The Rise of Radicalism Among Young People in Slovakia: Causes and Consequences

The results of the 2016 general election delivered quite a shock to Slovakia’s democrats. The most chilling of the many surprises was the fact that a far-right People’s Party—Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) made it into the country’s parliament. A party whose relevance had, until then, been solely regional (its leader is the governor of one of Slovakia’s eight regions) suddenly garnered 8%of the vote nationwide, which translated into 14 seats in the 150-strong parliament. By comparison, the party received only 1.6 % of the popular vote in the previous general election. What gives further cause for concern is the fact that with 23% (!) of first-time voters (aged 18–22) opting for the extremists, it was the young who have largely contributed to People’s Party’s electoral success. It should also be noted that this is a generation that grew up in democracy, without direct experience of the totalitarian regime or its legacy, and has lived in the best possible times in terms of the country’s economic performance, enjoying open borders and the opportunities to study, work, and settle anywhere in the European Union.

What did we do wrong? Or, to put it less personally: what has gone wrong? This is the question the generation of democratically-minded parents have been asking, people who had to defeat Husák’s communism and later Vladimír Mečiar’s rule to ensure Slovakia would become a part of the Western world. What did we neglect to do? This is the question on the lips of their grandparents who, as young adults, had not been allowed to travel to the West, had to keep their mouths shut, and toe the line to avoid persecution.

Understanding the Causes

The causes of the rising political radicalism among young people are not that easy to find. There are the widely-known ones-young people’s general propensity to rebel, to define themselves in opposition to the system and the established order, and their proclivity to radical views. However, the edge of rebellion tends to get blunted with age. What we seem to be witnessing now is a more persistent and comprehensive phenomenon, and it thus poses a greater threat to democracy. Sociologists are puzzled by the research data and search in vain for some valid and reliable correlations and identifiable patterns of behavior that used to apply in the past. The social and economic deprivation factor no longer applies, as radicalization does not affect only the socially more vulnerable or regions with high levels of unemployment. Neither does the education factor apply: whereas higher education in the past guaranteed a certain immunity from illiberal tendencies, nowadays the extremist electorate also includes university graduates. The attitude towards minorities used to be a key factor contributing to the growth of extremism in Slovakia, with the Roma minority in particular serving as a trigger of racism and the grist to the mill of extreme parties. However, an analysis of the 2016 election results failed to confirm that the presence of a Roma minority in a voter’s place of residence was a factor in voting for ĽSNS. Voting preferences were a reflection of hostility to the system rather than to this particular minority. In other words, many of the explanations that used to delineate clear correlations no longer apply. What does undoubtedly apply is a whole range of social and psychological factors, compounded by anxiety and sense of insecurity deriving from sources that are very diverse and thus do not lend themselves to generalization.

Nevertheless, there is a number of context-related factors that have to be spelled out, and in the absence of any change in society’s general outlook it is not realistic to expect a change in political attitudes. Any discussion of the youth, its radicalization, and its electoral preferences for the extreme right must begin with education. The poor and steadily deteriorating standard of Slovak education has been regularly documented by the comparative PISA surveys. In addition to the parameters of the OECD, the Slovak students have demonstrated extremely poor knowledge of national history, with especially poor knowledge of the history of the wartime Slovak Republic, a Nazi Germany vassal state that deported tens of thousands of its Jewish citizens to extermination camps. Moreover, present-day high school students know very little about the 40 years of communism and are not taught very much about the Velvet Revolution of 1989 either. Weak historical awareness provides fertile soil for extremism, with young people falling for the appealing lure of extremist, fascist-leaning ideologies and populist ideas proposing simplistic solutions to society’s most complex problems. From this it is only a short step to creating the image of an enemy.

The Absence of Education in Human Rights

Furthermore, present-day education is still based more on memorizing facts than on the ability to think critically and in context.

Last year’s election results have prompted a discussion about the place of politics in schools. For in this respect, Slovakia has thrown out the baby with the bathwater, as a strict rejection of the political in the party-affiliation sense has also resulted in banishing the political in the civic or public sense. There are exceptions, of course, but generally-speaking, schools do not provide education in human rights, tolerance, and non-discrimination. I speak from my own experience as a university teacher: first year students include huge numbers of high school graduates who do not even realize that making racist comments is unacceptable. This is because they often come from an environment where contempt or, indeed, hostility to any kind of otherness is the norm.

Of course, education is not an isolated system. The wider social and political environment also needs to be examined. Sixty percent of people in Slovakia believe that many or all politicians are corrupt. Political corruption, scandals involving politicians, the interconnectedness of political and economic power, and the “oligarchization” of democracy have dominated the headlines over the past few years. Many suspicions have been raised, but the number of prosecutions and convictions has been close to zero. Quite naturally, in this kind of atmosphere the public confidence in established institutions and mainstream political parties has declined and a radical party that opposes the system and promises to “stop robbing the state” and “crack down on thieves in suits” is seen as an alternative. It is no coincidence that the second most frequent reason people gave for voting ĽSNS in 2016 was its “anti-corruption program.”

A recent poll conducted by the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) in Slovakia also points to a clear connection between attitudes to corruption and growing tolerance of radical views. Those who believe that politicians are corrupt are more tolerant of radical activities. Eight to ten years ago this connection did not exist. Slovakia used to be a country with an above-average resistance to radical views and activities; nowadays it is a country where tolerance of such views and activities is above average.

Pervasive corruption is not, however, the only failing of the establishment. A key issue in 2015 was migration, the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees in Europe. In Slovakia the discourse shifted far beyond the limits of what, until then, had been regarded as acceptable in polite society. The Slovak government in general and Prime Minister Robert Fico in particular were among the greatest advocates of securitizing the refugee issue and of wholesale identification of refugees and Muslims with terrorists. All this at a time when all migration routes avoided Slovakia and the country was willing to accept virtually no one. Nevertheless, statements by government officials and other political players (with the notable exception of President Andrej Kiska) created a sense of imminent threat. Constantly dehumanizing the refugees and presenting them as a security risk brought about a considerable radicalization of the general discourse. It is well known that once an atmosphere of fear is created, everyone makes use of this “privilege.” In the specific case of Slovakia the extreme right was a major beneficiary of this atmosphere.

In What Respect Is This Situation New?

The extent to which political attitudes of a large part of the public have been affected by the Internet and the social media is now beyond question, this is particularly true of young people. A study by the Slovak Institute for Public Affairs conducted towards the end of 2016 showed that only 5 percent of young people between the ages 18–39 do not follow news of social and political activities on the Internet at all. Although young people frequently encounter hate speech on the Internet, as many as three-quarters admitted that they do not actively respond to haters. Radical content of this nature is clearly spreading without being countered at all (or minimally at best), indeed many young people assume it is part and parcel of the freedom of speech.

It is a widely known fact that Internet polarizes opinion and does not provide opportunities for consensus-seeking; on the contrary, it often drives parties in conflict to extreme positions. In addition, while in the past people were not able to validate their extremist views in the media, nowadays they can say, not just face-to-face to their friends but also in response to what they read on social media: “Yes, this is exactly what I’ve been thinking.”

These trends are further exacerbated by the dumbing down and tabloidization of political discourse, which revolves around issues everyone can relate to: instead of discussing what needs to be done to improve the quality of education or environmental protection, the focus is on corruption scandals and trivial squabbling among politicians. Incidentally, the mainstream media that have increasingly adopted a tabloid approach in the commercial battle for readers also deserve to be censured.

ĽSNS is one of the parties that have employed social media as a powerful vehicle. The only other party with a comparable reach on Facebook is Richard Sulík’s liberal Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS), a long-term leader on social media. ĽSNS’s official Facebook profile currently has over 80,000 fans, a year-on-year increase of 12,000. But that is not all: the personal Facebook page of ĽSNS chairman Marian Kotleba boasts 77,000 fans, “Marian Kotleba for Slovakia’s Prime Minister” has 36,800 fans, and the extremists’ reach is further boosted by other pages, for example regional profiles as well as various fan groups or pages promoting “Slexit” (i.e. Slovakia leaving the EU). Facebook is of key importance to Kotleba’s party. A video of their press conference in response to one party-member’s prosecution for making xenophobic statements on the Internet has had over 133,000 views. In addition, according to data collected by the marketing agency AKO in
February 2017, if an election were to be held now and only people active on social media were casting their votes, ĽSNS would garner as much as 16 percent of the vote (i.e. twice the number of the current voting intentions among general public).

To sum up, political communication by means of new technologies with all its consequences and side effects has greatly exacerbated radicalism, in Slovakia as well as in other countries, by creating a sense of authenticity and dialogue.

What Is to Be Done?

In addition to introducing a new entity to the configuration of Slovakia’s political parties, the entry of ĽSNS into parliament has expanded public debate by raising the issue of right-wing extremism and the question of how to deal with it in public life, and what means to defend itself, if any, a liberal democracy has. Some say the answer lies in creating an unequivocal cordon sanitaire not just in terms of political cooperation but also public debate. Others insist on engaging young radicals in a conversation, showing them the broader context and providing them with facts and a different outlook. This should not be done from a position of moral superiority and without claiming to “own” the truth, and certainly not by refusing to engage in dialogue and pushing young supporters of radicalism away by such statements as “one mustn’t talk to fascists.” A number of projects along these lines has been initiated in Slovakia, organizing discussions in the regions with interesting speakers and also, where possible, with holocaust survivors, patiently explaining to young people the error of their ways.

Equally crucial is the adoption of a consistent approach to law violations and sending a clear message in judicial practice that the promotion of totalitarian ideologies and extremism is a criminal offence. There have been few instances of law enforcement officials taking action and demonstrating that the laws are valid not only on paper. In February 2017 the Slovak government even set up a special elite police unit to combat terrorism and extremism. However, how committed the government really is to tackling extremism remains to be seen.

The young generation of today, already politically visible and relevant, lacks the experience of the ethos of 1989, of the election of 1998 which saw the defeat of the authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, or of the EU accession. What present-day Slovakia has to offer largely amounts to pragmatic and rather passive strategies of public involvement, unconvincing visions, and precious little idealism. This is another arena where defenders of democracy are losing their fight for the hearts and minds of young people.

Oľga Gyárfášová

Oľga Gyárfášová is a sociologist, an assistant professor at the Comenius University in Bratislava, and an analyst at the Institute for Public Affairs, independent public policy research think-tank. She holds a PhD in comparative political science. In her work she focuses on public opinion, electoral studies, and political culture in Slovakia and Central Europe. She has written extensively on social climate during the transition period.

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