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Slovakia’s election: “more than a fight between democracy and autocracy”

Note from LeftEast Editors: The English original of this interview, which first appeared in Hungarian, is published in English on LeftEast, thanks to our cooperation with Hungarian portal Mérce within the framework of the East European Left Media Outlet (ELMO). Early parliamentary elections will be held in Slovakia on Saturday 30th September. Former Prime Minister Robert Fico (Smer) “failed at the right moment” in 2018 and now has a great chance of returning. The former Prime Minister watched successive right-wing governments struggle with the coronavirus epidemic and the economic challenges that followed from the opposition. But how did Fico manage to stay afloat after his unpleasant departure? To what extent is trade union confidence in the ‘social democratic’ leader justified?And why are the Hungarian parties in Slovakia disappearing? To address these questions, Mérce’s Bernáth Lackó and Gáspár Papp first provide some background to the election and then present their interview with Slovak sociologist Dominik Želinský.

Photo credit: István Simófi, Pexels.Com

As the 2023 election campaign reaches its finale, the Direction – Social Democracy (Smer) party, led by former Prime Minister Robert Fico, is leading the polls by a significant margin. September polls put it between 18-25 percent ahead. Fico has often been in the Hungarian press for his strong anti-Hungarian, ethnicist rants and has been the subject of frequent corruption and mafia allegations, but his voters also associate him with pro-welfare measures.  His previous administration lost in 2018 after the assassination of Ján Kuciak, but has gradually regained strength in the polls in recent years.

In the polls, two other parties besides Smer have significant support, Progressive Slovakia (PS) and the Voice – Social Democracy (Hlas), a party that split from Fico’s party in 2020 and is led by another former Prime Minister, Peter Pellegrini, currently an extra-parliamentary liberal-social party led by President Zuzana Čaputová. The support for the Ordinary People and Independents (OLaNO), which came to power in the 2020 elections on an anti-elite and anti-corruption protest platform with 25%, has declined significantly over the years of crises. Former Prime Minister Igor Matovič’s party, which is running with its former coalition partner Za’Ludi, is polling between 5-8% in September. While the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) (5-7%), which has also seen better days, the market fundamentalist Freedom and Solidarity (SaS/SASKA – 5-7%), and the nationalist-populist Sme Rodina (We Are Family – 4-6%) are also part of the right-wing bloc that came to power three years ago.

The parties with explicit or partial Hungarian ethnic representation have weakened significantly in recent years and are now below or around the threshold for entry. The right-wing Hungarian Forum, led by former Most-Híd (Bridge) politician György Simon, is at 0.5%, Most-Híd at 1% and Szövetség (Alliance) at 2-5%. The neo-Nazi People’s Party Our Slovakia (L’SNS), which has also fallen significantly, is polling around 0.5-2.5 percent, while the strongest far-right group is Republika, which is mainly targeting voters of the former and is expected to get 6-10 percent in Saturday’s elections.

What are the main political fault lines in this campaign?

There are several important fault lines in this campaign. First, the key dividing matter is the problem of military assistance forUkraine and the Slovak-Russian relationship, issues for which Fico’s Smer and the Slovak far right situate themselves closer to the Russian perspective, while the centre right, Progressive Slovakia, and the Social Democratic Hlas lean towards supporting Ukraine and alignment with EU/US position. This is often interpreted as symptomatic of a cultural or civilizational rift in Slovak society between pro-Eastern and pro-Western stances.

The second is the classic liberal-conservative conflict, which has been steadily overtaking the left-right rift in Slovakia (as it does indeed elsewhere too). The central issues of this conflict follow the pattern of the ‘culture wars’ familiar from Western Europe and US, with issues of sex education, LGBT rights, reproduction rights, migration, and role of religion at the forefront.

Finally, the specific rift that divides Slovak politics concerns political participation in the populist governments of Igor Matovic and Eduard Heger (2020-2023). With extra-parliamentary Progressives polling close 20% percent and several other extra-parliamentary parties at 5%, fully over 1/3 of the voters opt for subjects that had no part in Matovic’s (and later Heger’s) catastrophic ruling style. Over 40% wants to vote for those who were in the opposition.

