One thing is sure these days in Europe: if you are a mainstream center-right or center-left party and you flirt with nationalism, you’d better do it right or else watch your right.
In almost every country these days, there’s a serious nationalist party that the voters will trust to be better at nationalism than you. The parliamentary elections on Saturday, March 5, in Slovakia taught just this lesson to Prime Minister Robert Fico of the center-left Smer-Social Democracy (Smer-SD) party and the center-right Christian Democratic Movement (KDH).
Going into these elections, Fico, who was once the country’s clear, ascendant political leader, had already seen his star beginning to fall. Beaten handily in his race for the country’s largely ceremonial but publicly respected presidency in March two years ago by Andrej Kiska, a moderate with a penchant for doing the right thing even when he has to pay a price, Fico was already looking tired and seemingly seeking an exit strategy. But when the migrant crisis that has put so much pressure on Europe broke into the open in summer of 2014, it looked like he might have found footing again. Helping to lead the outcry of governments in Central and Eastern Europe against European Union (EU) plans to resettle migrants by a quota system across all EU member states, Fico cried ‘foul’ early and loudly, flatly rejecting to accept them in Slovakia. This tapped into a deep and broad vein in public opinion that was fundamentally anti-immigrant, anti-migrant, and – frankly – xenophobic.
No surprise, then, that Fico took a clear “We Are Defending Slovakia” approach to the 2016 campaign. Billboards with the photographs of the leading personalities of his government and this slogan blanketed the country and the message Fico communicated in public was the same. In final rallies this past week in Bratislava, he said “We’ll never bring even a single Muslim to Slovakia: we won’t create any Muslim communities here because they pose a serious security risk.” Shades of the debate in the United States this year.
Something of a surprise, on the other side of the spectrum, was that the Christian Democratic Movement – a very moderate party that goes back to the dissidents that helped bring about the Velvet Revolution in 1989 – took the same tack, although this time from the Catholic right. Their billboards, in this case depicting a young mother and her infant child wrapped in the Slovak flag, were nearly as ubiquitous as those of Smer-SD, but communicated the same message: “someone had better protect this country from dangerous outsiders, and it should be us.”
What no one counted on was the ability of the very serious and very dangerous, radical, racist right to gain measurable ground. It seems eons since the days of Vladimír Mečiar, Ján Slota and Ján Ľupták, the trio of Moscow-leaning, anti-Western, statist Slovak xenophobes who dominated politics in the period immediately after Slovak independence, but this strain in the Slovak political mind was always there. In the years of the reformist and remarkably successful center-right governments of Mikuláš Dzurinda and Iveta Radičová, and even under Fico, the extremes were left in the political dark and out of the political mind. This time, they came back strong. Today’s Slovak National Party (SNS) and the People’s Party—Our Slovakia (ĽS-NS) are the expression of this resurgence. Not tainted by having been in government recently, both were tagged as being better able to protect the country from the perceived influx of immigrants than were the establishment center-right and center left. Let’s not quibble over the fact that Slovakia was on track to take in only several hundred migrants in a population of 5,000,000.
But it was not all migrants: corruption and inertia were also important factors. As the population across Europe (with a few exceptions, notably Germany) moves more and more to a “pox on all your houses” attitude, this is a crucial and recurring issue. Talk to common people looking to get health care or to business men and women trying to compete for contracts and they all say the same thing: the people in power have everything, and we have nothing, surely not a level playing field. Clearly the teachers’ strike and protests by nurses in the run-up to this election added to the sense that Fico and Smer-SD had lost touch and were only out for themselves. And the ĽS-NS played the role – supreme irony here – of the Muslim Brotherhood in Slovakia’s desperately poor isolated river valleys, promising that he’d take care of the poverty-stricken and down-trodden. In a state captured by oligarchs (another item of Russian export these days), though, it might be tough for Fico to accommodate any serious opposition in a new government. Shades of the situation in Moscow today – with the exception that even today, Slovakia still has a vibrant civil society that helped expose corruption and put people on the streets as the clock ticked toward the election.
In the end, the results were messy in Slovak terms, but fell neatly in line with those of Portugal, Spain and Ireland over the past few months. They lead to a more fragmented parliament that will make the country much more difficult to govern. Smer-SD won a plurality of the vote with 28.3 percent of the vote (down 16.1 percent from the previous election and a loss of its absolute majority in parliament). So Fico is severely weakened, and likely will have to pay a price – perhaps even the premiership. Second and third place went, again unexpectedly, to two anti-establishment parties that emerged in recent electoral cycles, but had thus far failed to consolidate their vote: the liberal, but Eurosceptic, Freedom and Solidarity (SaS, taking 12.1 percent of the vote, up 6.2 points compared to 2012, largely on its anti-EU, anti-Fico and anti-migrant platform), and the conservative but equally unpredictable Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OL’aNO, holding even with its performance in 2012). Another new factor in the parliament will be the party Boris Kollár-We Are Family, which came from nowhere to take 6.6% of the vote with its own particular anti-establishment message, but which has no discernable political focus other than not having been in government before.
With the emergence of a dedicated nationalist right (particularly among first-time voters!), someone other than Fico also had to give up ground, and those votes came from the moderate center-right: the Christian democratic parties took a beating. The once transformational Slovak Democratic and Christian Union-Democratic Party (SDKU-DS) collapsed completely, as was, in retrospect, perhaps inevitable after former Prime Minister Dzurinda was driven from the scene by his erstwhile supporters in a fit of self-righteous anger. Newcomer and KDH splinter group Sieť (‘Network’) finished with a disappointing 5.6 percent of the vote (far below expectations and just above the threshold), and the storied KDH (which was present at the creation, as they say) failed to pass the threshold and will therefore not be represented in parliament for the first time, well, ever.
One semi-bright spot in this dreary mess was the performance of the moderate, center-right, bi-national Most-Híd (“Bridge” in Slovak and Hungarian) party, which replicated its performance from 2012. Its chairman Béla Bugár and Sieť Chairman Radoslav Procházka now appear to be the only ones who can act as center-right adults in the room in a future government with Fico (and, importantly, someone else… SaS or OĽaNO?), but even their positions are not strong. It is now in Robert Fico’s hands: will he replicate the crazed Mečiarist consortium of the 1990s, or will he go for a more moderate grand, center-left/center-right coalition ala his nemesis Angela Merkel? Time will tell. In any case, one can see a clearly unsettled electorate, a president frustrated with the powers that be, and new elections on the horizon.