Elections are supposed to be about choice. The problem for Slovaks is their only real choice is between the uninspiring and the unpalatable. Not surprisingly, then, the likely winner is an ‘anti-politics’ party.
That’s worrying, because this election is vitally important. Partly because it has been set alight by a murder trial with allegations of connections to key figures in the ruling party, Smer. It may well determine the future of the party itself.
It has been in power more often than not over the last twenty years. Aligned with the party of European socialists (from which it was for a while expelled due to its coalition with a far-right nationalist party), it is now essentially the anti-immigrant centrist party of Slovakia’s post-communist establishment. Few in the country see it as representing anything approximating left-wing politics today. “They try to claim that label, but they haven’t done anything to justify it for years,” one man says to me.
The politics of Smer have been overshadowed, though, by the murder of the 27-year-old journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová in 2018. Kuciak had been investigating the tax affairs and criminal connections of figures in the party, and his assassination triggered major protests, forcing the resignation of the prime minister, Robert Fico – though he didn’t stand down as party leader.
The trial of key figures accused of involvement in the murder has run in parallel with campaigning, with one man pleading guilty to pulling the trigger last month, and many Slovaks have followed closely as a web of connections between the key defendent, the infamous Slovakian businessmen Marián Kočner, and some of the richest and most powerful people in Slovakia – including Fico himself – has been revealed.
Despite the unfolding scandal in the courts and the Slovakian newspapers, Smer managed to keep its lead in the polls until two weeks before the vote – after which it’s illegal to publish surveys. But only just: the final poll had them on 17.2%, while second-placed OL’aNO (whose full name translates as ‘Ordinary People and Independent Personalities’) was on 16.4%.
OL’aNO is widely predicted to win the election. It is an anti-politics right wing collection of individuals, led by unpredictable front man Igor Matovič. I asked various Slovak political experts for an international comparison - Italy’s 5 Star Movement, perhaps? They shrugged, and explained that no one really knows. It’s barely even really a party, Matovič has only announced a deputy leader under pressure from the media in the final days of the campaign. His grouping really is just a collection of individuals held together by their attacks on politics, and what kind of programme they will bring to government is hard to discern.
That’s not the most worrying thing, though. The election is important because it looks like it’s going to give a major boost to the neo-Nazi People’s Party – Our Slovakia, led by a former district governor, Marian Kotleba. Kotleba has spoken out against the Slovak anti-Nazi resistance in the Second World War and has used explicit hate speech against Jews. His campaign targets the large Roma minority in the country. In the final poll before the election, his party was in third place, on 10.2%.
Also at the far right of the spectrum, a party called We Are Family is expected to make it past the 5% threshold required to win seats. The sister party of France’s National Rally, Italy’s Lega and the Austrian Freedom Party, it is polling at more than 7%. The ultra-conservative party Fatherland, on the other hand, is expecting only around 3%, which means no seats in parliament.
Coming in behind the neo-Nazis is the remaining shrapnel of splintered centrist parties which represents, along with OL’aNO, the democratic opposition. Speaking to people across a number of Slovakian towns over the last week, many expressed their dislike for the “corrupt” Smer and the “Nazi” Kotleba. But the vast majority were yet to settle on which opposition party they’d support, uninspired by any of them.
There’s Progressive Slovakia: the centre-left party which managed to win last year’s presidential election in the wake of the murders. This time, it’s projected to win just 9%. For The People, a centre-right liberal party founded by former president Andrej Kiska is on around 8%. Slovakia’s Christian Democratic Party, KDH, is struggling to keep above the 5% threshold for entry into parliament, while the libertarian pro-flat tax SNS is projected to slip below that line, as is the inter-ethnic party “Bridge” and the centre-left “Good Choice”.
Responding to the rise of the far right, a new initiative, Rise Roma – named after a popular slogan in the Roma community – has launched in the south of the country.
