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Shaken by the Fico assassination attempt, the EU wonders if June elections can be free of violence

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Shaken by the Fico assassination attempt, the EU wonders if June elections can be free of violence
News

News

Shaken by the Fico assassination attempt, the EU wonders if June elections can be free of violence

2024-05-17 00:56 Last Updated At:01:00

BRUSSELS (AP) — In an increasingly vitriolic political climate, the last thing needed in the runup to the June European Union elections was an assassination attempt on one of the bloc’s most controversial figures.

As Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico lay recovering from Wednesday’s attack, the sheer violence of five shots targeted at a politician merely for doing his job immediately had a whole continent worried ahead of the June 6-9 polls.

Across the 27-nation EU, the political landscape is becoming increasingly polarized, with no holds barred between mainstream parties on the one hand and the bellicose populists and extremists on the other.

“It is shocking to see that someone can become the victim of his political ideas. Three weeks ahead of the elections, that is extremely alarming,” said Prime Minister Alexander De Croo of Belgium, which holds the EU presidency.

“Let's make it an intense campaign when it comes to words, but not beyond that,” De Croo told the regional broadcaster VRT. Underscoring the seriousness of the issue, De Croo filed a police complaint Thursday against a broadcaster at a local event who called, apparently in jest, for the prime minister “to be shot."

Such incidents are no laughing matter. In Germany last week, a prominent Berlin politician was violently assaulted and suffered injuries to her head and neck. A week earlier, a candidate from the party of Chancellor Olaf Scholz was beaten up while campaigning for next month’s election for the European Parliament and had to undergo surgery.

The politics of compromise laid the foundations for Europe’s famed welfare society, but in recent years, aggressive discourse and unbridled partisanship have been on the rise.

“There was dialogue and with political plodding, solutions emerged. But now, all too often, that doesn’t work anymore,” said Prof. Hendrik Vos of Ghent University.

Slovakia is a case in point. Fico’s mastery of confrontational politics brought him back from the political wilderness and helped secure him a third term in office.

Fico campaigned on a pro-Russian, anti-American platform, a foreign policy liberated from its EU links, a tougher stance on migration and opposition to LGBTQ+ rights.

After he returned to power last year, he immediately set about dismantling the office of the anti-corruption prosecutor and bringing the public broadcaster, RTVS, under tighter government control. However, concerns in the EU about democratic backsliding and the rule of law have now been overtaken by events on the ground.

“Fico’s politics may be a threat to democracy, but this kind of violence in European politics is a much bigger threat,” political scientist Tom Theuns, of Leiden University, told The Associated Press.

“In this period of polarization at European level, we see that the quality of democratic discourse has gone backward and politicians are increasingly depicted as enemies, both by other politicians and by the general public,” Theuns said. “Such discourse to increasingly see each other as ‘enemies’ legitimizes violence in the eyes of those who could possibly use it."

As Fico lay in hospital, outgoing President Zuzana Caputova, one of his staunchest opponents, pleaded to “step out of the vicious circle of hatred and mutual accusations.” Caputova acknowledged that "the tense atmosphere of hatred was our collective work.”

Even Fico himself was predicting that the blaze would rage out of control: on April 10, he posted on Facebook that he would expect a slaying of a leading politician and blamed the media, long a target of his ire.

In 2018, he stepped down amid mass street protests after an investigative journalist who had been reporting on tax-related crimes implicating some in Fico’s party, was murdered, along with his fiancée.

It is too early to say what impact, if any, the attack on Fico would have on the EU elections, since they are highly compartmentalized in 27 separate polls in the member states.

In Slovakia, though, the effect is likely to be felt, predicted Juraj Majcin, analyst at the European Policy Center think tank in Brussels.

The attack “certainly won’t help the less extreme parties," he said, adding that the "chances are that the people will be more motivated to go and vote for people like Fico.”

Even if Fico and his Smer party do well in the elections, their influence in the European Parliament is limited: his tiny parliamentary fraction has even been suspended by the socialist group. Fico himself wields more influence at the summits of EU leaders, where often he can threaten to veto items of business that displease him.

Rather, the Slovak leader is part of a much larger continental shift toward populist parties of the left and right, a move away from the center ground and the often messy compromises of the once-dominant big-tent parties such as the Christian Democrats and Socialists.

Fico is the latest in a surprisingly long list of political victims in postwar Europe. For all their non-confrontational politics of the postwar years, leaders have fallen victims to extremists before. Perhaps most infamously, Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme was murdered in 1986, and foreign minister Anna Lindh was also in office when killed in 2003.

