It’s still hurricane season in European party politics. Slovakia’s elections on Saturday produced a fractious parliament with eight parties. Forming a stable government that will last the four years until the next scheduled elections looks almost mission impossible.
The international press was quick to pick up on one striking development: the success of the extreme right-wing “Peoples Party – Our Slovakia” led by Marian Kotleba. The party’s 8 percent of the vote and 14 members of parliament marks a distinct change in Slovak politics. But as you can see below, the results were also striking as much for continuities as change.
The center-left party in power lost ground, despite nationalist and anti-migrant appeals
As was widely expected, Robert Fico’s Smer-Social Democracy, which has governed the country for the past four years, received the largest share of the vote in almost all areas of the country. But the party’s 28 percent fell short of expectations — and was a big drop from 44.4 percent in 2012.
The party has been electorally the most successful party in the past decade by some margin. As we explained here recently, that’s because of an extensive party organization, a well-crafted set of appeals popular with Smer-SD’s base, and Slovakia’s healthy growth rate despite tough economic times in Europe.
However, Smer-SD began to lose support in recent months. Strikes by teachers and nurses and scandals in the health-care sector undermined the image of good governance Fico had sought to cultivate. Moreover, the government’s latest package of welfare changes increased pensions by a measly €1.9 per month, undermining support in one of the party’s core demographics.
That’s why Fico responded to the European migration crisis by playing the national card in the fall. Smer-SD’s main campaign slogan shifted from “We work for the people” to “We will defend Slovakia.” At his final preelection party rally in the capital, Bratislava, he reiterated his pledge not to allow a single Muslim migrant on Slovak soil.
The party’s support rose back up to 40 percent in November and December. But Fico’s change in rhetoric backfired, making Kotleba’s far-right rhetoric and fulminations about foreigners seem less extremist.
Meanwhile, the far-right party gained seats
Kotleba’s appeal was based on more than anti-foreigner sentiment. Elected as the governor of the central region of Banska Bystrica in November 2013, Kotleba has adeptly promoted himself as a successful governor. His success is debatable, but perception is more important than reality in politics.
Kotleba’s electoral success highlights many of the deeper causes of instability in Slovak politics and the challenges facing modern democracies.
But Slovakia has been stable in its instability
Almost every election in Slovakia’s history has involved a successful new parliamentary party and an existing party falling below the 5 percent threshold and dropping out of the legislature. Slovakia’s party politics has been stable in its instability.
Here’s the technical stuff. Political scientists have long been working to measure political volatility. To clarify what kinds of change they’re looking at, scholars have distinguished between within-system (Type B) and extra-system (Type A) volatility — voter movement from one parliamentary party to another (or Type B) compared with voter movement to new parties (Type A). The figure below shows that the 2016 elections were more volatile than they’ve been in the past, although still in line with many elections in Slovakia. But it highlights a slightly greater increase in the movement between existing parliamentary parties, rather than to new parties.
“We are Family”
In addition to Kotleba’s “Our Slovakia,” two other new parties crossed the threshold: #Siet (“Network,” yes, with the hashtag) with 5.6 percent and “We Are Family” with 6.6 percent of the vote.
“We Are Family” used many of the typical appeals made by new parties. Its leader, Boris Kollar, mixed anti-politics appeal (including the slogan “I’m not a politician, I do things differently”) with a stress on his wealth (“I’m wealthy so unlike other politicians I don’t need to steal from the state”).
Kollar is a prominent personality and businessman whose celebrity owes something to his colorful private life. He has nine children with eight different women. At first glance that doesn’t appear to fit his party’s name. But in Slovak the phrase “Sme rodina” conjures up a sense that family is what makes you strong, and also a feeling that everyone is in this together.
“#Siet” (hashtag included)
#Siet was widely expected to perform much better. Its leader, Radoslav Prochazka, seemed the most likely person to replace Fico as Slovak prime minister. During the last week of the campaign, however, the party lost momentum and energy. #Siet had been formed nearly two years in advance of the elections, and it no longer felt so new and full of fresh ideas.
Furthermore, #Siet’s success in opinion polls had turned the spotlight on the party’s program — and more to the point, to Prochazka’s personality, which journalists tended to portray negatively.
In contrast, Kollar’s party was founded in the fall and only at the last minute appeared likely to cross the 5 percent threshold. As a laggard, We Are Family didn’t get journalists’ attention. Timing is everything in comedy and, it seems, in politics.
Both #Siet and We Are Family took votes from one of the perennials of Slovak parliamentary politics, the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), which for the first time got less than 5 percent of the vote and dropped out of parliament.
KDH paid the price for not passing the baton to a new generation. Not only had Prochazka been a member of KDH, but the former crown prince of the party, Daniel Lipsic, had left KDH after the 2012 elections. Lipsic joined forces with Igor Matovic’s Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO). Together they garnered 11 percent in the elections.
If either Lipsic or Prochazka had stayed in KDH and become leader, the party would probably have stood a better chance of crossing the electoral threshold.
Freedom and Solidarity
Perhaps the most surprising result of election night was the 12.1 percent won by Freedom and Solidarity (SaS). A new entrant in 2010, the party has suffered several defections. Its support had been fluctuating around 5 percent throughout most of the parliament. The endurance and success of the party owes much to party leader Richard Sulik’s prominent Euroscepticism, as well as the party’s pro-market and social liberal views and its effective use of social media.
More detailed research is required, but apparently the fear that SaS would get less than five percent of the vote helped it mobilize support. In fact, both SaS and OLaNO, which also appeared likely to drop below the 5 percent threshold, performed better than expected, while #Siet and Most-HID, which had seemed more comfortably over the threshold, performed worse than expected.
Perhaps anti-Fico voters wanted to use their votes strategically to get as many opposition parties into parliament as possible, diminishing the chances of a Fico government.
The more Slovakia’s parliament changes, the more it stays the same
Despite all the new parties in parliament, Slovakia’s 2016 election does not represent such a great change. The relative balance of support among the various blocs resembles that of 2006.
Slovakia’s experience here is in line with other countries in the region where fluid party politics can mask an underlying stability.
Political disillusionment in Slovakia
The elections in Slovakia highlight a couple of things. Some frustrated voters are turning to the extreme right. But more important, many citizens are disillusioned with politics and politicians. Corruption scandals and poor governance are draining support for established parties. New entrants then offer extreme or vague solutions.
These challenges face all modern democracies. In that sense the elections show that Slovakia is everywhere.
Tim Haughton is associate professor of European politics at the University of Birmingham. Darina Malova is professor of political science at Comenius University in Bratislava. Kevin Deegan-Krause is associate professor of political science at Wayne State University.