This weekend's Slovak elections will likely mark the end of the era when SMER was in power. Yet, a new government composed of the democratic opposition will be tormented by populism, religious fundamentalism and experimental methods in an attempt to fix the democratic system.
It was a memorable speech. Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, who faced politicians and diplomats from all over the world at the Munich Security Conference, stated that the judiciary in the Visegrad Group countries suffers from “defensive formalism of post-communist justice” – combing a disregard for the spirit of rights and a lack of courage. She added that laws disciplining judges are needed and listed Poland as the leading country in their implementation.
Was this the same president who was supposed to be a counterbalance to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Law and Justice President Jaroslaw Kaczyński, both accused of authoritarianism? Those who listened to her carefully until the end were not disappointed.
Not only did Čaputova lay out the real problems of the justice system throughout Europe, but above all, she rebuked politicians who do not know moderation in reforming the law by force and are pushing populist slogans. She also supported the link between the European Union budget and the rule of law assessment.
Or is this another example of symmetry? Attempting to play two pianos – on the one hand, flattering colleagues from the region and, on the other, seeking applause among western partners? The answers to these questions are hidden in the dynamics of the ongoing campaign – on 29 February Slovaks will elect a new parliament and government. Will Robert Fico’s SMER remain in power or will the new cabinet be co-founded by Marian Kotleba’s LSNS? Most likely it will not but do not count on a miraculous triumph of democratic elements epitomised by the victory of Zuzana Čaputová.
On the last day of January 2020, the nationalist People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) which considers itself the heir of the Slovak People’s Party run by Jozef Tiso, organized a rally in Bratislava. Its politicians and supporters gathered on, ironically, the square of the Slovak National Uprising – which broke out in August 1944 against the Third Reich. The manifestation, like many of the previous ones, was disrupted by opponents from the left-liberal party Progressive Slovakia (PS) and the conservative-liberal Together – Civic Democracy (SPOLU). Two politicians of these groups were beaten up.
The opposition is increasingly strong against LSNS because the ruling social democrats from Direction – Social Democracy (SMER) and their main coalition partner, the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS), are slowly losing their electorate to the extreme right.
SMER explains its weakening ratings by the fact that radical movements are gaining in popularity throughout Europe. And yet for some time, Robert Fico’s party was an exception – it maintained its popularity. But, as commentators point out, this was due to the fact that SMER was extremely flexible in defining what could be considered as social-democratic.
Fico responded to critics that SMER did not imitate Western social democrats because they began to focus on the rights of various minorities and thus betrayed the working class. “Our social democracy”, he argued, “is culturally conservative”.
The Kuciak moment
But the appearance of LSNS is not the only reason for the weakening of SMER. The party leader believes that his grouping has become the target of the “dirtiest attack campaign” in connection with the 2018 murder of Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kušnírová followed by the trial of Marián Kočner, accused of ordering this murder.
The death of the investigative journalist and his partner is a huge problem for SMER. The party has been in power for a total of 12 years since 2006 – with a short break when Iveta Radičová’s centre-right government took over for two years. Despite public outrage, numerous demonstrations and constant pressure from President Andrej Kiska, SMER managed to stay in power. This was possible because a small coalition partner that is known as Most-Híd, a liberal-conservative party of the Hungarian minority, supported the government in exchange for Fico’s departure from the post of prime minister.
However, the investigation into the murder of Kuciak made the Slovaks aware of the influence of the mafia, which grew and took over the justice and security apparatus. Fico has consistently described the anti-government protests of 2018 as a conspiracy of foreign forces, opposition, media, NGOs and the president. He claimed that the murder case was inflated on purpose because no one could beat his SMER in a democratic competition.
Nevertheless, Slovak publicists point out that already in the regional elections which took place before Kuciak’s murder, SMER unexpectedly lost its power in numerous districts and was pushed out of cities to the countryside in local government elections.
After Kuciak’s murder, SMER’s presidential candidate, European Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, was defeated by political novice Zuzana Čaputová, a social activist fighting against corruption and environmental degradation. Unlucky for SMER, the series continued when the coalition of Progressive Slovakia and SPOLU succumbed in the elections to the European Parliament.
In the upcoming Slovak elections it can be expected that even if SMER gets the most votes, it will not be able to form a government. The party became a pariah for more democratic forces because of both ideological and ethical reasons. Moreover, SMER’s existing partners, i.e. SNS and Most-Híd, may not get into the parliament. Quarantined, SMER can only actually rely on the silent support of the growing LSNS, which has already voted many times in alignment with the government.
“Previously SMER had some contempt for LSNS. Now they don’t talk about them at all during the campaign. This silence is quite obvious because they attack the rest of the opposition every day. LSNS can count on reciprocity,” notes Matej Kandrík, director of the Slovak thinktank STRATPOL.
