And yet if the polls are accurate, Smer-SD, the incumbent governing party led by Robert Fico, should win March’s elections in Slovakia with around 35 percent of the vote. While that’s not enough to form another single-party government, Smer-SD will probably be able to form a two-party coalition most likely with the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS) as its junior partner.
Smer was launched in 1999 by the charismatic and popular politician Robert Fico. Ideologically indistinct at its inception, it promised Slovak voters, who were disgruntled about corruption and the polarization of politics, a new face and a new direction (Smer means ‘direction’ in Slovak; for reasons we’ll discuss below, it added the ‘-SD’ in 2004). The party has grown steadily more popular at elections, winning 44.4 percent at the last elections in 2012.
These five factors help explain why the party has not succumbed to the “live fast die young” fate of many new parties in the Central and Eastern Europe region.
1. Organize to survive
Organization is one of the keys to party success and longevity in the region, as Margit Tavits’ research has shown. That’s been true for Smer-SD.
Fico started Smer as a one-man band, but has developed it into the party with the best organizational structure in the country. Although Fico is often thought to dominate Smer-SD, its regional structures are dominated by powerful local interests associated with particular industries or sections of the economy central to local prosperity, such as health care in Slovakia’s second city of Kosice. These powerful and well-placed elites take important roles in the party’s structures. But their loyalty isn’t based on principle; it’s largely based on opportunity and interest and could erode if Smer-SD loses power.
2. Keep the economy moving
Support for Smer-SD has been fueled by economic growth. Slovakia no longer enjoys the growth rates of 8.5 percent and 10.4 percent that it saw in the mid-2000s, when it was dubbed the ‘Tatra Tiger.” But given the tough economic times throughout Europe, it’s impressive that Slovakia’s economy is growing at more than three percent each year, or double the average in the euro zone, which it joined in 2009. Even unemployment, which has remained stubbornly above 10 percent for almost all of the past decade, has been falling over the past couple of years.
Considering that record, Fico has projected himself as the man to guide the country through difficult times – despite some scandals and a whiff of corruption around other leading party figures. However, research by Zsolt Gal indicates that the success of the Smer-SD government in managing debt levels may owe more to the flow of E.U. funds than to good governance.
But politicians tend to take credit for any good news under their watch whatever the cause. Fico is no exception.
3. Don’t ever neglect your base
Fico knows how to appeal to his core constituency of left-leaning voters. His promise of free train travel for students and pensioners in 2014, for instance, was derided by opponents as a gimmick. But such measures play well with Smer-SD voters. Last year, the Fico government introduced a package of social reforms that included increased maternity benefits and child benefits and cuts on VAT for basic foodstuffs like fresh meat, milk and bread. Critics saw this as a cynical ploy to shore up Smer-SD voters, but for Fico it underscored Smer-SD’s commitment to ordinary voters.
Fico calls on nationalist emotions as needed. During the 2010 election, Smer-SD peddled a kind of nationalism-lite that helped win support from nationalist parties. But the migration/refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks in Paris have made Fico’s nationalism far more strident.
Fico normally flows with the European mainstream and doesn’t put his head above water at European summits. But in 2015, Fico opposed the E.U.’s quota for migrants; after the Paris attacks, he promised to put all Muslims under surveillance. Although unpopular abroad, his slogan “We will protect Slovakia” was designed to shore up support at home. It boosted Smer-SD’s support in Fall 2015 back up to 40 percent, although strikes and scandal have nudged it back down in recent weeks.
4. Happy is the politician whose opponents squabble
Fico has been fortunate in his opponents. He likes to deride them as a “zlepenec” (“glued-together hack job”) of parties that can’t be trusted with power. His return to power in 2012 – Smer-SD formed a government in 2006 but fell out of power again in 2010 – came after a four-party coalition disintegrated because of policy differences and personality clashes.
Generally in Slovakia politicians on the center-right have been keener to voice their discontent and leave to establish new parties rather than stay in their existing ones. In the past few years, yet more new parties have emerged on the market liberal and conservative right, including SKOK (“jump”), Sanca (“chance”) and We Are Family – Boris Kollar.
The most significant new party is #Siet – yes, with the hashtag — which means “network.” Running at the mid-teens in opinion polls, the party was founded by prominent conservative lawyer Radoslav Prochazka. #Siet urges voters to turn to a new generation of politicians with expertise in a range of policy areas. It has championed investment in education and has attacked links between Smer-SD and businesses that have won government contracts.
But #Siet faces major challenges. Any non-Fico government is likely to be a large and disputatious coalition. Although the party has done a lot to promote other leading figures, Prochazka remains central, and his personal appeal appears limited.
5. Be an exceptionally adept politician
Fico has been the most adept politician on the Slovak political scene in the past decade. Even being defeated in last year’s presidential elections did not seem to affect the long-term popularity of Fico and his party. He has consistently outsmarted his opponents and is skilled at exploiting opponents’ weaknesses, especially their tendency to squabble among themselves
The mechanics of Slovakia’s electoral system will weed out some parties
Only parties that win more than five percent of the vote gain seats in parliament. This electoral threshold has played a decisive role in what kind of government is formed in previous elections in Slovakia. It probably will again.
In 2016, Smer-SD and #Siet will achieve more than five percent. None of the other parties appears likely to be comfortably over the threshold. For a non-Fico-led government to be formed, four or five of the center-right parties would have to win more than five percent. That’s far from certain.
In short, Slovakia will probably continue in broadly the same direction it has been traveling for the past four years.