Election Slovak Parliamentary Election. From 1998 Revolution 2.0 to Fico III
When the media informed about an unexpectedly high electoral turnout shortly after the election, no one still had any idea just how surprising the results of the Slovak general election would be.
Published on balticworlds.com on mars 27, 2016
When the media informed about an unexpectedly high electoral turnout shortly after the election, no one still had any idea just how surprising the results of the Slovak general election would be. According to last public opinion polls conducted two weeks prior to the election, the governing populist left-leaning SMER-SD, which built their campaign around anti-immigrant rhetoric and non-systemic social packages bordering with plain vote buying, was headed for a clear victory.Even though it was expected that the party would lose its majority in the national legislature, most analysts assumed that the party would form a confortable majority with its former coalition ally, the resuscitated and (seemingly) rebranded nationalist party (SNS). The largely divided and conflict-driven right-wing opposition was regarded to be in too sorry a state to mount any meaningful challenge to the government. Sunday morning ushered a new day filled with surprises for the country of little more than 5 million. After 25 years of continued presence in the legislature, the Christian democrats (KDH) narrowly failed to cross the 5% threshold and remained behind the parliament gates. The liberals (SAS), forecast to poll around 5% of the votes, emerged as the second largest party with 12% of the votes. The once omnipotent SMER, somewhat unjustly compared by some to Hungarian FIDESZ or Polish PiS, lost more than 30 seats in the legislature and polled 28% of the votes. Yet another surprise was the entry of the extreme-right LSNS into the parliament with 14 mandates.
As many as 8 political subjects crossed the legal threshold of 5% necessary to gain representation in the Slovak national legislature, making at least two alternative government arrangements possible. This led many analysts to assume that the coalition-building process would be challenging with caretaker government or a coalition of as many as 6 parties considered real possibilities. Yet, barely a week after the election, a new coalition consisting of SMER-SD, SNS, Slovak-Hungarian Most-Hid and Conservative #Siet emerged sparking protests in the streets as well as on social media.
This article is organized as follows. First, the electoral campaign is briefly reviewed. Second, the failure of all polling agencies to successfully predict the results of the election will be analysed. Third, the results will be put into a perspective, focusing primarily on the unexpected success of the extreme right-wing party that crossed the threshold and pondering over potential coalitions that are likely to emerge. Finally, conclusions are drawn.
Creating an image of “threatened” Slovakia
The general election caught up with Slovakia at times when Europe struggles with the aftermath of the refugee crisis. In summer 2015, a poultry track was discovered a few miles from the Slovak border containing bodies of 71 refugeesfleeing the conflict in the Middle East. The prevailing response from the Slovak population was not that of compassion but rather that of fear bordering with plain xenophobia. A few weeks later, the Council of the EU passed a new directive, mandating EU members to share the burden of the main recipient countries and accept some of the refugees based on a predefined relocation quota. This is where Prime Minister Fico made two decisions that came to characterise the election campaign of his party. Rather than addressing the fears of his citizens and explaining the merit of solidarity and empathy, Fico’s SMER-SD entered the election campaign on a highly xenophobic note. Prime Minister denounced the new directive, lodged an appeal against at the Court of Justice in Luxembourg and declared that Slovakia would not accept any refugees who are not of Christian faith. He further stressed that he understood people’s fears and would not allow closed enclaves of Muslim inhabitants, in his words similar to those found in West European countries, to emerge in Slovakia. As the election drew near, PM’s addresses have become more direct and more xenophobic, bordering open racism. The anti-immigrant discourse came to dominate the election campaign. Almost all other parties jumped on SMER’s anti-immigrant train. Among these, the liberal party leader and MEP, Richard Sulik, emerged as one of the most outspoken opponents to immigration as well as Germany’s response to the unfolding crisis. Surprising as it might be, Sulik also decided to leave the ALDE group in the European Parliament and now sit in the ECR group among such conservatives as Poland’s PiS and UK’s Conservative Party. With exception of a few individual liberal party members and parties without parliamentary representation, no party made any kind of pro-immigrant statement.