In a smoky basement bar, its charismatic young spokesman Koloman Lovas explains the plan in rapid English. Touring Roma communities to discuss their concerns, Rise Roma has developed a manifesto, focusing on issues like the segregated education much of the Roma community still faces, the informal and slum housing they are forced to put up with, and the lack of Roma representation in the country’s media and culture.
They have asked all parties to sign up to a five-point pledge based on these concerns, and are mobilising the Roma community to turn out and vote for those parties which do.
Speaking to me about the election over a large plate of beef and dumplings in the rural Banská region, the country’s only Roma MP, Štefan Vavrek of The Bridge, says that he’s never seen the community so mobilised to vote. Travelling round the region, hosting small rallies in different villages each morning, he explains that attempts by the neo-Nazis to vilify the community have succeeded in politicising the community. One Roma woman I spoke to told me that she just wants justice for everyone, while another said she just wants a fair chance – and they were pretty much the only motivated voters I met.
How many Roma people there are in Slovakia is contested – many don’t tick the box on the census for fear of discrimination. Around half are double minorities, also being members of the Hungarian-speaking population close to the southern border, while the other half live more often in the east, and speak Romani at home. But Ondrej Poduska, a staff member of the US government-funded National Democratic Institute tells me he estimates the figure at around 10% of the population.
In an electoral system where securing 20% of the vote means coming first, that’s a large potential voter block.
‘He wants a holocaust’
Kotleba denies he is a fascist. But someone I met who knows him personally – I won’t say more for fear of identifying them – doesn’t believe him: “He wants a holocaust, he doesn’t like Gypsies or homosexuals.”
In the mountain town of Poprad, I meet a multilingual middle-class woman who tells me she’s the chair of the local electoral commission. When I ask if she’s allowed to tell me who she supports, she says she’s been a member of Kotleba’s party for three years, largely because she opposes “the LGBT agenda”. The next day, outside the ice hockey stadium in Slovakia’s second city, Košice, 25-year-old Michael tells me that he is a conservative, and will vote for “one of the conservative parties”, but only names Kotleba. Asked about LGBTIQ rights, he says, in English, “gender ideology is not for Slovakia”.
Alienation and discontent
While the presence of neo-Nazi voters is deeply worrying, many more people I spoke to had an attitude which was summed up by 25-year-old Gurast: “Not Smer, not Kotleba, not sure.” As 18-year-old Philip, also in Košice, said: “In this election, I don’t think I have something good I can choose.”
It is this lack of enthusiasm which has fractured the vote of the majority who oppose both Smer and Kotleba into a smattering of smaller parties: consistently, when I asked groups of friends who they were voting for, they would each cite a different member of the democratic opposition.
And it is this lack of enthusiasm about politics which has encouraged voters to stump for the anti-political OL’aNO. In the university town of Zvolen, a number of the students I spoke to were supporting them, for lack of faith in anyone else. While most of this disenchantment can be put down to the murder of a young investigative journalist only two years ago, and widespread belief that the traditional ruling class is deeply corrupt, numerous people I spoke to talked about endless online attack ads, particulary targetting the centre-left Progressive Slovakia.
Whether Smer’s promise to increase the retirement pension allows it to cling to power, or OL’aNO ends up with the job of turning its anti-politics into a programme and piecing together a coalition from a handful of smaller parties; whether one of the other democratic parties manages to convince the thousands or undecideds at the last minute, and whether the Roma vote mobilises to crush Kotleba or the neo-Nazis give us even more of a shock than polls have indicated; this isn’t just any old election.
I’ve heard despair about politics in the other countries I’ve visited in recent weeks – Ukraine, Hungary, Austria – but among the Slovakians I’ve talked to it’s seemed deeper. Few felt that anyone was offering them the sort of change that they wanted. As one builder said: “We want choice.” At the moment, the only options are centrists or the far right. And that wasn’t, it seemed, what most of them were looking for, though few could put there finger on what would inspire them.