The speed of today’s life does not often afford us the possibility to reflect, which is sadly true for the most current situation in Slovakia where we have had no time to process the events of the past several weeks.
The assassination of two young people has made civil society stand up on its feet and address the cold reality. Demonstrations which garnered participation comparable to those from November 1989 have been held repeatedly, not only in the capital but also in dozens of other cities across the country and even abroad. They met in foreign metropolises, anywhere people from Slovakia live, which today means practically the whole world.
We do not know how much further these developments will go in affecting the civic mobilisation or political development in the country. But already today we know that young people have been the heroes of the ´winter of our discontent´.
A young generation enters the scene
By 2016 general election, a new voting generation had entered the public space, one which had never experienced the former regime nor the complicated developments in the 1990s. However, their emergence/enter was as a “cold shower” due to their significant electoral support of the extreme right.
Of course, not all of them, but 23% of the first-time voters gave backing the extremists lead by Marian Kotleba. With a considerable amount of nostalgia, many of us remembered the times of the anti-Mečiar resistance when the electoral participation of young voters was part of the solution.
In this case, the electoral participation of the young people, which we have always referred to as unconditional positive, turned into part of the problem.
A lot of energy has gone on to try to understand what actually happened in 2016 election. It could have come about simply because this young generation did not have their ethos fostered by any positive uprising; instead, their characters were being formed by their experience of a pragmatic, prosperous, non-visionary government fixated on grabbing or keeping power. Our legitimate distress from the rise of extremism was transformed into dozens of civic initiatives, with names like the ´Forgotten Slovakia´ or our ´Common Land´. Their objective was to promote critical thinking of – above all young people – and to “immunize” against extremism.
In relation to recent events, it is worth mentioning that the anti-corruption “Gorilla” protests from before the 2012 elections also involved a large number of young people. However, there was no meaningful outcome but rather a sense of frustration and ineffectiveness which lingered on.
That being said, the double murder and everything that followed has woken a numb society. The criticized “selfie generation” has seized its moment. It stopped seeing public and political events as marginal experiences, and the unexpected intensity of their voices has surprised the whole society.
A high level of discontent
Slovak society has been overwhelmed by dissatisfaction with the way public institutions work. Last year, two-thirds of the Slovak public thought that the country was going in the wrong direction (IVO, 2017), which was the highest share of such critical attitudes within the V4. ,
Usually, there is discontentment about the direction the country is going when it affects the “bread base”: that means a primarily economic and social dissatisfaction, whether based on objective reasons or resulting “only” from the subjective definition of the situation. However, as was further specified by the IVO Research, Strengthening Citizenship in V4 Countries, this lesson does not apply here – the average dissatisfaction with the political situation is even slightly higher than the economic one.
Discontent was also noticed when assessing the functioning of democracy. The public is aware of the quality of democracy in particular as the quality of governance and does not question the normative notion of democracy.
As Fareed Zakaria once opined, to have democracy means to have a good government. That was not the case of Slovakia at all. And again – it was not social issues but corruption, the abuse of public institutions, inequality, the arrogance and irresponsibility of the political class which have been the source for discontentment.
The problem, however, was that citizens´willingness to go to the square and have a voice heard, it felt like they were caught in a vicious cycle. When this increasing sense of discontentment was coupled with the conviction that nothing would ever change, feelings of alienation and civic powerlessness grew which caused a decline in both political interest and the belief of meaningful civic activities.
Political effectiveness has two dimensions – the internal expresses the conviction that the individual has instruments of influence on the public affairs, while the external dimension is how the political power responds. When political efficiency does not work, it creates political alienation.
Using the terminology of American economist and political theorist A. O. Hirschman, we can talk about the predominance of “exit” over “voice” strategies, which means declared discontent but doing nothing at the same time. This was a recent diagnosis of Slovak society, but it is also where the sparked for change took place.
The heroes of the 2018 civilian march are young people. However, it has to be stressed that they have already emerged/escape? from the trap of apathy, broke through the vicious circle of political alienation and organised three great anti-corruption marches in 2017. They sent a clear message – we want to live in a country free from corruption and thievery at the top levels of government. However, these activities have not “infected” the whole society, and politicians have understated and essentially ignored their efforts.
Research shows that corruption is the most pressing/urgent social problem of Slovak society for young people. That is the misuse of public funds to redirect benefits for ”our people” (means those who are in the clientelistic networks), overpriced contracts, the oligarchisation of the country, and justice which is blind to those who are privileged.
The events of the past weeks are the so-called “game changers”. Some parts of the society feel that things could no longer return to the old ways.
The voice of the optimist says that civic control and the investigative engagement of agitated journalists will turn this movement into a permanent “watchdog” of democracy, which will control and hold political power accountable also between the elections.
The voice of the sceptic, however, points out that the intensity of the experience can be indirectly proportional to the longer-term sustainability of mobilisation and civic awareness. We can see it as a parallel to the Internet world, in which there is an infinite number of stimuli and actions, but each one only takes up a moment.
Which voice will eventually become dominant and whether the “winter of our discontent” will develop a lasting change in the political culture depends ultimately on us, on civil society.
Olga Gyarfasova is associate professor and director of the Institute of European Studies and International Relations, Comenius University in Bratislava