Democracy and Rule of Law

The Assassination Myth

The Assassination Myth - Shaping Eurpe

Political Assassination as Opportunity for Propaganda.

Assassinations of politicians are shocking moments for societies and often turning points in the political course of countries. In polarised political cultures, assassinations become even more impactful. Through three historical examples – the assassination of Pim Fortuyn in 2002, the Smolensk air disaster in 2010, and the attempts on Belarussian presidential candidate Alexander Lukashenka’s life in 1994 – this article illustrates the strength of the so-called ‘assassination myth’. Debunking the myth can help to understand the political response to the assassination attempt on the Slovak Prime Minister on May 15, 2024.

“Mr Fico, may I shake your hand?” screamed an elderly man to the Slovak Prime Minister (PM) Robert Fico. Fico was visiting Handlová, a peaceful miners’ town and bulwark of his Smer party. He had just left the local palace of culture and walked to his car where a group of supporters was waiting for him. The elderly man, a 71-year-old writer and critic of the government, had positioned himself between these supporters. Fico walked to the enthusiastic group of supporters, unaware that the elderly man slowly placed his finger on the trigger of his gun. Just as Fico faced the crowd, the elderly man revealed his weapon and shot the PM five times. His security was taken completely by surprise and scrambled to quickly bring the bleeding PM to the hospital. A successful surgery followed and he could leave the hospital after a few days to further recover at home.  

The assassination attempt on PM Fico came as a shock to the whole of Slovakia. Fears of potential further escalation arose in an already highly polarised and tense society. The outgoing president (Zuzana Čaputová, Progressive Slovakia) and the elected president (Peter Pellegrini, an ally of Fico) came together to condemn the attack and called for unity. The opposition came out with similar statements, while close political allies, most notably the Interior and Health ministers, updated the population on PM Fico’s medical status. 

The parliamentary group of Smer, in contrast, responded aggressively. A few hours after the assassination attempt, Smer Member of Parliament (MP) Ľuboš Blaha accused the opposition of being responsible for the attack. According to Blaha, the opposition had created an environment in which hatred and fear could motivate an individual to attempt an assassination on the PM. 

Blaha’s response seemed to have been a preview of how the Smer would eventually embed the assassination attempt in its narrative. After three weeks of silence, Fico published a speech online in which he blamed the media and opposition parties for the attack. He even fully forgave the perpetrator, stating that he was just “a messenger of evil and political hatred.” In a way, the response suits Smer, which is known for its radical and polarising rhetoric rather than being a school example of reconciliation and advocating unity across the political landscape. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether it will benefit an already highly divided Slovak society. 

The basics of the assassination-myth

The two different types of responses – unity and polarisation – can be found in earlier (attempted) assassinations. The assassination of US President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, caused shockwaves in the whole of American society, regardless of political colour. Similar was the societal reaction to the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1987. 

A contrast to this was the public’s reaction to the murder of Dutch opposition figure Pim Fortuyn, assassinated in May 2002. Fortuyn, who became famous for his flamboyant and eccentric behaviour, was one of the first European politicians who openly criticised migration because of the, according to him, overrepresentation of migrants in crime rates. His scepticism towards Islam raised alarm bells among especially the ruling Labour Party (PvdA), whose members heavily criticised him. On the 6th of May 2002, he was shot in Hilversum and died on the spot. The shooter, an animal welfare activist who struggled with mental disorders, was not affiliated with any political party. 

While his supporters’ reaction was initially one of deep grief, it quickly turned into anger against the Labour Party. The party leader, Ad Melkert, was quickly hooned with the slogan “Melkert Moordenaar!” (Melkert Murderer!), and he receives, to this day, daily death threats. The hostile reaction could be partly attributed to the call from Fortuyn and people around him that he was being ‘demonised’ by the political left. In an interview with TV host Robert Jensen (who was, at the time, mostly known for his entertaining interviews with celebrities), in March 2002, Fortuyn even went as far as saying that in case he were attacked or physically harmed, the political left would be at least partly responsible. Unsurprisingly, a public uproar arose against the Labour Party when Fortuyn was eventually killed. Several public figures shared this criticism, most notably Theo van Gogh (a journalist assassinated in 2004) who openly called Ad Melkert, as well as former Labour PM Wim Kok, Fortuyn’s assassins. 

The rhetoric in which Labour politicians are held responsible for the death of Fortuyn can be brought down to a simple and plain narrative: a so-called ‘hero’ or ‘martyr’ was murdered by the ‘elites’. Familiar with biblical (the Romans murdered Jesus) and ancient (the senators murdered Julius Caesar) stories, supplemented with events from modern history (Abraham Lincoln, JFK), this narrative is easy to digest for a wide audience: the good guy is murdered by the corrupt elite. It fits well in the populist playbook, characterised by a simple image of ‘the people’ versus ‘the elites’. The creation of this ‘martyr-enemy’ relation forms the cornerstone of the assassination myth. Although the assassination indeed happened, the portrayed perpetrator is deeply drenched in a myth. 