German stalwart Wolfgang Schaeuble, a key figure in the reunification of Germany and the EU financial crisis a decade ago, survived an assassination attempt in 1990 but was left permanently disabled. A similar fate befell about a half dozen politicians, former and active, in the EU.

And even when nothing serious happens, the threat alone can have a massive impact.

On Thursday, anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders became the power behind the throne in a new Dutch government that is throwing overboard compromise politics to set up the most radical rightwing coalition since the war.

Wilders has always thrived on confrontation that some equaled to hate speech. And he has never toned down the strident nature of his campaigning. He has had the highest level of security protection for two decades, since a jihadist website distributed a video calling for his beheading. Following the threat, he was temporarily moved to a safe house.

Wilders now travels in an armored car, surrounded by security personnel. The Dutch security services purchased a home and converted it into a permanent safe house.

The danger is far from abstract: in 2002, maverick Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, a precursor of today's far right, was murdered by an animal rights activist.

During a court hearing last year over death threats made against him by Pakistani cricketer Khalid Latif, Wilders said of the measures “You never get used to all that. You learn to deal with it, but you never get used to it.”

FILE - A group stands under an election banner outside the European Parliament in Brussels on April 29, 2024. In an increasingly vitriolic political climate, the last thing needed in the runup to the June European Union elections was an assassination attempt on one of the bloc’s most controversial figures. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

FILE - A group stands under an election banner outside the European Parliament in Brussels on April 29, 2024. In an increasingly vitriolic political climate, the last thing needed in the runup to the June European Union elections was an assassination attempt on one of the bloc’s most controversial figures. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said.

“What’s happened is a massive change with massive penalties and targets on people who didn’t do anything wrong,” Associate Justice Minister Nicole McKee — a lobbyist for gun owners before she entered Parliament in 2020 — told The Associated Press in an interview this week. Every part of the law will be scrutinized, including the restrictions that bar all but a few hundred New Zealanders from firing banned semiautomatic weapons, she said.

McKee’s pledge of a wide-ranging review — following an earlier announcement that she would ease rules for gun clubs — was applauded by groups representing the country’s 250,000 license holders and decried by survivors of the 2019 terrorist attack at two Christchurch mosques where an Australian man opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 51 people.

“It makes me scared for our futures,” Temel Ataçocuğu — who was shot nine times in the attack and fears an erosion of the assault weapon ban — told the AP. “What have the past five years been for? How are they going to prevent this from happening again?”

New Zealand drew global admiration when its then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said six days after the massacre that her government would outlaw all semiautomatic weapons. The change was approved by 119 lawmakers with only one opposed, and sweeping reforms followed: bolstered licensing requirements, more rules for gun clubs, and the creation of a firearms registry.

The changes introduced “onerous regulatory compliance,” said McKee, whose political party, Act, campaigned for New Zealand’s 2023 election on a platform for reversing many of them. Now in government as part of a center-right coalition, McKee pledged to update the law before the next election in 2026.

Her bloc has enough lawmakers to easily pass any reforms. Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and a spokesperson for Labour — New Zealand’s largest opposition party, formerly led by Ardern — have not answered AP requests for comment.

McKee said she would consult with the public before deciding specific measures and that her personal views would not direct the overhaul. Critics rejected that.

“She was elected as a gun lobbyist, that was her role,” said Chris Cahill, president of the Police Association, a group representing most New Zealand officers. “She’s got a loyalty to the gun lobby groups.”

The review was “without a doubt, a backdoor into giving people access to semiautomatic assault rifles again,” Cahill said.

At the time of the ban, McKee denounced it as “knee-jerk.” As a minister she is more guarded, but told the AP that New Zealand had not been entirely rid of such weapons; several hundred people have permits to use them for pest control in rural areas, while others can own but not fire them.

“If we extend the access, what are the possible controls around the use of the extension? And would society be happy with what those controls mean?” McKee said she would ask during the review.

“It’s about how do we find the balance with protecting people but not going over the top with a regulatory regime,” she said. Any concerns raised by opponents should be “realistic," McKee added. “It cannot be anecdotal.”

New Zealand’s gun laws were safer before the 2019 reforms, the minister said, citing the dozens of pages of information now required for a gun license as an example of changes that could deter gun owners’ compliance.

