Slovaks went to the polls early in March to elect a new parliament. The country of 5.5 million is a member of the European Union and NATO, and has experienced, more than most other former communist countries of the region, a bit of an economic miracle generated by foreign investment in manufacturing, proximity to large consumer markets, and a talented workforce. Slovakia however is not been immune from the political challenges facing Europe, notably terrorism, the refugee crisis, and Russian aggression to Slovakia's immediate east in Ukraine. All of these issues were on display during a heated election campaign, which featured a political battle between establishment parties, on both the right and left, and newer entrants, some pushing xenophobic, extremist platforms. At the end of it all, voters gave strong support to these new parties, including those espousing extremist views. The incumbent, center-left SMER party managed to emerge on top, and cobbled a governing coalition together with other establishment parties, albeit ones formerly in opposition on the right.
The mainstream, pro-Europe political consensus that has presided over Slovakia and elsewhere in Central Europe--in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland—since 1989 is being tested by restive electorates concerned about prosperity and security in a Europe struggling to find answers to new and difficult questions. Slovakia's election results suggest that the test isn't over.
In the attached memo, NDI staff in Slovakia's capital, Bratislava, analyze the election results, and reflect on what the elections means for Slovakia's sizable Roma community, which NDI supports through programs that enfranchise Roma in the political process as voters, watchdogs, and elected officeholders.
Slovakia’s March 5 parliamentary elections resulted in a political shake-up as establishment parties on both the left and right gave up a large share of the electorate to new parties, including one perceived by many to be nationalist/fascist.
The left-wing populist Direction – Social Democracy (SMER–SD), led by incumbent Prime Minister Robert Fico, will lead the new government with erstwhile center-right opponents, in a joint bid by mainstream parties to hold on to power. SMER’s share of the vote dropped significantly.
The far-right Kotleba – People's Party Our Slovakia (LSNS), led by regional governor Marian Kotleba, enters parliament for the first time with 8 percent of the vote and will be in opposition..
The center-right Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) failed to cross the five percent threshold required to enter parliament for the first time since Slovakia’s independence in 1993. Other traditional parties on the right suffered a similar fate.
SMER and other parties had believed that they would benefit from adopting anti-immigrant rhetoric, protecting so-called authentic Slovak values. But in the end it was Kotleba who benefited most. Adjusting his rhetoric from the 2013 regional elections, when he was elected as governor of the Banska Bystrica region in central Slovakia, Kotleba had assumed a more moderate tone and made a point to spend a lot of time with people in small towns and municipalities, talking to them, listening to their frustrations. He had very limited campaigning in mainstream media. Under a new legal provision, pre-election polling had to be suspended two weeks before election day. Pre-election polls had Kotleba’s party well below the five percent threshold. This suggests that Kotleba took a large segment of late deciding voters.
Kotleba’s popularity was high among first-time voters, with exit polls showing almost 23 percent supporting Kotleba's party, followed by other newer, more mainstream parties parties, including Richard Sulik's Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party and Igor Matovic's Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO) movement.
Another interesting outcome was the poor result of Radoslav Prochazka's Siet’ party, which ended up with just over five percent, despite polling as high as 15 percent prior to the elections, and perceived by many as the primary threat to Smer.
Voters showed their dissatisfaction with SMER, which dropped to 28 percent in this election from 44 percent in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Popular among older voters, SMER potentially risks a declining base going forward.
Confronted by Kotleba’s strong showing, leaders of other parties quickly put aside their strong political differences to agree on a ruling coalition within a week. SMER-SD, Slovak National Party (SNS), Most-Hid, and Siet have between them 81 out of 150 seats, which is seen as sufficiently comfortable majority. The coalition agreement was signed on March 22. SMER will be the most dominant in the coalition, as the three other parties did not negotiate more influence..
That the agreement was reached in such a short time is interesting and surprising. Shortly after elections it seemed that it would be almost impossible to create a government, amidst speculation about a caretaker/unity government. It seemed almost impossible for SMER. With SNS, SMER’s partner in the outgoing government, SMER did not have enough seats, and it appeared improbable that the center-right parties would step in to make the difference. A broad center-right coalition with support of SNS could had have some chances (SaS - OLaNO - SNS - Most-Hid - Siet), with some support from We are the Family - Boris Kollar.
However, these chances proved quixotic, because center-right unity was sacrificed right after the elections. Immediately after the polls closed, Prochazka was photographed at the government office with Fico and Robert Kalinak (Minister of the Interior in the previous SMER government). Prochazka denied it at first, but then confirmed that he had visited the government office to talk to Kalinak (not Fico), and refused to reveal the topic of their discussion. This immediately provoked reactions within his party as three Siet’ members of parliament (MPs) led by Miroslav Beblavy, Siet’s highly regarded deputy president, stated that they have no more trust in Prochazka. Beblavy resigned from his position.