Turning accidents into assassinations 

The assassination narrative can also be effective without an assassination. This works as follows: accidents with fatal consequences can be ‘turned into’ assassinations. Although actual assassinations tend to attract conspiracy theories, this so-called ‘accident model’ is fully based on it. The key example is the Smolensk plane crash in 2010.

When the Polish government plane was about to land, the crew became increasingly worried about the stormy weather conditions. On board was a high-ranking delegation, which included President Lech Kaczyński, First Lady Maria Kaczyńska, military commanders, and more than a dozen MPs, all on their way to Smolensk to commemorate the Katyn massacre. Despite worsening weather conditions the captain decided to attempt a landing. But while attempting to execute a controlled descent, the plane quickly lost altitude and it flew into trees situated a few kilometres before the airstrip. The plane exploded resulting in the death of all passengers and crew members. 

The reactions after the disaster were homogenous: Poland’s society was in shock and both the Polish government and opposition called for mourning. The Russian President Putin expressed condolences and laid roses on the site of the crash. Investigations into the crash concluded that the accident was a result of extreme stress in the cockpit and the pilots’ lack of condition training. The same investigations also concluded that the plane – an old Soviet model – was well maintained, ruling out a mechanical failure. 

But this explanation did not remain acceptable for long for Kaczynski’s party members. A couple of months later, a group of PiS MPs (Kaczynski was affiliated to PiS, the national-conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or ‘Law and Justice party’), under the leadership of Antoni Macierewicz, started an investigation. In March 2015, the group published a report and concluded that the disaster was caused by bombs on board which exploded shortly before the plane landed. After PiS won the presidential and parliamentary elections later that year, a parliamentary investigation committee was established. Although a final report did not come out, the PiS leadership increasingly intensified the narrative that Russia was involved in the crash. At the time Prime Minister Donald Tusk, as well as his Civic Platform party were accused of covering up proof. And voilà, the assassination myth was created. Until today, the Smolensk disaster remains an important attribute in PiS’ narrative against Tusk and his party. 

Faking the event

An even more advanced use of the assassination myth can be found in the so-called “assassination attempt” on the current Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenka in 1994. This event illustrates how the assassination myth can be activated without the delict even taking place at all. In 1994, three years after Belarus seceded from the Soviet Union, the first presidential elections took place. The first post-Soviet years were characterised by high corruption, economic chaos, and a deep identity crisis. The tense atmosphere – in contrast to the more hopeful mood in other former communist countries – would prove to offer fertile soil for populism and the assassination myth. 

One week before the elections, on the 17th of June 1994, Alexander Lukashenka was on his way to a campaign event. A year before, Lukashenka was quite unknown. This changed completely when he chaired an anti-corruption committee and published a concluding report in December 1993. The findings were modest, but fears among parliamentary deputies arose when Lukashenka announced that it was not the full report. The presentation of the report was broadcast live and it gave Lukashenka fame. From that moment onwards, he was seen as the outsider who openly criticised the corrupt ruling elite. 

Lukashenka would not arrive at the campaign event. News quickly came out that someone shot at his car, in an attempt to kill him. Immediately, a public uproar arose. However, the attempt was never proven. Several investigations indicated that the bullet in the car was shot from the inside, suggesting that the “attempt” was all set up. A similar event took place a couple of days after the first round of the presidential elections. According to Lukashenka, he was attacked by security guards who tore apart his pants, while being on his way to the office. Again, no proof was given. But it did not matter, the image of  Lukashenka fighting against a mafia-style elite that considered him so dangerous that elimination was seen as necessary, was strengthened. 

The assassination myth applied to Fico

These three events all follow the same simple formula in which a ‘hero’ is (about to be) murdered in his fight against the ‘enemy’. In the aftermath of the assassination attempt on PM Fico, it became clear that the perpetrator was a fierce Smer-critic but not affiliated with any political party.

The response from Smer is, so far, daunting. In his online speech, Fico opens the full attack on the opposition. He creates a picture in which the EU and NATO are characterised by a ‘single correct opinion’. According to him, everyone who is against this ‘single correct opinion’ (he later changes it into ‘single mandatory opinion’) is labelled as a Russian agent. He repeatedly stresses out that Slovak sovereignty should be protected against interference from large Western countries.

PM Fico’s words fit the radical course that the Smer has taken which intensified after its parliamentary victory in October 2023 and the presidential victory in April 2024. The assassination attempt in early May seems to have removed any rhetorical nuance as Fico is now fully condemning the opposition. Although it went less smoothly than in countries such as Hungary, Belarus and Poland (note: the latter is currently reversing the process), Fico is now in the driver’s seat to completely deconstruct Slovakia’s liberal democracy.

Indigo Tjan is a student in Political Science, focusing especially on politics in the CEE regions. He is currently based in Sofia (Bulgaria).

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