Two other issues emerged during the campaign but were by-and-large ignored by the governing SMER; much at the latter’s peril. The strike of nurses yet again exposed the sorry state Slovak health care system finds itself in. The strike ended with a failure, forcing a number of nurses into unemployment. A more serious challenge was presented by a teachers’ strike, however. Though exposing serious problems in the largely unreformed Slovak educational system, the governing party publicly ridiculed the strike and no concessions to the teachers whose salaries are well below the OECD average were granted. Speaker of the parliament, former Minister of Education and upcoming Deputy Prime MinisterPeter Pellegrini, even remarked that a small group of teachers are trying to hold the government hostage and use the media to create a false image that everyone working in the education sector is unhappy. This misguided stance on both strikes contributed to a diminishing image of SMER as a left-leaning party defending the interests of the more socially disadvantaged.
Other political parties mostly muddled through the campaign. The Christian democrats continued their pro-family campaign that the party came to be most known for before and after the referendum of 2015. What they failed to notice, however, was that the voters grew tired of theological debates on what the role of family should be and how much protection the traditional heterosexual model of family should receive from the state. This is understandable given that the electorate of the party primarily inhabits regions where unemployment looms large.
Media and NGOs have considered the pre-election programme of the liberal SAS sitting in opposition to be of the highest quality. This programme focused primarily on the economy and contained such provisions as tax reforms, reforms of the bureaucracy and closure of some public institutions, privatisation of state assets as well as privatisation of the state-run Public Health Insurance Company.
Public opinion polls and election results
In 2015, the governing SMER amended the electoral code to provide for a longer pre-election moratorium. The provision concerned public opinion polling and banned any kind of pre-election polls to be published within two weeks before an election. The highly criticised provision was first tested in the current general election.
The last public opinion polls published two weeks before the elections did not correspond to the actual results. SMER-SD was forecast to most certainly exceed the 30%-mark. The liberal SAS was thought to struggle to cross the 5% mark, yet managed to enter the parliament as the second largest party. Additionally, the Christian democrats (KDH) were not thought to be in danger of remaining outside the parliament. Only a few of the polls predicted a potential success of the radical LSNS party led by the notorious governor of the BanskaBystrica region, Marian Kotleba, known for his sympathies for the first Slovak Republic, a puppet state of the Nazi Germany. Yet, his extremist party crossed the threshold and gained 14 seats in the parliament. Similarly, nearly none of the polls predicted the success of a party founded by a millionaire and public personality BorisKollar. His party, founded a few months before the election, built its campaign around populist statements by Kollar himself and unexpectedly polled 6.6% of the votes.
There are a number of reasons that might have contributed to this level of divergence between public opinion polls and election results. First, according to most analysts, most voters made their final decision in the last few days before the elections. This is why; the liberals might have polled so well as many right-leaning voters might have tried to save them. This might also explain the success of the radical LSNS party as well as the populist party of Boris Kollar. Unhappy voters hesitant to swing to any of the established alternatives chose radical movements instead. Second, just like the UK public opinion polls in 2015, the Slovak polls might have suffered from profound social desirability bias. In a highly polarised society, voters might be hesitant to disclose even those most mainstream preferences. As a result, the liberals might have been underscored in the polls as well as the extremists and populists. Third, the proliferation of many polling agencies, some less known or experienced, might have contributed to deterioration of methodological practices. Some polls were even accused of being ordered and paid for by some political actors. The level of congruence among the polls seems to be too high, however, to provide sufficient support for such theory. Moreover, Slovakia has a good tradition of highly reputable polling agencies that, too, grossly miss-predicted the outcome.