This cooperation raises an obvious risk for SMER because it frees some members of the electorate from shame; supporters of radicalism can encourage the election of a more distinct party. However, SMER has succeeded in preventing voters from swimming away to LSNS. Among others, it has become more nationalist and pro-social, lowering the retirement age to 64, rejecting the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe on Preventing and Combating Domestic Violence or the Marrakech Pact on Migration Regulations. LSNS was proud to help the party in these efforts, promising to be even more radical when it would gain power.
Nevertheless, Professor Oľga Gyárfášova, a sociologist from the Comenius University in Bratislava, believes that in the end, “LSNS will not be in the future government. It seems that SNS – a former SMER coalition member – will not be able to enter parliament and SMER will not have enough seats to form a coalition with LSNS”.
Echoes of the “Gorilla” scandal
SMER is also being undermined because of its elites’ relations with Marian Kočner. As Robert Fico’s neighbour – they both had apartments in a luxury complex belonging to Ladislav Basternak, a convicted fraudster – he also tempted many other politicians. Today Kočner is the main defendant in two trials: for fraud and the execution of Jan Kuciak and his fiancée.
Both of these trials have led the public to focus on analysing the state of the country, which has been ruled by SMER for so long. For example, it turned out that Prosecutor General Dobroslav Trnka was corrupted by Kočner for years, and he also intimidated and humiliated the submissive official to protect his interests. As a result, a mafia grew in Slovakia which took over farms in the eastern regions of the country and further extorted subsidies from the EU (the case was recently described by the New York Times).
However, SMER avoids taking responsibility for the scandal, although his politicians certainly remember a scandal from 2011. It was then that the recordings of a secret police operation code-named Gorilla were revealed, where one could hear how the main politicians of the coalition were accepting bribes from PENTA representatives. The scandal and social protests deepened the crisis of Iveta Radicova’s centre-right government and paved a return to power for social democrats. It was then that SMER enjoyed 40 per cent support and for the first time and did not need a coalition partner for the government.
The disclosure of the “Gorilla” action, followed by the monopoly of power of SMER, largely resembles the path to power that was also taken by Viktor Orban’s Fidesz and Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice. The narrative is similar: instead of the corrupt liberals, a power emerges which will build a strong state and protect the nation’s identity.
The Slovakian state gets up off its knees
The opposition promises not to allow the Kočner affair to happen again. It is talking about a failed state where the power structure only imitates democracy, when in fact, Slovak institutions are more like a system of fields occupied by different clans: SMER is the strongest but tolerates the smaller ones.
From this point of view, LSNS is only a by-product of the system, and political ideologies are a cover for increasing personal profits. That is why SMER may not form a government at all. It seems that the electorate wants to reward Igor Matovič’s OĽaNO for being persistent in its guerilla fight with SMER. According to the latest polls, Matovič’s party might even go above SMER.
Oľga Gyárfášova recalls that in Slovakia “the president usually designates the winner of the parliamentary elections as the prime minister. But this is not the rule, and since the strongest party may not have enough seats, the president can designate the party leader behind whom the parliamentary majority will stand – that is, 76 MPs”.
The democratic opposition parties PS, SPOLU, Za ľudí (For the People) of Andrei Kiski, the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and the Eurosceptic Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) suggest removing corrupt officials and repairing public procedures and institutions. Populist groups such as Ordinary People (OĽaNO) and We are Family (Sme Rodina) are more radical. They demand that politics becomes “closer to the people”, that it starts to use instruments of direct democracy such as referendums or public consultations.
These demands are in line with the mistrust of procedures and institutions that we see in all democracies. However, the demands of “more democracy” usually serve to hide the true nature of the callers. For example, the grouping of Igor Matović known as OĽaNO, which in recent polls is leading the opposition, is not a political party but a movement set up by one man. He established some organisational structures only to be registered for the race; The movement often demonstrably breaks procedures even if they seem to be in line with the need for higher standards demonstrated by the voters.
So even if SMER is taken away from power – which seems likely – one cannot be sure that the institutions of democracy will not be put to further trials.
What will happen to SMER and the nationalist parties after the elections? Research shows that for eight per cent of SMER voters LSNS is the second party in the order of preference, while 26 per cent would choose SNS as a second option. These numbers may change.
“It is quite likely that SMER will not survive as a party as a result of the loss of power, and then LSNS will most likely take over their voters,” predicts Matej Kandrík.
Slovakia in Europe
Slovaks’ international ambitions reflect domestic politics. In the current European Commission, Bratislava has seen Maroš Šefčovič appointed as Vice-President for Institutional Cooperation and Strategic Planning. This is one of the key positions since the Conference on the Future of Europe is approaching, which may bring about treaty changes in the EU.
Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák was a silent competitor of Donald Tusk for the top positions in the Union but is now focusing on the UN. It is interesting to note that these two pro-Western politicians were educated in the Moscow School of Diplomacy, while opposition representatives from the nationalist camp are openly pro-Moscow.
The fragmented political scene manifests itself in foreign policy. Suffice it to say that while moderate parties are consistently taking the direction of European integration, nationalist parties are boldly turning towards Moscow. This tension accompanies Bratislava in every international ambition.
Only a few years ago, it seemed that a series of elections in Europe, rolling across the continent, would bring the triumph of anti-liberal movements led by Orbán, Salvini and Kaczyński. When the Czech elections in 2017 were won by Andrej Babiš, the Slovaks did not triumph, even though it was a citizen of their country who took power in Prague.
On the contrary, they saw an opportunity to show their own ambition and started to tell the story of Slovak uniqueness. Robert Fico described the country as “the only pro-European island”. It was an expression of as much political cleverness as Donald Tusk’s rhetoric from the time of the financial crisis, and a genuine conviction of the Slovaks that the EU is the foundation of their security system.
For the Slovaks, the road to NATO and the European Union started later on from the other Visegrad Group countries and it was thanks to the V4 formula that they had a chance to catch up with the others. During the authoritarian rule of Vladimír Mečiar (1994-1998), Slovakia had its member rights of the Visegrad Group suspended. Originally, the V4 group was created to strengthen the pro-Western course in the region.
In Bratislava, more than in Budapest, Prague or Warsaw, they remember that Visegrad means, above all, a pro-European ambition connected with all the foundations of a liberal international order: the rule of law and international aid.
No wonder that the president of the country, Zuzana Čaputová, recalls the bright side of the Visegrad Group and the ambition that the other V4 governments seem to abandon. In the most important international forums, such as the recent Munich Security Conference, she speaks not only on behalf of the Slovaks but Central Europe as a whole. No other president from the region, including Poland, has such a loud voice in the world today.
However, the nationalist SNS, SMER’s coalition partner, sends out a completely different signal to the world. In November 2017, on the same day that President Andrej Kiska spoke in the European Parliament about the threat from Kremlin propaganda, Andrej Danko, President of the Parliament, appeared in the Russian Duma with a message about pan-Slavic unity and the need for dialogue.
Although it caused strong frictions in the coalition, some SMER voters do not consider Russia as a negative hero. LSNS and SNS are successfully telling the story of their closeness to Russia because the Slovaks have an idea of cultural closeness to Russia similar to the bond that supposedly links Poles and Hungarians.
Moreover, according to Aliaksei Kazharski, a political scientist from the Comenius University in Bratislava – some recognise and subsidise civil organisations such as Matica Slovenská (Slovak Mother) or the Union of Anti-Fascist Fighters, established as early as 1969, copying a roll-over of messages formulated by the Kremlin. These range from what one should think about sexual minorities to transatlantic politics.
The story is so attractive that social research shows the Kremlin’s influence on the hierarchy of values of Slovaks. What is worrying is one of the highest percentages of aversion to NATO, the conviction that Russia is a more important strategic partner than the US, and a growing – and now higher – percentage of people declaring intolerance to LGBT.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the government is investing heavily in activities that, on the one hand, will reassure Brussels of a consistently pro-Western direction, including generously subsidising the region’s largest and one of the world’s largest security conferences, GLOBSEC, and, on the other hand, as part of NATO’s recommended strategic communications, it is launching programmes to reach places in Slovakia where the pro-Russian message has such a strong impact on public opinion that it threatens domestic information sovereignty.
Infiltration in politics
Even after the Slovak elections, although nationalists are unlikely to enter parliament, “their aggressive rhetoric will infiltrate the new political culture in the parliament and politics” warns Viera Zuborova from the Bratislava Policy Institute.
For the politicians of the democratic opposition, especially those who have so far been start-up people or analysts in think tanks, this election means much more than just another fight to share the cake. It is not only from their point of view that the fight for the shape of Europe is currently underway in Slovakia.
And the fight is a bit more complex than just liberal democracy versus nationalist kleptocracy. The democratic bloc contains religious fundamentalists too – present mostly in the OĽaNO – as well as heavy populists from Sme Rodina who would not hesitate to use anti-Brussels rhetoric. There are also many supporters of Orban and Kaczyński there who consider the Visegrad Group as a front to fight against liberal Europe.
The picture is not entirely rosy even with the democratic opposition as a part of the future government. No doubts that topics such as the European army, migration quota or the rule of law in other V4 countries will be a point of division and disagreements. The new government composed of the democratic opposition will not change the consensus on Slovakia’s position in NATO and EU. However, it will be more eager to engage in conflicts over cultural questions, sovereignty and migration.