“Enough with SMER. It’s time to hang you!” Smer is the parliamentary majority party in government. Demotix/Igor Svítok. All rights reserved.
It appears to be the new common feature of central European countries: general dissatisfaction about political, societal and economic issues is being transformed into growing support for nationalist, radical or even neo-Nazi political actors, as proved by the recent elections in Hungary or the Czech Republic. A rapid increase in public support for extreme right parties was also recorded in other parts of Europe - including France, Netherlands or Greece. And it now seems that Slovakia may be setting out on the very same path. Marian Kotleba, chairman of the extreme right-wing People’s Party Our Slovakia and a leading figure of the Slovak neo-Nazi scene, was recently elected governor of the central Slovak region of Banská Bystrica.
Who is Marian Kotleba?
In order to explain what has happened in central Slovakia, it is necessary to understand Kotleba’s previous political career. The long-term chairman of extreme right-wing civic association Slovak Togetherness has, along with his supporters, tried to get into parliament several times, initially as candidate on the lists of associated marginal parties. Kotleba's first attempt to form his own political party, Slovak Togetherness – National Party, was terminated in 2006 by a ban from the Ministry of the interior after only a year of existence. Although Kotleba's new formation, the People’s Party - Our Slovakia, basically comprises the same people, often with well-known neo-Nazi backgrounds, this time they learned from past mistakes, changed their rhetoric and professionalized their strategy. But hidden support for the clerico-fascism of the WWII era Slovak state and aggressive nationalism remain the main pillars of the party's rhetoric.
The electoral campaign of Marian Kotleba was based on the incitement of hatred towards the Roma minority, drawing on the unfavourable socioeconomic situation in the southern and eastern Slovak regions and growing frustration at the lack of attention from politicians. Anti-establishment and anti-governmental attitudes in combination with blaming politicians as well as the EU or NATO for the current problems of ordinary people - and the reliance on conspiracy theories - proved to have an appealing and mobilizing effect on frustrated and dissatisfied citizens.
The most disturbing lesson we can draw from the rise of Slovak extreme-right parties is therefore not only that Kotleba won the regional election (with a significant margin) despite his generally well-known neo-Nazi background. It is also the fact that intrasocietal conflicts are seen as so acute that people tend to support sharp and fierce rhetoric, even if no real or specific solutions are on offer.
Kotleba chose the strategy of personal face-to-face contact with his potential voters, organizing tours through the cities and villages located near Roma settlements and further stimulating anti-Roma sentiment in Slovak society. Almost inevitably, more than three years of demonstrations against "Gypsy parasites“ or "Gypsy terror“ created the impression that the People's Party were the only ones who cared about the sensitive Roma issue. This explains the recent results, especially in combination with worsening economic conditions as well as deeply rooted prejudices in society, that together create a fertile ground for the dissemination of radical ideas.
Until the latest regional elections, extreme-right groups weren't generally considered a significant political force in the country (with election gains never exceeding 2 percent of voters). However, this net increase, as the People's Party gained several times more votes in a single region than the party got in the whole country in the 2012 parliamentary elections, makes Kotleba a relevant political actor. His party can no longer be ignored as a harmless or marginal political force.
A new form of protest voting?
This is the first time that a person with a clear neo-Nazi background attained a significant elected position in Slovakia, defeating the representative of the ruling party. The position of the mainstream political parties has been weakened by their inability to provide an adequate alternative to the extremist candidate. This is an indicator of the new form of protest vote that has appeared in regional elections. In the Slovak electoral system, an empty ballot is not counted towards final election results - voting for radical candidates has thus emerged as a way to express frustration about the performance of regional politicians and their inability to deal with the most pressing issues in the region, including bad socioeconomic conditions and strained relations between the Slovak majority and Roma minority. But whatever the original intent of voters, the tensions now risk further escalation.
At this point we should emphasize that Kotleba's powers as governor of the region will be limited by necessary cooperation with the regional council. Opposition from regional MPs is to be expected. On the one hand, this will probably help to avoid any radical changes in regional policy, which could dramatically impact minorities. On the other hand, it also offers the opportunity for Kotleba to reject responsibility for his future actions. As a result, and thanks to the expected media attention, this regional leadership position will serve as a substantial platform upon which the future electoral campaigns of the People’s Party Our Slovakia will be built.
Why we worry
Do these recent events really pose such a big threat in the short or medium term? We should be wary of exaggerations. These could create too big a boogeyman - and have a counterproductive effect, as we saw after the first round of the regional elections. As Marian Kotleba successfully passed the first round, a strong anti-Kotleba campaign emerged in the media across the country. Politicians accused each other of being responsible for the situation, while none was able to come up with a satisfying alternative. And this might have been the cause of further popular frustration over the current political situation. These high levels of dissatisfaction will certainly have an impact on the outcome of upcoming votes – European and municipal elections next year and even parliamentary elections in 2016.
At the moment, the Slovak political scene is fragmented and unstable. The mainstream parties are seen as out of touch and only eager to bicker along old party lines. This lack of voting alternatives may lead to a repetition of the kind of protest vote evoked earlier, which could get extremists from the People’s Party Our Slovakia directly into the Slovak National Parliament.
Another, more insidious consequence of this election is the continuing radicalization of public opinion on sensitive topics, accompanied by the reinforcement of stereotypes against all types of minorities. The fact that Kotleba is likely to be at the centre of media attention in the next months will predictably increase this trend. As already observed in the last few years, certain aspects of nationalism and more or less outspoken anti-minority attitudes have found their way into the agenda of mainstream political parties as they proved to have a mobilizing effect on voters. This, in turn, might further stimulate a certain type of discourse on sensitive topics, which could consequently become perceived as acceptable in public debate – in this case the boundaries between what is considered “democratic” or "legitimate" and what is “radical” or “extreme” become blurry.
It's not just about public discourse: this process has a direct effect on internal security, since the incitement of hatred towards minorities can be very easily followed by the advocating of violence as a way to deal with intercultural or interethnic conflicts. We should learn especially from the Hungarian case, where radicalization of public opinion has resulted in street riots and violent clashes between Roma citizens and supporters of the extreme right-wing party Jobbik and other associated neo-Nazi associations, accompanied by a sudden and rapid increase in support for Jobbik in the 2010 parliamentary elections.
Recent public polls (e.g. Demand for Right-Wing Extremism Index, European Social Survey, Europol, etc.) suggest a disturbing increase of public support for extreme ideas and solutions in the Slovak Republic. This trend is likely to persist. There were also recorded cases in southern and eastern Slovakia where ordinary citizens decided to take interethnic conflicts in their neighbourhood into their own hands to 'resolve' them, often violently and with tacit public support. In addition, an increase in the activity of paramilitary right-wing organizations has been recorded; their declared ambitions are to “protect the Slovak nation". Is there a risk, as has happened with the Hungarian Guard, that these militias might one day replace state forces in some parts of the country?
The victory of one single right-wing extremist in one single Slovak region may, of course, appear insignificant at first, especially when one considers his ultimately limited power to influence regional policy. But, if what's happened in neighbouring countries is of any indication, we have to take seriously a possible escalation of the situation - along with growing support for Kotleba and his movement. It is therefore more important than ever that we focus on educational and mutual understanding projects in concerned regions, in addition to closer monitoring of cases where radical attitudes have already turned into violent behaviour.