The global processes increasingly dominate domestic policy issues everywhere in our region, how are those represented in the Slovakian campaign?

Particularly following the murder of two LGBT people in October 2022, which spurred a nation-wide discussion and mobilization of both progressive/liberal and conservative/neo-traditionalist camps, Slovakia has been rocked by the global dissolution of the liberal-conservative consensus and the struggle between these two ideologies. As a consequence, the issues of LGBT rights or, on the other hand, heteronormativity, is an important issue – echoed on the billboard of People’s Party Our Slovakia suggesting that “There are only two sexes”.

The second hot topic is migration, which has been an important European issue since 2015, with the far right collecting political capital from the aggressive rejection of asylum seekers and islamophobia. This issue has been hot in the past weeks as an increasing number of asylum seekers have crossed into Slovakia through the southern border with Hungary (This raises the question of whether Hungary’s support of Robert Fico’s election victory might have played a role in this process).

Third, again, are topics connected to the geopolitical positioning of Slovakia with regard to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the associated problem of energy and economic crisis. Within the EU, Slovakia belongs among the poorer countries, which spurs anxieties about the economic situation that are easily exploited by national conservatives or far right parties that seek more political alliance with Russia (or Hungary, for that matter).

How much of Fico’s popularity is due to his image of being on the side of the people on economic issues of everyday life?

For Fico, this has always been a major selling point. It is also the case now, when much of Slovakian society experiences considerable economic anxiety. Fico has been able to create an image of the central social welfare actor who advocates extensive subsidies for energy costs and food costs, but also for the rising mortgage interest. Fico is outspoken about his left-wing affiliation and his support for employees, not employers, and close ties with the unions. A significant portion of his rhetoric has also been oriented towards pensioners, who make up an important portion of his core electorate.

However, as I noted earlier, this is only one component of his rhetoric and one reason for his success. There are other important concerns, especially Fico’s emphasis on order, which contrasts the chaotic government of OĽaNO, or his conservative stance in the culture wars. In this regard, he now resembles far right political actors. Perhaps the most significant is his quasi-neutral stance with regard to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which – coming back to your question on economic issues – to many seems to be so attractive because it holds the promise of mitigating the economic impact of the war.

Do workers’ rights play a role in the political dynamics of Slovakia or just the current campaign? Was there a realistic chance that the main fault lines you mentioned would be replaced by others?

No, workers’ rights are marginal in the Slovak political discourse currently. They are unfortunately overtaken by liberal-conservative conflict and the discourse of a strong state (reduced to social welfare, not rights). Unfortunately, this has long been so.

I think that there was a realistic chance that they could be an important topic coming from Pellegrini’s Hlas, which aimed at building a stable alternative to Fico’s Smer and returning to the traditional left-wing agenda, including workers’ rights. Pellegrini, however, failed to overtake Smer – or, rather, to maintain its dominance over the left-leaning part of society (which in Slovakia counts well over 1/3 of the votes). Now, Hlas is scrambling for a third or fourth place in the elections.

Smer has been on good terms with the unions and has been quite progressive (cf. weekend allowances, minimum wage decisions generally favouring workers, effective mediation between employers and unions). Can this continue after the state has taken a much more reactionary line in this area after the 2020 changeover?

This is likely to continue. Smer is (rhetorically at least) opposed to austerity politics and proposes now a new re-industrialization of Slovakia. At the same time, it is difficult to gauge Smer’s intentions – they do not actually have any comprehensive electoral program. What is clear is that they will continue some of their iconic social programs such as subsidized school lunches and subsidized train transport for students and pensioners (of whom the second group is an important part of Smer electorate). I also expect the continuation of the minimum wage increases.