Final results and the aftermath
After the exit poll has been published, shock waves were sent through the political establishment. SMER-SD has endured unprecedented defeat that catapulted the party from nearly constitutional majority to less than one third of the seats in the national legislature and, what at first appeared to be a certain place in opposition. The ostentatious political rallies held in all major Slovak cities, persistent effort to incite a society-wide feeling of common threat and present the party as a defender of national security as well as non-systemic social packages that diverted tax-payers money from much-needed systemic reforms of health care and education. The voters punished the party for failing to deliver what it initially promised – security, but not that from external threat but rather that ensuring socioeconomic welfare. Personal changes are unexpected, however. This is because SMER is an extremely leader-driven party. At the post-election press conference, Prime Minister Fico failed to acknowledge defeat and boasted that the party has won yet another election, embracing his common tactic for dealing with disappointing election results: if the results are disappointing, frame them in the best light possible.
The second place secured by the liberals came as a surprise to everyone including the party itself. Thought to be barely able to cross the legal threshold, the party’s position changed from being an underdog, continuously blamed for not keeping their electoral pledges and bringing the government of Prime Minister Radicova to heel in 2011, just two years into her premiership; to becoming a leader of the centre-right political spectrum. The party also campaigned against West-European welcoming stance on immigration and opposed the scheme for relocating refugees. The social-liberal wing of the party led by Martin Poliacik and Lucia Nicholsonova, opposed this stance, however, and expressed their solidarity with those who flee war-torn countries. Consequently, Lucia Nicholsonova, calling for a moderate stance on the refugee crisis, received the second largest number of preferential votes showing that many of the voters for the party felt uncomfortable with the party’s anti-refugee rhetoric. Some analysts argue that the unexpected success of the party can mainly be attributed to its consistently poor results in public opinion polling. I, however, believe that the success can be primarily attributed to three factors. First, the party’s strong economic programme attracted the centre-voter who opposed non-systemic public spending of Fico’s government. Second, individual campaign of Martin Poliacik attracted all those who felt uneasy about the government’s anti-refugee stance. Poliacik was one of the few individual politicians who expressed his support for refugees. Finally, on the other side of the coin, the anti-refugee voters might have been convinced by Sulik’s firm anti-refugee stand, implying that both camps of voters found their candidate on the party list.
The third party, coming in with 11%, is a movement entitled “Ordinary People and Independent Personalities”. The movement has only 4 members who always place themselves to the last 4 places on the party list. The leader, Igor Matovic, is known for his populist remarks blended with occasional serious and well-put critique of the establishment. The remainder of the party list traditionally contains a number of independent personalities, mainly those recognised within their individual professions – medical doctors, activists, religious- and community leaders, etc. The main ideology of the party is lack of a uniform party line. This, together with the party’s dangerous mix of liberal and conservative elements, is likely to provide a good deal of headache for any Prime Minister who will consider taking OLANO into his/her government. This party attracted voters with moderate anti-establishment sympathies and also some of those who oppose the influx of refugees and policy of open doors.
The remaining 5 parties that made it to the national legislature all failed to secure at least 10% of the votes. The newly formed centre-right #Siet, headed by RadoslavProchazka, an unsuccessful candidate from the 2014 Presidential election, secured 5.6% of the votes. Despite some initial popular appeal, most voters swung away from the party due to the inability of the party leader to explain serious allegations pertaining party financing and potential post-election cooperation with SMER-SD. The self-styled civic party of Slovak-Hungarian cooperation Most-Hid, led by a political matador Slovak-Hungarian BelaBugar, received disappointing 6.9% of the votes.
The success of the nationalist SNS was long predicted by the polls. This party, voted out of the parliament in 2012, made a comeback during the campaign leading up to the 2015 referendum on family. In the run-up to the referendum, the newly elected party leader, Danko, received unconventionally large room in the broadcasts of a private news channel, TA3. This TV channel is owned by one of the sponsors of the governing SMER and some came to believe that the room SNS received in the broadcast might have been part of a deliberate attempt by SMER to resuscitate its former coalition partner. Putting theories aside, it is clear that the party attracted those voters who are fundamentally opposed to the recent intake of refugees as well as those unhappy with mainstream parties but unwilling to support non-traditional or extremist political parties.