“That’s absolute rubbish,” said Cahill. Gun laws were “loose” before the terrorist attack, he added, and the scrutiny reported by owners in the years since reflected the proper administration of the law after an injection of government funds.

McKee will begin by examining the gun registry created after the attacks; some gun owners want it shrunk to only the highest-powered weapons, rather than all guns. She will also explore removing from police oversight the new agency that administers gun licenses and registrations.

Gun crime has increased in New Zealand since 2019, according to analysis of official crime figures by New Zealand news outlets. Supporters of the tighter restrictions say they will take time to have an impact, and that a burgeoning problem with violent gang crime is fueling the rise. McKee, and groups representing gun owners, say scrutiny since the attack has fallen on law-abiding license holders at the expense of criminals, who are not captured by the stricter rules.

The Council of Licensed Firearms Owners said members had lost or couldn't obtain licenses because of malicious reports from past partners — who must be interviewed as part of a person’s application — or because they had divulged depression to their doctors. Areas of flexibility should be introduced to applications, spokesperson Hugh Devereux-Mack said.

“Every single New Zealander who is not convicted of a serious criminal offense and has no sort of problematic behaviors or serious mental health conditions is eligible to own a firearm,” Devereux-Mack said.

The gunman serving a life sentence for the Christchurch attack, Brenton Tarrant, moved to New Zealand from Australia, acquired a gun license and amassed a cache of assault weapons, all legally, without drawing the attention of law enforcement until he committed the massacre.

The police were censured by an inquiry that found Tarrant was incorrectly allowed to nominate a character reference who barely knew him because he did not have relatives in New Zealand who could be interviewed.

McKee said the rules that followed have made the system rigid and unwieldy. She would prefer a licensing regime “that looked at the individual," she said — without prompting the same disregard of rules that had allowed Tarrant to receive a license.

Devereux-Mack said his group might support an additional practical testing component to gun licensing, and a tiered system with more freedoms for longtime license holders.

“New Zealand won’t be safer if it becomes easier to get a gun,” Ataçocuğu said. “I have to have an eye test every time I renew my drivers’ license. Gun owners should have similar background and mental health checks every few years to make sure they’re still safe to have guns.”

FILE - An armed policeman patrols the grounds at the Al Noor mosque following the previous week's mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 23, 2019. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

FILE - An armed policeman patrols the grounds at the Al Noor mosque following the previous week's mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 23, 2019. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

FILE - A police officer stands guard with a rose at the service for a victim of the March 15 mosque shootings at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 21, 2019. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File);;;

FILE - A police officer stands guard with a rose at the service for a victim of the March 15 mosque shootings at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 21, 2019. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File);;;

FILE - Police acting superintendent Mike McIlraith shows New Zealand lawmakers in Wellington on April 2, 2019, an AR-15 style rifle similar to one of the weapons a gunman used to slaughter 50 people at two mosques. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said.(AP Photo/Nick Perry, File)

FILE - Police acting superintendent Mike McIlraith shows New Zealand lawmakers in Wellington on April 2, 2019, an AR-15 style rifle similar to one of the weapons a gunman used to slaughter 50 people at two mosques. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said.(AP Photo/Nick Perry, File)

FILE - Armed police officers guard the entrance as family and survivors from the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings line up to enter the Christchurch High Court for day two of the sentencing hearing of Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant, in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Aug. 25, 2020. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

FILE - Armed police officers guard the entrance as family and survivors from the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings line up to enter the Christchurch High Court for day two of the sentencing hearing of Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant, in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Aug. 25, 2020. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

FILE- Al Noor mosque shooting survivor Temel Ataçocuğu points to the scar of a bullet wound in his arm during an interview at his home in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Feb. 25, 2020. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

FILE- Al Noor mosque shooting survivor Temel Ataçocuğu points to the scar of a bullet wound in his arm during an interview at his home in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Feb. 25, 2020. New Zealand’s government will overhaul the tighter gun laws introduced after a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist five years ago, because they put excessive burdens on gun owners who feel vilified by law enforcement and the public, the lawmaker leading the changes said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

New Zealand's Associate Justice Minister Nicole McKee addresses a press conference at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, on April 22, 2024. McKee says the government will review stricter gun controls introduced after a mass shooting five years ago as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of firearms laws. (Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald via AP)

New Zealand's Associate Justice Minister Nicole McKee addresses a press conference at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, on April 22, 2024. McKee says the government will review stricter gun controls introduced after a mass shooting five years ago as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of firearms laws. (Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald via AP)

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