Slovakia Before Elections: A Chance for Change? 

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The Liberals are looking to the next parliamentary elections in Slovakia with hope, but also with concern. This is pretty much picture of the mood in the country at the moment.

The elections to the Slovak National Council, a unicameral parliament with 150 MPs, will take place on February 29, 2020. In addition to the established parties, numerous new political groups are competing for voters’ votes.

The opposition has a clear goal: to replace the Social Democratic Party “Direction – Social Democracy” (Smer-SD), which is currently ruling in a tripartite coalition. The Social Democrats lost the favor of voters especially in the past two years after numerous corruption scandals by their top politicians came to light.

Despite the declared willingness to join forces, it seems that it is difficult for the opposition to find a common ground.

Social Democrats in Crisis

With a small exception of two years, the Social Democrats have dominated the Slovak government uninterruptedly since 2006, currently ruling in coalition with the Slovak National Party (SNS) and the Bridge Party (M-H), which represents the interests of the Hungarian minority.

According to recent election polls, the Social Democrats are still the strongest party with about 20 percent, but their popularity has fallen significantly compared to previous years (after the parliamentary elections in 2012 the party could still govern alone with 44.4 percent).

Traditional party preferences were deeply shaken by the political crisis triggered by the murder of Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée in February 2018. In his last article, which was published one week after his death, Kuciak informed about mafia contacts up to the office of the social democratic head of government Robert Fico. Fico resigned in March 2018 in the wake of subsequent mass demonstrations in which tens of thousands of people protested against the government.

Marián Kočner, controversial Slovak businessman who was a subject of Kuciak´s reporting, was accused of having contracted the killing. Kuciak’s death triggered the uncovering of a number of links between Kočner and leading politicians, prosecutors and judges, some of them closely linked to the Social Democrats.

In November, for example, the vice president of the parliament and regional party leader of the Social Democrats for Bratislava, Martin Glváč, was forced to resign due to alleged contacts with Kočner. For the same reason, social democratic Justice Secretary Monika Jankovská had to resign in September. Both denied any connections to Kočner.

Missed Opportunity

With the proclaimed goal of restoring the broken confidence of Slovak citizens in a functioning democratic state based on the rule of law, new political groups are now entering the battle for votes. A glance at the current election polls gives cause for cautious optimism.

The party “Progressive Slovakia” (PS), a liberal pro-European movement, can hope for success. It forms an electoral alliance with another newcomer, the liberal-conservative party ”Together – Civic Democracy” (Spolu).

In November, the alliance shared second place with the centrist party ”For the People” (Za ľudí), recently founded by former Slovak President Andrej Kiska, with around 11 percent of the votes.

In December, however, the popularity of the alliance and the Kiska´s party fell slightly, and according to the latest polls, they would take third and fourth place.

The pro-European alliance PS/Spolu has already once prevailed against the largest parliamentary party when it won the European elections in May this year.

“We have conducted a positive election campaign, without fear, hatred and populism,” declared top candidate Michal Šimečka at the time.

The current president and co-founder of Progressive Slovakia, Zuzana Čaputová, had also set her sights on a positive election campaign. Her election as President in the spring gave the alliance considerable impetus.

Although the opposition is competing for the same voters, the parties claim to work closely together to defeat the Social Democrats in the upcoming elections.

PS/Spolu, “For the People” and Christian Democrats have accordingly concluded a “non-aggression pact” for the election campaign. In the past few weeks, the formation of an electoral coalition has even been discussed. But in the end this initiative was not implemented.

The delays in concluding the non-aggression pact suggest that it will be difficult for the Slovak opposition to overcome its differences of opinion. It was precisely the fragmentation of the opposition that paved the way for the success of both the Social Democrats and the right-wing populists in the past parliamentary elections.

Extremists on the Rise

However, a deeper look at party preferences also gives cause for concern. At the beginning of December, the ultra-nationalist and far-right “People’s Party Our Slovakia” (L’SNS) became the second strongest party in the polls. Its share rose to 11.8 percent.

Four years ago, L’SNS, which operates on the fringes of legality, caused a surprise when it managed to gain eight percent of the vote and entered the National Council for the first time. In the European elections in May, the party, which is mainly supported by young people under 36 years of age, even became the third strongest party with 12 percent. It opposes the EU, NATO, immigration and Roma minorities.

L’SNS could also benefit from the extension of the moratorium on polls from 14 to 50 days. The ruling coalition, with the help of L’SNS, pushed through the amendment, allegedly to protect voters from disinformation.

However, President Čaputová had challenged the law before the Constitutional Court which finally suspended it. Slovak voters will thus not be left in the dark about the development of the survey results from 10 January as the amendment required.

Who Will Form Government?

Up to eleven different parties could move into the forthcoming National Council. The tripartite coalition will probably not be able to defend its majority, according to the latest polls. Slovak media have speculated about potential cooperation between the Social Democrats and the extreme right-wing L’SNS. The Social Democrats vehemently deny this.

The parties of the democratic opposition have failed to form an electoral coalition with a clear chance of victory. There is a danger that the smaller parties will not overcome the five-percent hurdle and will, therefore, not enter parliament. But cooperation between the opposition after the elections will also be crucial.

One can only hope that it will soon find common ground. A better chance for political change in Slovakia is unlikely to reopen so quickly.

Natalie Marakova
Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom