Many people believe that someone “pulls the strings”

The public opinion survey[i] conducted recently in Slovakia brought quite surprising findings – more than 60% of respondents agreed with the statement “Actually, it is not the government that runs the country: we don’t know who pulls the strings”. Out of them, 20% agreed strongly and another 43% tended to agree. Only 25% disagreed (either strongly or tended to) and 12% didn’t know or gave no response (Table 1). These simple numbers are a warning and definitely need an explanation that takes into account the more general context of the recent social climate and public mood in Slovakia.

The survey took place 16 months after the early election (March 2012), which brought a landslide victory for the left leaning Smer-SD. The winner formed a one-party government headed by Prime Minister Robert Fico. The early elections were held less than two years after the previous ones, marking the shortest electoral term in the country’s modern history, after the fall of the center-right coalition government led by Prime Minister Iveta Radičová.

The atmosphere before early parliamentary elections was affected by the low credibility of key state institutions and record levels of public dissatisfaction with the state of society and of politics. In October 2011, the outgoing Radičová administration was trusted by only 29 percent and parliament by only 31 percent of citizens. Three out of four people believed that society was not heading in the right direction.[ii] Public disenchantment was even greater than before the crucial parliamentary elections of 1998 that ousted authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar.

There were several sources of this disenchantment. In addition to the global economic crisis and dissatisfaction with the economic policies of the center-right administration, an important source of disillusionment with politicians and politics in general was corruption and clientelism. These negative sentiments were further catalyzed by the so-called ‘Gorilla scandal’, which triggered a series of protest demonstrations whose participants demanded that corrupt and immoral politicians leave public life. Moreover, the protesters were skeptical about representative democracy and required more direct democracy. After the election the new government did not investigate any concrete cases of political corruption. The diffuse feeling that clientelism is wide-spread and is a “natural” part of doing politics has remained. Furthermore, the media quite openly but very generally point at connections between the ruling party and domestic financial groups. Articles about “oligarchs” in Slovak politics can be read almost every day. The obvious response to the allegations directed against the government is: when the recent opposition was in power, corruption and clientelism were even more wide-spread. This fortifies the widespread common wisdom that ”politics cannot be different”.

A strong indicator of distrust and frustration with politics is very low trust in politicians. By the end of 2012 the credibility of politicians dropped to a new record low – in a survey carried out by IVO and FOCUS in November 2012, almost half of the respondents (47%) said they did not trust any political leader or were unable to identify a single trustworthy politician.

Corruption, clientelism, nepotism, party-cronyism, and huge deficits in transparency represent negative factors – a “cancer” eroding political institutions – which lead to a high level of public distrust in political parties. Moreover, it undermines civil participation and brings back the feeling of civic helplessness. For many politicians, the potential benefits of corruption outbalance the possible costs because of the relatively small chance of detection and punishment. Corruption is perceived as a natural part of politics against which people are unable to fight back.

 Also comparative indicators of democracy quality show that corruption – together with the rule of law – is the common “bottleneck”, the Achilles’ heel of democracy in the Visegrad Four democracies. Moreover, the SGI[iii] score for corruption prevention was recently lowest in Slovakia among the V4, indicating serious problems with corruption and legal certainty.[iv] Are public officeholders prevented from abusing their position for private interests? Are public resources managed in favor of public interest? Don’t the politicians take public goods as a form of private ownership with benefits for themselves and the party donors? If we respond “no” then we should not be surprised that the public says: it is not the government that runs the country, somebody else pulls the strings from behind the scenes – we do not know who but we have an unpleasant feeling we cannot influence them.

Table 1. Actually, it is not the government that runs the country: we don’t know who pulls the strings (in %) 

Source: Political Capital/Institute for Public Affairs, July 2013.


Are there any differences among socio-demographic groups?

 When we look at socio-demographic breaks we see that those who agree / disagree are evenly distributed in the population, with two exceptions: gender and party preference. The gender gap may be explained by the fact that women more often responded “I don’t know”.

Table 2. Actually, it is not the government that runs the country: we don’t know who pulls the strings: gender gap 

Source: Political Capital/Institute for Public Affairs, July 2013.


As for the voting intentions we see an interesting pattern – the adherents of the ruling party Smer SD are less likely to say that “we don’t know who pulls the strings than the other groups”. This means they are more likely to believe that it is the government who has the power (Table 3). However, the majority still do not believe the government is acting independently without any suspicious actors behind the scenes. Not a very good signal for the government.

Within other four groups which we have identified (supporters of the center-right-opposition  parties, nationalist parties which are out of the national parliament, undecided voters and non-voters) three quarter majorities agree that it is not the government that runs the country.

Table 3. Actually, it is not the government that runs the country: we don’t know who pulls the strings: party preferences (in %) 

Notes: 1/ KDH+ OĽaNO+ Most-Híd+ SDKÚ-DS+ SaS+ Nová väčšina = parliamentary opposition

2/ SNS+ ĽS-HZDS+ ĽS-NS+ NS-Naša strana = extra-parliamentary parties

Source: Political Capital/Institute for Public Affairs, July 2013.