Smer has historically had very good – perhaps even too good – relations with the unions and had even signed a collaboration treaty with the Confederation of Slovak Unions (KOZ), which the new union leadership planned to terminate but never garnered sufficient support for the move within their ranks. I presume that in the case of Smer victory, this collaboration too is likely to continue.

How could Fico retake his position as the center of attention? 

Concerning Fico, while his party faltered to 8% in mid-2020, he has actually never left the spotlight. This is partly due to a radical turn in his rhetoric, spurred by the split in his party and the emergence of the more moderate Hlas led by his ex-partisan Peter Pellegrini. Fico swiftly exploited the uncertainties of the Covid-19 era (especially vaccination) and later the war and energy crisis by remodelling Smer into a protest party, competing with Pellegrini through radicalization of the rhetoric and political practices. The second ingredient was the ‘competence deficit’ of Matovic’s government (2020-2023) which formed a coalition with nearly no practical ruling experience in March 2020, immediately facing a global pandemic and the following series of crises. The failed management of the Covid-19 pandemic intensified the impact of the global crisis and, in the end, nearly dissolved the trust of Slovaks in the government and state institutions.

The final component of Fico’s growth is the fact that he remains a symbol and fixation for the media sphere. Despite losing voters and much of his popularity, he remained frontpage material – there is a certain ‘cathexis’, as Freud might have said, on Fico as the symbol of evil in Slovak politics, which never allows him to leave the collective imagination.

Beyond being anti-Fico, what is the main selling point of the centre-right opposition?

Being anti-Fico is a strong symbolic stance in Slovak politics, which has become ritualized – especially among liberal-leaning politicians – to the degree that it precludes many from seeing actual ideological differences and affiliations. The discourse is dominated by black-white democracy-autocracy discourse, in which the centre right is automatically coded as democratic. The existence of this discourse is an important social fact, and should not be taken lightly, because it is the source of many misunderstandings.

But besides his “democratic” convergence, there is a great variability to what the centre right wants, or what the label actually means. But they largely converge on the pro-Ukraine positioning with regard to the Russian invasion. The second point would be the necessity of structural reforms especially in education, healthcare, and within state institutions.

Nonetheless, differences between the centre right parties cannot be overstated and will, eventually, likely result in bitter conflicts if they were to form a coalition, or bitter disappointments, if one of them sees Fico as a better partner for advocating their own conservative agenda. Parties such as the liberal-centrist Progressives (who, despite their centre left origins, now act as an umbrella party for urban center right voters) and the conservative Christian Democrats simply stand at very different poles of the ideological conflict and have little overlap.

The Hungarian community used to have 8 to 10 percent parliamentary representation, now there are two parties, the liberal-leaning Hungarian Forum polls around merely 3 %, the conservative Orbán-friendly Alliance is barely even measurable. What are the reasons for such diminishing representation of the Hungarian minority?

This is an important and very understudied question, to which I don’t have a particularly good answer. It is clear that there was an internal collapse of the most important parties articulating the interests of the Hungarian community in Slovakia, SMK, and Most-Híd, after which no further initiative succeeded in getting sufficient traction to acquire any further political clout. It bears noting that Hungarian politicians are a notable presence in Matovic’s OLaNO (despite the break between Matovic and Gyorgy Gyimesi). OLaNO pragmatically used this strategy to attract minority voters.

Perhaps one reason that plays a role is the gradual disappearance of the long-standing Slovak-Hungarian enmity, which opens the possibility for Hungarian or Slovak-Hungarian voters voting for parties without ethnic identification and not along national-ethnic lines (i.e. they now vote also for non-Hungarian parties). This cooling of the ethnic conflict can be attributed to shifting attention to different issues as well as in the gradual lessening of the anti-Hungarian agenda among Slovak far right, who now see Orban’s Hungary as a role model of neo-traditional conservatism instead of an existential threat (the second view is, however, now increasingly more common among center right and progressive politicians who, however, are ethnically rather tolerant).

Dominik Želinský is a sociologist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences and editor of the Slovak magazine Kapitál.