A Small Country with a Big Problem

15. 3. 2017

At 10 pm on Saturday, 5 March, I was standing in a café in the center of Bratislava in front of a huge TV screen together with some hundred friends who, like me, did not want to be alone as an apocalypse was quite likely to descend on us. Our fears proved right: The exit polls showed that the Slovak electorate was in a revolutionary mood and had shattered the traditional political scene, sending radical anti-system parties into the parliament.

Apart from the party with the largest share (28%) of the vote, Smer—whose leader Robert Fico has ruled the country for eight years with a brief break and who calls his party “social democratic” although in reality it is socially conservative— all the other parties are more or less on the right and roughly a fourth of the elected MPs can be described as being on the far right. Marián Kotleba’s fascist party alone has garnered at least a tenth of the vote.

Another party that made it into parliament (with nearly 6% of the votes) was founded only a few months ago by a man who gave it the name “We Are a Family.” What makes this name especially bizarre is the fact that this rich businessman’s main claim to fame (and commercial TV celebrity) is that he has fathered nine children with eight women. And of course, he owes his success to being one of the hardline opponents of refugees and the political establishment. His electoral base evidently was not bothered by his cordial relations with the Slovak mafia.

The second largest party is the liberal, or rather, neoliberal, Freedom and Solidarity (SaS, 12%) which boasts less than two hundred members and communicates with its supporters primarily via social networks. To make the picture complete: SaS leader Richard Sulík does not want a single refugee in Slovakia and is a harsh critic of the EU.

Another successful party that openly disdains the party system has only four founding members and its list of candidates is a hodgepodge of civic activists and marginal, largely conservative politicians. It gained 11% of the vote. We could go on.

My friends and I watched with incredulity the outpouring of popular anger with the political establishment under whose rule Slovakia has been plunged into endemic, systemic corruption and which bears the blame for poorly paid doctors letting people die in poorly equipped hospitals.

The lion’s share of responsibility for this state of affairs rests with the government of Robert Fico, a politician who may have sensed the anger but tried during the campaign to deflect it onto the refugees. Up to a few weeks before the election he appeared to be succeeding, but data from a detailed election poll have shown that the voters’ desire to replace the corrupt political class has far exceeded their fear of the refugees.

Slovakia is a small country and the significance of what happens here rarely goes beyond its borders. However, this election and its aftermath are an exception. For this coming July Slovakia is due to take on the presidency of the European Union, just as the EU will feel the impact of the UK in/out referendum and the height of the refugee summer season. The EU will need a confident country led by a pro-European government at its helm. Which can hardly be expected of Slovakia.

With his attitude to refugees and quotas (Slovakia has actually sued the EU over the quotas) Robert Fico has positioned his country alongside Hungary and Poland, currently regarded in Brussels as obstacles to finding European solutions. Fico may be able to form a coalition government comprising the nationalist Slovak National Party as well as two moderate right-leaning parties that have fared far worse in the election than expected and may thus decide to trade their poor result for inclusion, at the very least, in the government. And since these two small parties are pro-European, this could help improve Fico’s reputation in Brussels.

Another option would be a coalition of five right-wing parties that would exclude Fico, but that is more in the realm of theory. It would not bode well from the EU point of view because the core of this coalition—headed by Sulík— would be extremely Euroskeptic. Nowadays the only truly pro-European politician of sufficient caliber is President Andrej Kiska. Under the Slovak constitution he could form an interim non-party government that could rule the country throughout the EU presidency.

At the time of writing all these options are still open, yet the hope of a stable and trustworthy pro-European government that might lead Slovakia out of Central European isolation is rather small. What this means for the EU is that the Slovak presidency can be only formal at best, and that it will not make things worse.

The Slovak election has confirmed that Central Europe is in the grip of a profound crisis of liberal democracy with the Czech Republic being, to some extent, the only exception. The question is: How long it will stay so? Nevertheless, as the Czech Republic’s presidency of the Visegrad Four is about to come to an end in June, the government is preparing to quietly withdraw from this grouping and try to restore good relations with Germany. That would leave Slovakia without a key ally in the region.

The only conclusion one can draw from the mood of the Slovak electorate is that people are angry. Unlike Poland and Hungary, not a single political party has come up with an ideology that could present a coherent vision for the country— except, of course, the fascists who openly build on the legacy of the wartime Slovak Republic established by Hitler, in which the anti-Semitic Catholic Church played a leading role. However, no other Slovak party has invoked Slovak history and that alone is something of a plus, compared to Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński.

However, the real problem is the young generation. In 1998, young people were able to mobilize and defeat the authoritarian Vladimír Mečiar in the name of their European future. The turnout of young voters was also relatively high in this election, but 20% of first-time voters opted for the fascist Kotleba, who despises the EU and the US and whose idols, in addition to Hitler, include Vladimir Putin. The majority of young people nowadays do not read newspapers or watch television (mainstream media in Slovakia are of quite a decent standard and follow democratic instincts). Their main source of information is Facebook and many read nothing but conspiracy websites, journals and listen to internet radio stations. As sociologist Michal Vašečka puts it: “The country has tumbled into a conspiracy hell.”

As unpleasant as it may be, Slovakia may have become a laboratory of events that will also affect the West, to a greater or lesser extent. The combination of frustration and hopelessness with the rapidly growing influence of social networks and conspiracy theories (Russia’s role is quite evident here) creates a truly toxic cocktail that is only waiting to be seized by a skilful ideologue.

The only bit of good news from the Slovak election is the dismay it has caused. It has made a section of society, the social elite in particular, aware of the critical state the country is in. But whether that is enough to guarantee that the outcome of an early election, which is quite likely, won’t be even worse, is anybody’s guess.

Martin M. Šimečka

Milan M. Šimečka is a Slovak author and journalist. He was one of the Slovak authors who published in “Samizdat literature” during Communism. His novel The Year of the Frog has been translated into English, French and other languages and he won the L. A. Times Book Prize in 1994. He was one of the founders of the revolutionary public movement against Violence in Slovakia in November 1989. Martin also founded the independent publishing house Archa. He later became editor-in-chief of Domino-forum. He acted as editor-in-chief of SME, Slovakia’s leading daily newspaper, and later as editor-in-chief of Respekt, a well-known Czech weekly. He has been a commentator for Dennik N, a newly founded daily newspaper in Slovakia since 2016.

Last edited October 2022.

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