WHO is behind the scene?

The survey also asked who actually has control over running the country; who is behind the scenes. Five options were offered (with a possibility of multiple response) – among them “international finance” was selected by more than a half of the respondents. One third selected “other countries that try to dominate us”. The other options – religious groups, the media and secret groups such as the Freemasons – were selected comparatively much less frequently. On the other hand, the option “other – which one” was mostly identified as domestic financial groups, local mafia, rich people, or the concrete names of the most well-known  and the most powerful financial groups Penta and J&T. Since domestic finance was not on the list of offered options, we can assume that under the “international finance” option was finance in general, including those groups of domestic origins. One of these two groups was supposedly involved in the Gorilla scandal.

Relatively high proportions (one fifth) of respondents answered “don’t know” or gave no response. Roughly 43 % of respondents selected just one option; only about one tenth selected more than two.

In regard to the response “other countries that try to dominate us” we see significant differences among the voter groups – the “nationalists” tend to see “other countries” as those who have control from behind the scene, contrasting with voters of center-right parties who selected this alternative comparatively less regularly.

The roots of public opinions about “who is behind the scene” can be traced also to politicians’ communication. In their public speeches and appeals, scapegoats and “the others” who are responsible could be found. For example, during the economic crisis the “financial markets” became personalized; attributes of human actors like “the markets are impatient”, “the markets are nervous”, the markets “are recovering” etc. could be recognized. Often the responsibility for politicians´ decision is ascribed to these “invisible hands”. Politicians justify the necessity of their unpopular policies by using actors who are out of their realm of responsibility – “we have to do this because of … the markets”. Similar communication patterns can be observed in regard to the EU – the EU or “Brussels” is presented as a scapegoat or excuse for making decisions which the public may not like. From open-ended question about who the “others” are we can derive that the alternative “Other countries that try to dominate us” was understood to include not only concrete countries but also the EU. Moreover, the euro crisis (and Slovakia is a Euro-zone member), the bailout, the EFSF and other phenomena of recent times may also contributed to feelings of alienation and frustration.

Table 4.  Among the following groups, which ones are, according to you, those who control Slovakia from behind the scenes? (multiple choice, in %) 

Source: Political Capital/Institute for Public Affairs, July 2013.


Combining the question on “who runs the country” and the responses to “who controls behind the scenes” we can create the following classification:

  1. hard conspiracists: they agree that not the government runs the country and select more than one “controller”
  2. soft conspiracists – general: they agree that it is not the government that runs the country but select just one option or are not able to say who actually is controlling the country from behind the scenes
  3. soft conspiracists – specific: on the one hand they see the government as running the country but on the other hand they select some groups as having control behind the scenes
  4. skepticals: they actually agree that the government runs the country or have no opinion on this and at the same are not able to select or name any group controlling the country from behind the scenes.

Table 5 shows how the four types are distributed across the Slovak adult population. About one quarter of the population are “hard conspirators”, 42% can be classified as soft – general, and another 23% as soft – specific. Just less than one tenth are skeptical – or we could say immune to conspiracy theories – they agree that the government runs the country and not any other groups from behind the scene.

Table 5. Typology and distribution of conspiracy attitudes in entire population (in %)

Source: Political Capital/Institute for Public Affairs, July 2013.


In regard to the distribution of the Hard category among different social groups, we see a similar pattern to the previous question – a clear gender gap and lower representation in the mid-age category (30-49). There is a higher proportion of Hard conspiracy attitudes also among those with a university degree. The voting groups do not differ significantly in their typology.

The set of questions indicating conspiracy prejudices illustrates that the Slovak public tend to think in conspiracy stereotypes. Agreement with these statements is widespread (Table 6).

Table 6. Conspiracy prejudices: Agreement/disagreement with following statements

Source: Political Capital/Institute for Public Affairs, July 2013.


What are the consequences?

The findings of the survey should be a wake-up call for politicians and civil society actors.  The widespread feelings of disengagement are a threat to civic participation. The citizens may not be motivated to participate in political and public life if they think there is somebody who is pulling the strings. This invisible somebody cannot be outvoted; cannot be hold accountable; moreover, s/he has power over politicians who are elected and who should represent us. The standard tools of representative democracy cannot reach out to those who are behind the scenes. It leads to feelings of civic helplessness, frustration and alienation. And the politicians can do what they or their rich donors want to do. Unfortunately, these are gloomy perspectives for representative democracy. The government and politicians should try to raise more trust in their voters and their fellow citizens in general.


Oľga Gyárfášová, sociologist, Institute for Public Affairs

[i] The survey was conducted in July 2013 on a representative sample of the adult (18+) Slovak population by CAWI (online questionnaire) methodology.  The fieldwork data collection has been carried on by the agency Media Research SLOVAKIA, Ltd.

[ii] Surveys of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO).

[iii] Sustainable Governance Indicator 2011.

[iv] For more details see: Oľga Gyárfášová: Eastern Europe’s Path to Democracy.

Categories Analyses, News, Research, Slovakia | Tags: , , | Posted on August 19, 2013

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