The biggest surprise of the election was a very good result for the extremist LSNS, led by radical extreme-right supporter Marian Kotleba. In 2013, Kotleba won a governor’s seat in the BanskaBystrica region, centre of anti-Nazi resistance during WWII. His narrow victory in the regional election was assumed to be the result of protest voting in what is usually seen as a rather unimportant election. LSNS was thus not expected to perform well in the national election. Yet, the anti-immigrant tone of the pre-election campaign might have helped LSNS to gain the ground. The Prime Minister, together with other mainstream parties, might have, unwillingly, paved the way for Kotleba’s entry into national Politics by legitimising public expression of racist and xenophobic remarks. Among other contributing factors for LSNS’s unexpected 8% might be protest voting among first-time voters, general disillusion with Politics among the public at large as well as recent successes of radical right-wing parties in Western Europe, which might have led the Slovak voters to believe that radicalism is a legitimate way of political battle. LSNS is headed for a lonesome period in opposition as all other political subjects refused any potential cooperation with Kotleba.
Coalition building: one too many?
When a coalition government of Iveta Radicova took power in 2010, the then outgoing Prime Minister, Robert Fico, remarkedin a pejorative manner that Radicova’s government was just a duck taped structure destined to fall apart. The government then consisted of 4 mainstream right-leaning parties.
Now, the very same Prime Minister needs at least 3 coalition partners if he is to present the parliament with a viable proposal and survive the vote of confidence, same number as Radicova once needed. At least two of these parties need to come from the right of the political spectrum. If we are to reasonably talk of a duck taped structure, Fico’s next potential coalition could reasonably be considered a fine target for this label.
When Robert Fico was formally asked by the President to start coalition negotiations few days after the election, the media began speculating that the runner-up liberal Richard Sulik might be the country’s next Prime Minister. Sulik began preparing for the role and invited the leaders of other right-wing parties for informal negotiations. All 5 right-wing parties publicly announced that they would not accept Fico’s invitation to coalition talks making Sulik’s premiership more likely as Fico needed at least two right-wing parties to form a government. The nationalistic SNS, which was need for both government alternatives, held the casting vote.
A week into Fico’s mandate, SNS declared following a party congress that a government including SMER-SD was the only viable option for a stable government, seemingly burying any hopes for a right-leaning coalition under Sulik. On the same day, two right-leaning parties: Slovak-Hungarian Most-Hid and Conservative Siet have announced their readiness to join the government, breaking their public pledge not to accept Fico’s invitation. Coalition negotiations between what have been bitter political rivals only took a few days, surprising both the voters and analysts. One of the most outspoken opponents of SMER, the former Justice Minister Lucia Zitnanska backed the negotiations and will join the newly formed government, much to everyone’s surprise given her clear negative stance on SMER-SD.
The forming of the government sparked desertions from the two right-wing parties, bringing the number of MPs backing the government down to 80 (76 are needed). Protests broke out in the capital as well as on social networks primarily targeting the two right-wing parties that joined the new government. These were branded traitors for very quickly abandoning their pre-election pledges to not cooperate with SMER after the election.
Though it is too early to speculate about the reasons why Siet and Most-Hid decided to join a government, I offer a few potential theories. The official explanation provided by the two parties is that SNS’s announcement that they would not join a right-wing government made this alternative impossible. This, however, seems to be too simple an explanation and definitely does not explain the speed at which the two parties accepted SMER’s offer to come to the negotiation table. It would have been far more rational for them to wait for SMER’s negotiations to fail and see if this failure would not make the leadership of SNS change their minds. The prolonged waiting would also increase the two parties’ bargaining power in eventual negotiations with SMER. Now, they were forced to settle on two and one ministry, respectively, and a few positions in the parliament. This apparent betrayal of voters’ trust has immediately manifested itself in the polls with the support for Siet plummeting to 2%, further highlighting the mystery behind these two parties’ decisions. If some of the analysts are right, we can reasonably expect that the two parties joined the government partly due to financial interests. One should bear in mind that Slovakia is still a place where political corruption looms large and is well documented by the media. When the distribution of ministries among the coalition partners has been announced, the media have swiftly pointed out the two right-wing partners will control some of the ministries responsible for the managing of the European structural funds. These funds are notoriously suspected for being partly siphoned off by political elites through specially tailored public procurements. This would hold especially for Siet, which in anticipation of far better election outcome has taken out loans to finance their campaign. Following the poor electoral result, the party will get far less in state electoral subsidy than expected. The department Siet will assume control of is Ministry of Transport where highway- and rail projects see significant public investment and a number of public procurements.