For its part, SNS stated that it would not be part of a center-right governing coalition, which mathematically upended any chance for such a coalition. SMER apparently wasted no time in inviting Most-Hid to discussions about a possible coalition, and party leader Bela Bugar accepted the invitation. Bugar's decision caused very strong reactions from his voters, who, in similar fallout over Prochazka’s actions, saw his decision as a betrayal. This could complicate the future political fortunes of Siet’ and Most-Hid if their respective support declines owing to their leader’s decisions to go into government with SMER.
The election results indeed showed that Siet’ and Most-Hid barely reached the five percent threshold (despite more promising poll numbers before elections) and that is because, most analysts believe, they clearly did not say “no” to SMER before the elections. Neither Prochazka nor Bugar refused cooperation with SMER - their statements were ambivalent and sometimes confusing. In contrast, the anti-SMER approached helped two other center-right parties--SaS and OLaNO--which categorically refused to govern with SMER during the election campaign. These two parties won many voters who had deserted center-right standard-bearers, the Christian Democratic Movement and the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union, which along with the center-right Party of Hungarian Communities, failed to pass the threshold.
At the same time, there was an increasing number of voters who supported anti-establishment parties, like LSNS, which is widely considered to be neo-Nazi, and business mogul Boris Kollar.
It seems that the new government can have a chance to be stable and last the full four years of a government mandate, so there is little risk of early elections. However, this may also mean that there will not be a significant change in the political direction on very consequential issues regarding corruption, the judicial system, etc.
The New Cabinet
Cabinet positions have been apportioned as follows:
- SMER will control eight ministries - including the so-called power ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Finance, Labor, Economy, and Culture
- SNS will control: Education, Defense, Agriculture
- Most-Hid will have Justice and Environment
- Siet will lead the Ministry of Transportation
Fico will remain Prime Minister and all previous ministers will continue in their positions, including Minister of the Interior Kalinak. As for deputy ministers (state secretaries), SMER has one at every ministry. SNS and Most-Hid will have five deputy ministers each, and Siet will have three. Many ministers and deputies will resign their parliamentary seats available for those candidates further down party candidate lists.
There were several Roma candidates competing for parliamentary seats, the two strongest were Peter Pollak (OLaNo), the first Roma elected to the Slovak parliament since independence, and Stefan Vavrek (Most-Hid), mayor of Rimavska Sobota, a largely Hungarian-speaking municipality in southern Slovakia. Unfortunately, none of the Roma managed to obtain enough preferential votes to enter parliament. Pollack missed re-election by some 400 votes, Vavrek by some 700. NDI met with both to see what happened.
In many Roma municipalities, voters who wanted to vote for Peter did not circle his number - they just cast an unmarked OLaNO ballot into the box - which made their vote valid for the party but without the preferential vote for Peter. This difference between votes for Peter and empty votes for OLaNO was more than 450 votes in just five municipalities. It appears that Peter's team underestimated voter education in his targeted municipalities.
Paradoxically, OLaNO’s better than expected 11% overall hurt Peter’s chances to win re-election. Slovakia has one election district for the entire country; there are no election districts. Each political party forms one overall list of candidates. A candidate who is not in a ‘winnable’ position on a party list would need a number of individual preferential votes that equals three percent of the party’s overall vote. Because of his notoriety, Peter was placed further down the candidate list. He scored some 8,100 votes, which was 450 shy of the party’s three percent threshold. Peter’s campaign brought in more voters to OLaNO, and this, ironically, produced a higher preferential vote threshold for Peter himself to meet.
Many people who wanted to vote for Roma candidates regardless of their political affiliations had indicated to Peter that they would rather support other Romani candidates, because Peter had the best chance to be re-elected (considering his regular presence in media, for instance, and that in some polls he was the second best known person in OLaNO after the leader, Igor Matovic.
For Stefan Vavrek and his team, it was their first experience in a national campaign. Stefan had the second best result in Rimavska Sobota and Revuca region (the first was party leader, Bela Bugar). Stefan and his team stated that the start of the campaign was pretty late (end of January), because of which they did not have enough time to visit each settlements they planned. They also paid little attention to media-campaign (videos on Facebook, local media) in Slovak and Hungarian. His campaign struggled to win over the non- Roma electorate in his region. Vavrek also had to contend with unethical campaign tactics by a rival ethnic Hungarian party which alleged that Hungarian-language educational services would be cut if it did not prevail.
Discussions about the scope and placement of the government’s Office of Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities have started. Some are advocating that the office remain within the Interior Ministry and be expanded to include all minority groups. Others would like to see the office remain devoted to Roma communities and be removed from the Interior Ministry and placed in the Office of the Government. As the incumbent plenipotentiary, Peter has indicated he will resign once a successor is determined. Most-Hid wants to nominate Stefan Vavrek. People in his region (not only Roma) want to see him in a good position, as there is presently no official from Rimavska Sobota in the new government. Stefan has said that, if the position is vested with more competencies, then he would consider it. He would, however, have to resign as mayor.
SNS may have also expressed interest in the Office, which is both surprising and troubling given the party’s staunch anti-Roma rhetoric and policy. Another potential candidate is Siet’s Ivan Hriczko. SMER appears not very eager to assume the office.
Published on April 29, 2016