a strong state, for the protection of national interests, state symbols, the Slovak language, the interests of Slovaks abroad and the Slovak history from Great Hungarian chauvinism. Human beings, their needs and interests are referred to only cautiously and the citizens, as the parties’ primary political partners, are not mentioned at all.
In this respect the election programme of the strongest opposition party, SDKÚ-DS, seems to be competing with Smer as to who will do more for human beings. Starting with its election slogans right up to statements such as we are primarily concerned about human beings and what matters to us is the everyday quality of life of human beings and so on. This is amply illustrated, for example, in the chapter entitled “dignified life”, yet the overall effect seems to stress mainly the consumerist values of this kind of dignified life. Our key goal is to create conditions that will raise the quality of life and living standards, says the introduction of the document that outlines SDKÚ’s vision for Slovakia.
The pragmatic, utilitarian character of their vision and of its notion of dignified life is at least partly compensated by Iveta Radičová’s introduction, which refers to the decisive role played by the citizen and by the commitment to civil affairs. It is a pity that these words refer only to the past: The events of 1989 were an expression of courage. The silent minority showed its civil commitment. The aim of the breakthrough was not a return to normal conditions but the creation of new rules of the game, a free democratic society.
However, nobody seems to want to make use of the hidden potential of the wonderfully committed citizens of Slovakia at present. No political party has shown any willingness to promote their participation, political awakening, entering the political arena. It is almost as if the parties were afraid of what might happen. This is our arena, they are saying to themselves, the arena of the red, the blue, the green, the black party and the invasion of our stage by ideologically undefined citizens would only wreck our game. We can win without them. All they need to do is vote for us.
And so the parties prefer to fight for the affection of mothers and children, senior citizens, the unemployed, of anyone covered by the label of human being, except for citizens as politically committed beings, who might mess things up by demanding political and civil rights and the whole human rights packet that does not feature in the parties’ political programmes at all. They might demand rights for women, children, prisoners, patients, immigrants – and these are all issues the parties are avoiding like the plague.
Who knows, they might even have the audacity to ask questions about the rights of ethnic minorities in our country. On this subject Smer’s election program is as silent as grave and SDKÚ dismisses it in five sentences, of which only two have an actual communicative value: we will protect the right of Slovaks in a minority position and we will firmly and uncompromisingly reject unjustified demands of others.
In this election all the parties ignore the politically committed citizens. All they care about is votes of their party members and all those categories of human beings they appeal to in their programmes and at their rallies. For these are the votes that are easiest to get and this is the electorate that can most easily be duped. However, it is possible that other political forces, distinctive from political parties, will get interested in citizens and then the parties will be in for a surprise at the spontaneity of political action, at the demands for changes to the accepted mechanism, for clean hands, for the belief that truth ought to prevail over lies, justice over cynicism and sincerity over hypocrisy. They will claim that such daydreaming has no place in real politics that follows its own, ruthless rules.
Nevertheless, our country has already experienced this miracle of the civil society awakening and vigorously entering the political scene once, so who is to say it won’t happen again?
Translation: Julia Sherwood
The essay appeared in a Slovak in Fórum, a supplement to the daily SME.
We are grateful to Miroslav Kusý for the permission to publish this text in English.