Slovakia struggles to avoid lowest EU vote turn-out again
An African-born singer, a fitness trainer and an ex-hockey star MEP are trying to scoop up Slovak votes in the upcoming elections while officials struggle to prevent a repeat of 2004, when Slovakia had the lowest turn-out ever recorded in the EU assembly's history.
"Many Slovaks know me as a comedian, but they do not know that I speak six languages and graduated from university," is Ibrahim Maiga's reply to widespread incredulity over his election bid with a minor left-wing party.
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Now a Slovak citizen commonly known as "Ibi," he was born in Mali and came to the former Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s as a university student before quickly becoming famous as a singer and actor.
Ibi says that if he is elected, Slovakia - often criticised in Brussels for its testy relations with Hungary and its treatment of Hungarian and Roma minorities - would prove "its citizens are neither nationalists nor racists."
Ex-TV presenters, dancers and even a fitness trainer have joined Ibi among Slovakia's 2009 MEP hopefuls.
It is not the first time that celebrities have run for EU election. Among the outgoing MEPs are Finnish rally driver Ari Vatanen and Czech astronaut Vladimir Remek. Back in 2004, Peter Stastny, a Slovak ice hockey star, topped the centre-right SDKU party list, helping it to also top the polls.
Some analysts predict that this time around, EU experience will be more important than a media profile, however.
"To pick Stastny [meaning 'lucky' in Slovak] was indeed a lucky choice then, but it can hardly be repeated [today] by smaller parties," Vladimir Bilcik from the SFPA think-tank said.
He explained that the 12 existing Slovak deputies who are running again are seen as the pioneers of a new profession which emerged after Slovakia's historic entry into the legislature.
The "professional MEPs," in Mr Bilcik's words, have the best grasp of EU institutions and mostly appear at the top of their party lists for the June poll.
The 12 have also taken part in an EU co-funded "information campaign" about the vote ahead of Slovakia's official pre-election campaign launch on 16 May, giving them extra exposure.
The information campaign "merely sets out questions, such as which are the relevant security standards and so on, while it is up to politicians in their own campaigns to answer them," Robert Hajsel, the head of the European Parliament's office in Slovakia, said, deflecting criticism that the campaign gave the 12 an unfair extra boost.
Mr Hajsel is aware that all eyes in Brussels will soon be on Slovakia to see if his office and domestic politicians managed to get Slovaks to turn up to polling stations.
In 2004, in the country's first-ever EU vote, just 17 percent took part - the lowest number in any EU state and in the history of parliament elections since they began in 1979.
"It seemed as if Slovaks had expressed their will to join Europe but did not care how Europe is governed or who its decision-makers are," sociologist Olga Gyarfasova said. Mr Bilcik worries that weak 2009 election campaigns could see the 2004 fiasco happen again.
It is a paradox, given that Slovaks rate the European Parliament more highly than any other European country in Eurobarometer surveys.
"It seems that the fewer Slovak deputies there are in a political institution and the lower the impact of their decision-making as compared to foreigners, the more Slovaks trust that institution," Ivan Kuhn, from the Bratislava-based Conservative Institute, explained.
The parliament's Robert Hajsel pins the trend to optimism about the EU instead of cynicism about Slovak politicians, however.
"[The EU parliament] is a victim of its own popularity among Slovaks. If you fully trust and support something, you don't want to change it and if you don't want to change it, you don't care to come and vote," he said.