Grigorij Meseznikov

SLOVAK ELECTIONS 2020: UNEXPECTED IMPLICATIONS OF THE EXPECTED VICTORY

On 1 March, 2020, Slovakia came to the forefront of the world media information services. On this day, the results of parliamentary elections were announced which meant a broad redrawing of the country‘s political map. Opposition secured the overwhelming victory over the former dominant ruling party Smer-SD [1] and the former ruling coalition as a whole. It reminded the results and the atmosphere of the Slovak parliamentary elections in 1998, similarly critical as elections 2020, when the then broad-spectral opposition managed to put an end of the power of charismatic leader Vladimir Mečiar and his national-populist government which led the country into the deadlock of authoritarianism.

Critical elections in 1998 and 2020: different consequences of victories

The convincing victory of the opposition over the ruling parties was not a big surprise in 2020. Public opinion polls have long signaled that opposition parties were more likely to form a government after the elections. Surprising, however, was the way this victory was achieved, the unexpected political force that contributed most to this victory, and the consequences this victory had for the opposition as a whole. Here the parallels of 2020 with 1998 end. In 1998, Mečiar‘s HZDS [2] formally won the elections with a narrow 0.7% lead over SDK [3] led by Mikuláš Dzurinda, who after the elections formed a government of the broad democratic coalition. In 2020, the ruling Smer-SD was defeated by the opposition OĽaNO [4] movement with a difference of 7%. In 1998, two powerful party-coalition blocs (SDK and SMK [5] ) constituted important elements of the democratic opposition and as a result the substantial part of the opposition camp was united. In 2020 the opposition forces were fragmented as never before. In 1998, thanks to integration trends, all relevant opposition parties succeeded to get into parliament and created a government that met the criteria of “grand coalition” based on a model of consociational democracy. In 2020, all pre-election attempts to integrate the fragmented democratic opposition forces failed (with one exception, but it was rather problematic), and as a result despite the overwhelming victory of the opposition a significant segment of the democratic forces remained outside the parliament. This applies to social liberals, moderate Christian Democrats and political representation of ethnic Hungarians. Together, these portions of the electorate make up 20% of the votes. Their views will be lacking not only in the drafting of laws in the parliament, but also in the enforcement of governmental policies in practice (since the participation of these parties in the government was expected in case of their getting into the parliament). The absence of these opinion groups in the relevant political space creates more favorable environment for representatives of the populist-conservative and nationalist enclaves in new governmental camp. As a result the populists’ controversial proposals and actions will not be faced with the qualified views of internal opponents.

Legacy of the victims of mafia

The opposition’s victory in the 2020 elections must be seen in the context of two years of efforts by Slovak civil society activists and the democratic political elite for a major social change after investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were murdered in February 2018. A few days before the parliamentary elections, the activists of wide civic initiative For a Decent Slovakia organized a series of public commemorative manifestations on the occasion of the second anniversary of the murder which took place in dozens of cities. These gatherings organically fit into the overall pre-election development. Civic activists have come back on the scene and have pointed out in their speeches the legacy of Ján and Martina: that it is not enough simply to hold discussions on the accountability of politicians for the penetration of corruption and mafia practices into the work of state authorities. What is needed above all is the active involvement of citizens into governance, their participation in the functioning of the control mechanisms, the constant pressure on politicians and bureaucrats, and finally the democratic decision of the population about further leadership of their country – whether it will be partially changed or it will be replaced by completely new ruling elite. There was a strong call for change at the commemorative gatherings, and the context interlinking the murder and the country’s future fate was clear – one of the banners, for example, claimed “Go to vote! In order they did not die unnecessarily”. During a two-year investigation and trial with the murderers of Ján and Martina, the revelations of corrupt ties between Marián Kočner, the main organizer of murder and many leading Smer- SD representatives as well as judges, prosecutors and police highly resonated among the public. It was also confirmed that Kočner, who unreservedly supported ruling Smer-SD, also expressed his sympathy to the right-wing extremist ĽSNS [6] . He refused to regard it fascist party and – at least according to what he stated in his communication with companions – he made the efforts to prevent the dissolution of this party by the Supreme Court. He also wanted to convince the fascists to support Fico’s government if one of then the Smer-SD’s partners in the cabinet, Most- Hid party, would leave the ruling coalition.

Political corruption as the strongest electoral motivation

According to opinion polls, Slovak citizens see corruption as one of the most urgent social problems. The facts revealed during the investigation of Kočner’s cases (in addition to the murder also the case of financial fraud) have caused that more people associated in their minds corruption with politics, with the exercise of power, with activities of state authorities. For many people, corruption has become a genuinely political phenomenon. It is therefore not surprising that the main theme of the election campaign was corruption linked to politics, i.e. political corruption in its various manifestations in numerous spheres: the rule of law institutions, the executive power, the judiciary, the redistribution of public funds, health care etc. Virtually every democratic opposition party has included in its electoral mobilization strategies the anti-corruption agenda, struggle for restoration of justice and punishment of those responsible for corruption. However, not all parties were equally successful in elections with this agenda.

Winners

The most successful player and unequivocal winner of the 2020 election became the center-right “soft-populist” OĽaNO movement, inclining to conservativism, headed by Igor Matovič, a political performer. It got to the parliament with a staggering 25%. At the beginning of 2020, the rating of OĽaNO was oscillating around 5-6% percent. Gradually, however, it began to increase, mainly thanks to anti-corruption happenings organized in Slovakia and abroad (for instance, in France and Cyprus where some former Slovak officials and current oligarchs have their properties and where their offshore companies are located. Shortly before the voting, OĽaNO’s support has further increased. In the opinion poll three days before elections, OĽaNO had 19% and was ahead of Smer-SD. It was already clear that the new winner of elections was coming to the scene. This incredible increase in support – from 5% in January to 25.02% in the elections – signaled that Matovič’s movement could attract a large mass of previously undecided voters, non-voters, but also some of the voters of other opposition parties who responded positively to appeal about necessity of anti-corruption change. According to the FOCUS agency’s exit-poll, up to 71% of OĽaNO’s voters voted for this formation because of its ability to “fight corruption”. For voters of other parties, this motivation was less mobilizing, they rather preferred “program”, “personalities”, “values”, etc. Of key importance for OĽaNO’s victory was the wish of large part of the electorate to support a party capable of individually defeating Smer-SD and overthrowing it from the political throne where it has been since 2006. The amorphous populist social-conservative movement with the leftist economic rhetoric We Are Family led by the controversial media entrepreneur Boris Kollár got into the parliament with 8.24%. Two other minor center-right parties qualified into the parliament too: libertarian SaS [7] of economist Richard Sulík with 6.22% and predominantly liberally-oriented party For People of the former president Andrej Kiska with 5.77%. Together with OĽaNO these three parties are likely to form a coalition government.

Losers

The ruling party Smer-SD, with the Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini as electoral leader, leaves to the opposition with 18.29%. Smer-SD’s irreplaceable chairman Robert Fico said he remained in the politics in order to be a “hard left opposition” to new government. However, it does not seem that the party has a better chance of change while Robert Fico is in the lead. He is too confrontational and not enough attractive for younger voters. After the murder of Ján and Martina the party came under strong pressure and many citizens associated Smer-SD with this terrible event. After two years of investigation the shocking facts were published how some party’s officials maintained contacts with those with criminal backgrounds. This forced party to defensive position and to some extent even paralyzed its activities. In election 2020, Smer-SD suffered clear defeat. It was not the first considerable loss – since 2018 Smer-SD has already lost presidential and municipal elections as well as elections to the European Parliament. The dynamism of country’s political development indicates that there are no realistic chances for Smer-SD to return to the power. A big surprise was the failure of the liberal electoral coalition PS-Spolu [8] . It obtained 6.97% of the votes, but as it needed according to electoral law at least 7%, it did not succeed to join the parliament (it missed 926 votes). Obviously, this coalition – similar to the SaS and the For People party – was taken up some of its potential voters by Matovič’s movement. PS-Spolu has achieved significantly weaker results in the eastern part of the country. The failure of the PS- Spolu and the modest outcome of the For People party and SaS reduced the chances of implementing the modernizing and innovative reforms in important sectors of Slovak society. The expertise that these parties have accumulated will remain largely unused. The moderate conservative pro-European KDH [9] did not get into the parliament, it was below the 5% threshold of 0.35%. Representatives of ethnic Hungarians also will not sit in parliament for the first time since 1990: leaders of two “Hungarian” parties – Most-Híd and MKS [10] – failed to form a pre-election alliance to help them to overcome together at least 5% entry threshold, both formations left outside the assembly. The absence of “Hungarian” parties in the parliament can reduce the feeling of ethnic Hungarians’ belonging to the state in which they live and can increase the risk of political radicalization in the minority environment due to its insufficient representation. The fascists ĽSNS led by Marián Kotleba was re-elected to the parliament. In public opinion surveys conducted in early 2020 its support ranged from 12 to 14%, which provoked great concern among democratic public. Eventually, the LSNS finished fourth with 7.97%, although it received 20 thousand more votes compared to 2016. The atmosphere at the end of the campaign – numerous anti-fascist activities in the online space, messages and appeals of popular figures from culture, arts and sports, public events organized by opponents of the ĽSNS – all this created strong public pressure to the party, it even had to cancel several pre-election meetings. In addition, Matovič‘s OĽaNO managed to address some potential Kotleba’s voters and therefore succeeded to neutralize the possibility of a more significant increase in support of fascists.

Conclusions

In the Slovak parliamentary elections 2020, political force won which was able to produce a “snowball” effect at the end of campaign due to two reasons – high motivation of voters to contribute to the victory of individual party over the ruling Smer-SD and strong anti-corruption appeal. At the end, Matovič’s OĽaNO really succeeded in defeating Smer-SD, but the price for this remarkable achievement was the weaker results of For People party and SaS, and in the case of PS-Spolu and KDH even dropping them out of parliament. The political and professional potential of these parties will be lacking in the process of continuing the important post-electoral reforms. This is not the best beginning for the new government. It is now a challenge for Matovič’s coalition – to convince the broad domestic audience that it has been given a really legitimate mandate and that it is capable to fulfil people‘s expectations.

[1] Smer-SD – Direction-Social Democracy party
[2] HZDS – Movement for a Democratic Slovakia
[3] SDK – Slovak Democratic Coalition
[4] OĽaNO – Ordinary People and Independent Personalities movement
[5] SMK – Party of Hungarian Coalition
[6] ĽSNS – People’s Party Our Slovakia
[7] SaS – Freedom and Solidarity party
[8] PS-Spolu – Progressive Slovakia-Together coalition
[9] KDH – Christian Democratic Movement
[10] MKS – Hungarian Communitarian Togetherness