Slovak general elections do not usually get attention beyond the immediate neighbourhood. However, with the SK EU Presidency approaching and a controversial stance on the migration crisis, questions arise on what might change after this Saturday.
Predicting elections has become a precarious business. Since last summer things seemed to be quite clear in Slovakia. The incumbent government of PM Robert Fico (nominally centre-left) has successfully exploited its anti-immigrant stance and defiance of the “dictate from Brussels” on refugee quotas, and was leading polls well ahead of all contenders. While it could hardly hope for outright victory and a single-party government (nor was that its preferred option, as absolute majority implies absolute responsibility), this time there’s no lack of potential partners.
The last weeks of the campaign brought some signs of change. Nurses’ and teachers’ strikes, and corruption scandals (alleged or otherwise), took some wind out of the government sails. The public got weary of scaremongering and divisive rhetoric, and Smer-SD (Fico’s party) lost the ability to set the terms of debate. Recent polls – if they’re anything to go by – signal falling support for Fico’s party, with increased backing for the opposition. A Smer-led government is still the most likely outcome. But the incumbent party could fear a repeat of the 2010 scenario, when it won the elections only to be forced to cede power to a wide centre-right coalition.
Before turning to possible government scenarios, let’s discuss the twin questions that amaze some observers of Slovak politics. What makes Fico so popular and Smer-SD so electorally successful?
A combination of factors explains the success of Smer/Fico: some structural, others more circumstantial. First of all, Smer-SD successfully combines vague social and nationalist rhetoric with a technocratic appeal to “governing competence”. In these elections it did not even produce an election manifesto/program. The party has managed to eliminate any substantial competition in its political niche – its rise is built on the demise of smaller social-democratic parties, the decline of HZDS (the party of (in)famous ex-PM Vladimir Meciar); it has successfully encroached into the voter base of the Slovak National Party (SNS).
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Smer-SD/Fico manages to pose as a champion of those that are not, or do not feel to be, on the winning side of the economic and political transformation of the last 25 years. Liberal reformers love to blame it on a “belated modernity” – changes and inevitable reforms were too fast, not well communicated, residues of old mentality are too deep, etc. But things are more complex. The transformation process has produced a divided country with a gulf between the economically successful, and those that are left behind; between fast developing regions such as Bratislava, and the rest with little investment and high unemployment. Our problem is not that we have stopped halfway in building a modern capitalism. Rather, we have successfully built a special variety of semi-peripheral capitalism with all that it takes.
Smer-SD/Fico has found a formula for exploiting this electorally. Appealing to those who are losing, cooperating with some sections of capital – mostly home-grown economic groups and regional strongmen, creating an efficient client-patron network that secures financial resources and support base. To be fair, Smer-SD is not so different in that from other political parties (Fico was only one of the politicians implicated by the “Gorilla scandal” that rocked Slovak politics in 2012 and brought Smer-SD back to power), but for now it’s the most successful one: a perfect example of “the party of power”.
In 2010 Smer failed to form a government because it lacked a partner. However, this time it’s different. First, Smer-SD could form a ruling coalition with the Slovak National Party (SNS), which participated in the Smer-SD government between 2006-2010. It seems to be a natural ally. Politically isolated, teaming up with Fico’s party could be its only chance to share the spoils of power. The voter base and rhetoric of both parties partly overlap, and as the Slovak nationalists are trying to develop a more moderate image, they might not be such embarrassing partners.
On the other hand, a coalition of Smer and SNS would foreclose cooperation with any other party, and increase chances for creating a more united anti-Smer camp from among the rest. To prevent that, Fico might try to lure first some of the smaller centre-right parties, either Christian Democrats (KDH), who share part of the Smer’s conservative agenda, or Most-Hid, a party with its electoral base among the Hungarian minority. In the end all will depend on the distribution of mandates. Smer needs to form a stable government, and with three or four parties fluctuating close to the 5 per cent threshold, many options are possible.
A completely different scenario is still possible. Centre-right opposition parties might scrape just enough votes to form a government without Smer-SD. Such a coalition would be a motley crew, built from one dominant, two smaller, and two or three very small parties. With mutual suspicions and personal rivalries among their leaders flying high and strong opposition in their back, it would be hardly a recipe for a beautiful and long-lasting friendship.
Back to the mainstream?
Whatever the shape of the next government, would it change anything on the country’s strategic course in the EU? There are two reasons for this question. The first is the Slovak EU presidency that starts in July 2016. The presidency country is due to perform a role of honest broker in negotiations over many issues, some of them very sensitive. And here we come to the second reason. The Slovak government has angered many European partners with its stance in the refugee crisis. Fico may have found friends in Hungary’s Viktor Orban and the new Polish government, and he may argue that the current situation, with borders closing in Europe, is proving him right, but with anti-Muslim scaremongering and radical rhetoric he has clearly crossed the line. At least, for a “social-democratic” politician. Would the next government be more pro-European?
Two things need to be considered. First, until the migration crisis, Fico´s government always cautiously followed the line of the European mainstream – effectively, the German line. In 2012 he might have said that the fiscal rules pushed through by Berlin were a “road to hell”, but he duly accepted them on returning to power, and in 2015 his government was one of the hard-liners in the latest Greek crisis. He likes to repeat that it is the Slovak strategic interest to stay “in the most-closely integrated group of countries” – that means being as German as possible.
Now Fico is on collision course with the government he has held as his strategic ally, and he is making friends with politicians off the European mainstream. Still, it hardly signifies a change in the overall political strategy. The incumbent prime minister is, first of all, an opportunistic politician. His stance in the refugee crisis was motivated primarily by these approaching elections, and led by tactical and strategic mistakes.
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If he forms the next government, he would probably try to soften his tone. He would not be ready to accept the refugee quotas, temporary or permanent, but would stress Slovak cooperation on other aspects of the migration policies: contributing to protection of external borders, increasing pitifully miniscule support to countries like Jordan or Lebanon, etc. Last but not least, he would have no reason to continue with his anti-Muslim hate speech. If that would be enough to take him back to the European mainstream remains an open question. If anything, the inability of the European partners to find workable common solutions pushes more and more countries into individual strategies, focused more on “internal security” and “protection of borders”, sacrificing our responsibility towards refugees. Recent steps taken by the Austrian government are just a few of the many examples.
If Fico loses to a wide centre-right coalition, things might not be so different. An analysis of EU issues and positions in the election programs of major parties, published by EurActiv.sk last Friday, showed that when it comes to refugees and quotas, the difference is more in tone than substance. None of the political parties would be ready to support quotas.
A situation might change dramatically if the next government – any government – faces a risk of being pushed out of the “core Europe”. But then it may be already too late.
Radovan Geist is cofounder and publisher of EurActiv.sk. A regular commentator on EU affairs in Slovak media, he also teaches at the Department of Political Science at the Faculty of Arts, Comenius University in Bratislava. He holds a doctoral degree in Political Science and studied at the Matej Bel University in Banska Bystrica, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and the Institute of Political Science at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.