04/07/2014 12:04 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2014

Running Political Campaigns in Slovakia

The campaign against Vladimir Meciar in 1998 launched many young Slovaks into politics. Young people were instrumental in the 1998 elections -- as election observers, media monitors, and civil society activists -- that broke Meciar's authoritarian hold over the Slovak political system. Many of those young people remained in politics, either joining political parties or maintaining the NGOs that continued to fight for transparency, press freedoms, and the like.

Eva Ohrablova was part of this new generation of activists. "In 1998, I was involved in the youth movement against Meciar," she told me in an interview in Bratislava last May. "Then I also got myself, I don't even know how, into a political campaign. Suddenly I was doing political campaigns -- in 1998 and 1999. I was still in school, so I had opportunity to try something that I was studying. Political science doesn't have much to do with actual campaigning. So, it was a great opportunity to try something real in political life."

She has worked on several high-profile campaigns, including those of Eduard Kukan, Iveta Radicova, and Mikulas Dzurinda. She has worked for the Slovak Christian and Democratic Union (SDKU), for candidates connected to other parties, on retired NHL hockey star Peter Stastny's election to the European parliament, on several mayoral campaigns, and as a free agent.

Before Radicova became Slovakia's first prime minister in 2010, she ran for the presidency in 20009 and got to the second round. It was a frustrating experience for Ohrablova, because it revealed the gulf that often exists between the worlds of party politics and movement politics.

Radicova "detached herself from the party at that time," Ohrablova remembers. "She thought when she was doing a presidential campaign that she wasn't supposed to be so close to a political party. So she created her own team, and I think that was a bad decision. I was the only one on her team to cover the contact with the party. It wasn't enough. A lot of people working for her campaign were from NGOs and had no experience. The party tried to help her, tried to organize the big meetings. As a candidate, she got too involved in the campaign stuff and not in the real job. That's one of the reasons we lost."

Ohrablova confesses that working on political campaigns carries it with the risk of burnout. But she maintains her faith in politics. "I don't want to be a politician myself," she told me. "But I like to help those people who are open-minded, who really want to do something. I still believe that such people exist. Not many of my friends share this idea. They are much more skeptical. We might be living in Slovakia, in the EU, but the decisions that we take here affect people elsewhere. It's all affecting this small ball we call Earth. I'd like to believe that it's important who we pick in elections. That's why I get very angry when my friends don't vote. I encourage them to vote and get to know the politicians. They say they don't know the candidates. I say, 'Do your homework and get to know them! They are important. They make things happen, or they don't make things happen.'"

The Interview

Do you think the public opinion of politicians has gotten worse?

Of course. There were high expectations at the beginning in the 1990s. The high expectations couldn't be fulfilled because we had mismanagement here by Meciar. Then we had high hopes again with the center right with the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) coming into the picture. And again, the people needed to tighten their belts. They had to do a lot to help the politicians to fix the situation, and they were still waiting for the time when they could enjoy the good life. They didn't realize that they already had it and had forgotten to live it. It will take another 10-15 years, maybe 20 or more, for people to realize that they are actually living that life.

There is another problem. There is strong state paternalism inside the people. They are still waiting for the government to deliver. Even those people who don't pay taxes want the state to deliver. We had a beautiful era in the years from 1998 to 2006. The country got much much better. But people are so angry that they forgot to look around and see it. We were very lucky with the politicians who were here in that period.

The quality of politicians has declined?

No, I don't think the quality has declined. It's the same in the United States too. The life of a politician is very short. It rises and falls very quickly. Here we were very lucky to experience about eight years of good politicians who remained in place. Maybe the political cycle is getting shorter. We are missing a leader right now on the center-right side of the spectrum, someone who not only has a vision but also the ability to lead others -- and I don't mean just the people but the politicians as well. We have many politicians who think they have this vision, but everywhere you look it is just falling apart. Many people think they are leaders. It's not about the quality. The people are educated, well prepared. There are many people in the political parties on the right hand side of the spectrum who are smart, trustworthy, and with good intentions. But it's not good enough. It's also the timing. Maybe something bad has to happen for people to unite behind a real leader.

On the other side, on the left hand side, there is a lot of populism. They are not really doing things for people. There are a lot of young politicians on that side who think that they know everything. They are not acting with pokora, with modesty, with humility and respect toward others. I see it everyday in parliament, the way they talk to the opposition. If they act this way in parliament, what kind of model is this for people to act toward one another on the street -- even if they have a different political opinions?

Do you think it was different between 1998 and 2006?

People were more open-minded, more respectful. Now, even on the right side of the spectrum, people are not able to listen to each other. That's why I think it's falling apart. There's no discussion on where we should go. And there's not much involvement of regular people. They think: we vote for a politician and that's enough. Now, you do your job. If they're not doing their job, then they talk in the pub about how the politicians aren't doing anything. But the people don't do anything themselves. We cannot expect the politicians to do anything if we don't care.

I have friends working with the city councils in different areas of Bratislava. Citizens who have an idea of what they want to change -- for instance, cleaner parks -- they work together and do it themselves. This is interesting. But you need involved people and communities to do that. Open-minded politicians could work with those people. Maybe this is a time for a change of the whole system and how it works.

With citizens becoming more involved and politicians more open to what their constituents are saying?

And going more to the local level. Because that's where you can do real things. The citizens don't think that big politics can do anything for them. They can't touch it. But here at the city level you can see if the roads are paved or the parks are nice. We had a huge problem with car parking in the old city center. Then the citizens got involved and got things changed.

How would you distinguish between Left and Right here in Slovakia?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.