Naturally, the less conspiracy-flavoured explanations remain, too: perhaps the two right-wing parties indeed perceived that any alternative government would be too weak to last, which would only strengthen the ground for the radical party that unexpectedly enter the parliament at next election. They also might have thought that SMER’s bargaining position diminished due to the potential of building an alternative coalition and government, would also allow hem to gain many more policy concessions than from any alternative arrangement. Perhaps this is why, the leader of Most-Hid party boasted that the party managed to get 90% of their pre-election priorities included on the pre-coalition agreement. The document does indeed identify a number of areas ripe for comprehensive reforms, including transportation, the much-troubled judiciary and political corruption. It remains to be seen, however, whether SMER that by-and-large contributed to the current status quo, will live up to its promises.
If Fico’s coalition talks had failed, it would have been be the leader of the liberal SAS, Richard Sulik, who would be asked to start coalition negotiations. Informally, Sulik has already received backing from 5 of the 6 parties necessary to form a right-leaning government. Everything thus seemed to have hinged on the nationalistic SNS that, as already mentioned, ultimately decided to form a government with SNS. Had they not turned their back to the forming right-wing government, Slovakia would see a coalition of 6 parties for the first time in history. This coalition would need to support of two movements that have very unstable parliamentary clubs with no party line. The Prime Minister would at times need to negotiate with individuals rather than parties to win support for government’s policies that would be rather unsustainable. Having these elements in the government would make a breakdown and eventual early election extremely likely.
Quo Vadis Slovakia?
One of the often-quoted justifications the new coalition partners put forward when asked about their swift deal is that Slovakia needs a strong government made up of conventional parties in times of growing extremism. What they probably have in mind is that Slovakia needs good reforms that will help restore the faith in institutions and political processes. What they fail to realise, however, is that it is the actions of mainstream political parties and SMER-SD, in particular, that paved the way for Kotleba’s LSNS to emerge as a serious political contender. Fico’s SMER governed Slovakia in 8 of the past 10 years. During this time, very little attention was devoted to the frail educational system that still puts emphasis on memorising over critical thinking and no comprehensive reforms were carried out. On the contrary, in the past 4 years, 3 Ministers of Education came and went, with the last one spending more time on social networks stressing that Slovak teachers had nothing to complain about since teachers in other countries are also underpaid, than planning deep reforms of the system. It should thus surprise no one that a lion share of LSNS’s supporters can be found among those who cast their ballots for the very first time – young people. LSNS also polled well in regions which were massively hit by the economic recessions. The purported left-wing government spent more time preoccupied with the “refugee threat” than thinking of reforms that would genuinely bring opportunities to these regions. The government also did very little to root out political appointments at all levels of state bureaucracy, stop the growing politicisation of the judiciary or counter the growing influence of oligarchs on Politics. All these factors together with the government-sanctioned rhetoric of distrust toward refugees contributed to the rise of radical forces.
Conventional right-wing parties represented the only reasonably alternative and got a chance, though a weak one, to change the ways of doing in Politics. Yet, some of them decided to join forces with what they identified to be one of the biggest problems for Slovakia’s progress before election. It remains to be seen whether this coalition, said to prevent radical forces from gaining ground, will not simply do the opposite.
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