Slovak Optimism Reloaded

Unexpected wins – and losses – in Slovak regional elections reverse a Central European trend

Martin Ehl
13 November 2017

Imagine a Central European country that likes walking the tightrope of liberal democracy. Its people sometimes vote for a post-communist authoritarian regime, other times for a populist one with oligarchs in the shadows, or even in favor of right-wing extremist parties. But on other occasions, the tremendous power of the non-governmental sector fuels a power shift to decidedly pro-Western reformists and the election of the president who was without political experience, but a decent man.

Yes, politics in Slovakia has many faces that often contradict each other. But what happened last Saturday (November 4th, 2017) was even wilder than any scenario forecast by local and skeptical liberal commentators.

More precisely, the regional elections in Slovakia gave a huge boost to central-right parties that on a national level seemed to be struggling for mere survival. Originally, the elections had been seen as a quasi-referendum on Marian Kotleba, a regional governor who was elected four years ago in a popular vote. His victory then shocked many, given his more or less openly neo-Nazi views and his party’s program, which called for exiting the EU and NATO. Since its independence in 1993, Slovakia had never had right-wing extremists directly voted into such high positions.

This year, however, after a broad coalition of parties and NGOs launched a campaign against extremism in the central Slovak region, Kotleba lost, as did his party nationwide. His defeat was supposed to be main topic of these elections.

But the voter-kingmaker made another surprising decision. To the shock of all liberals in Bratislava (and a couple of them in neighboring countries), the opposition gained a sweeping victory all over the country. Out of the country’s eight regions, only two heads of regional administrations remained in the hands of Smer-SD, the governing center-left, populist party of Prime Minister Robert Fico.

Yes, voter turnout was just 30 percent, which is half the figure for last year’s parliamentary elections. But given the anti-fascist mobilization against Kotleba, widespread dissatisfaction with numerous corruption scandals surrounding Smer-SD (which never had any consequences), and the resulting general skeptical mood, this was a surprise. Regional elections never have had a broad appeal, and parties underestimated them until the last elections in 2013, when Kotleba got the votes that ultimately catapulted him and his party into parliament three years later. There was a fear that extremists would cement their positions on a wider scale, and Kotleba himself would claim the presidential office in the upcoming 2019 elections.

But voters decided to kill two birds with one stone. The fascists were beaten. Slovaks, proudly presented by their prime minister as the pro-EU island in the midst of a euroskeptic Central Europe, have at least shown that, despite a worrying trend in Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic, it is possible to vote against right-wing extremism. And NGOs managed to mobilize their forces against the extremists, just as they played a crucial role in defeating authoritarian ruler Vladimir Meciar in the late 1990s.

Slovak liberals are also celebrating the possible end of the decade-long rule of Smer-SD and Robert Fico, given how Smer appears to be losing its appeal among voters. And the success of 2014 is still fresh in mind – when the liberals and the fractured opposition united behind businessman Andrej Kiska in 2014 and he scored a surprisingly easy win against Fico in the presidential race.

Yet we should now take a deep breath after all these celebrations and consider the challenges. The opposition parties are still fractured, and not close to realizing their potential. Although Kotleba lost, his party still got around the same percentage of votes in the regional elections that they received in the parliamentary elections. The country’s struggle with oligarchs remains, as well as the deeply rooted problems of its judicial, educational, and health care systems. Young people leave to work elsewhere, be it in the neighboring Czech Republic, or Austria, or another EU country.

Still, the economy is performing well; a new generation, which was born under democracy, has rallied against corruption; and the elections have provided hope that something can change. This could be just the start: next year there are local elections, in 2019 a presidential poll, and parliamentary elections once more in 2020. Slovaks will have many opportunities to show if their recently gained optimism can prevail.

The article was first published at Transitions Online on November 9th, 2017.

Martin Ehl is editor of Visegrad Insight and the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny.