At the heart of most elections is a choice between continuity and change. But in the looming parliamentary vote in Slovakia, all parties are promising to shake things up.
Even the ruling party Smer (which means “direction” in Slovak) has rebranded itself as “New Smer”. Billboards featuring Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini promise a “responsible change”. Pellegrini, who has a pilot’s licence, is shown in the party’s campaign videos as the man to be entrusted with the country’s controls.
But Smer’s support has slipped to 15-17%, and its coalition ally, the Slovak National Party, will struggle to win any parliamentary representation at all. Even Smer’s last-ditch attempts to provide a bonus for pensioners, increase child benefit and scrap motorway charges for motorists look unlikely to reverse its fortunes.
Smer’s only chance of remaining in power seems to be as a minority government, but that would need the acquiescence of Marian Kotleba’s far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia.
Kotleba, who used to march around in black uniforms clearly designed to evoke fascist-era dressing, these days appears in TV debates in a jacket with a Christian cross on his lapel.
In its ground campaign the party still lambastes Slovakia’s Roma minority and plays on fears of Muslim immigration. On the national stage, Kotleba prefers to stress his commitment to national and Christian principles. He talks of improving the socio-economic conditions of ordinary Slovaks and fighting against the “mafia state”. Kotelba’s appeal is limited, but it would be a major surprise if the party did not win between 10-15% of the vote.
Smer, sleaze and murder
Talk of a mafia state has resonance for Slovaks, who have been fed a diet of sleaze and scandals during Smer’s time in government. Prominent among the shady figures has been the businessman Marian Kocner who is on trial for his role in the murder of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova two years ago. The investigations into the murders and the trial itself have exposed links between Kocner and many politicians, not just in the ruling parties.
The widespread disgust at the murders and corruption in Slovakia provoked a series of demonstrations across the country. It ultimately led to Slovakia’s dominant political figure of the past decade and a half, Robert Fico, stepping down as prime minister, although he remained Smer’s party leader.
Meanwhile, the election could remove any representatives of the Hungarian minority from parliament. This group amounts to around 8% of the population, and there has always been a “Hungarian” party in parliament. But long-standing parliamentarian Bela Bugar’s party Most-Hid looks set to be punished by voters for its participation in Fico’s government as a coalition partner. Attempts to forge an alliance between Bugar’s party and other smaller Hungarian parties collapsed in acrimonious disagreement in October.
The Fico scandal played a significant role in ensuring Zuzana Caputova beat Smer’s candidate in the 2019 presidential election.
One of the lessons of that election was the need for the opposition parties to work together to defeat Smer. But opposition politicians in Slovakia often seem keener on founding their own new parties rather than working within existing ones. That matters for two reasons. First, because Fico, particularly in his Facebook posts, claims the alternative to a Smer government is a messy and muddled coalition. But second, because of the 5% threshold, all parties have to cross to get into parliament (7% in the case of a coalition of parties).
Opinion polls suggest former president Andrej Kiska’s new party, For the People, will just cross the threshold. However, Fico has attacked him in a series of videos criticising what is described as his “open-door” stance on immigration.
Another new entity, The Progressive Slovakia/Together alliance, has a good chance of crossing the threshold. It has run an energetic campaign, proclaiming it will have sent a candidate to visit every town, village and hamlet in Slovakia.
Ordinary People and Independent Personalities, a more established group, had been languishing in the polls but now looks set to become the largest of the opposition parties. It could even overtake Smer as the largest party. Leader Igor Matovic has focused incessantly on fighting corruption and has benefited from never actually holding power to add credibility to his messaging. He also owes much to agreements with smaller parties to run on his party list and adjusting his image to appear more prime ministerial in the final week of the campaign.
But Matovic has ruled out working with Kotleba or Fico. His chances of forming a government will depend in large part on turnout and the ability of several other opposition parties to cross the threshold.