By Peter Spac (Masaryk University)
The 2020 general election in Slovakia was a massive victory of the opposition. The leftist party SMER that dominated Slovak politics for almost two decades failed to win its first general elections since 2006. The election showed two outcomes. First, it indicates a substantial change in the course of the country. Second, it is entirely unclear what kind of a change it will be.
After the 2016 election a coalition government of SMER, the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and the ethnic Hungarian Bridge was formed. The cabinet initially included also the centre-right Network; however, the party disintegrated shortly after the election. Part of its MPs merged with Bridge while the remaining members went to the opposition.
In February 2018 the country witnessed a murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée who were shot at their home. In his writings, Kuciak focused on corrupt practices, mainly concerning the party SMER. He showed the rising influence of Italian mafia in the country as well as suspicious activities of Marián Kočner, a wealthy entrepreneur with strong ties to many political representatives.
The murder led to massive public demonstrations comparable only to those in November 1989 that preceded the collapse of the Communist regime. With the following weeks, the protests gained in power and demanded profound changes, including the early election. To save the situation, several prominent figures of SMER stepped down including the longtime Prime Minister Robert Fico. By doing so, the party stayed in power; however, its position weakened, and its public support fell to 20 per cent. Since March 2018 the government was led by Peter Pellegrini from SMER, but much evidence indicated him only as a puppet PM while the real power remained in the hands of SMER leader Fico. The demonstrations thus achieved only a reconstruction of the government but not an early election.
During the electoral term, the forces in the opposition also reconfigured. Similarly to previous periods, new parties emerged. From the remnants of Network party that refused to join the government the party Together – Civic Democracy (SPOLU) was formed in 2018. From the beginning, it cooperated closely with another new party, centre-left Progressive Slovakia (PS) what finally turned into a formal electoral coalition (PS-SPOLU). The alliance achieved substantial successes as it won the 2019 EP election and its candidate Zuzana Čaputová became the Slovak president in the same year by beating the candidate of the ruling SMER in the runoff. The finishing president Kiska announced to continue in politics after completion of his mandate and in September 2019 he established his party For the People (ZL). The new party took a more conservative course and was able to gain the support of around ten per cent of voters quickly.
The rising number of opposition parties increased the likelihood that part of them will not pass the five per cent threshold in the 2020 election. The ‘old’ opposition included the liberal Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), the populist and anti-corruption Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLANO) and the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH). To keep the chances of wasted votes low, in Autumn 2019 the opposition started talks on pre-electoral cooperation which however led to no results. The scenario of a grand electoral alliance was refused, and so were the attempts to form the opposition into several smaller blocks. As a result, the opposition stayed vastly fragmented.
The campaign brought some controversial moments. SMER announced its central campaign theme as the Responsible change which seemed odd given that the party spent ten out of 12 recent years in government. The party also fought its heavily corrupt image. Following the murder of Ján Kuciak, the investigation showed a vast corrupt network led by Marian Kočner. It was revealed that Kočner maintained strong links with state attorneys, judges and political officials what granted him longtime protection from the state bodies. Among political parties, these links mainly pointed to SMER what further damaged its image. As a solution, the party almost eliminated the presence of its unpopular leader Fico in the campaign and focused more on PM Pellegrini, who was aimed to represent the new face of the party. On the other hand, the party held a sharply negative campaign attacking its opposition rivals from an alleged organization of influx of immigrants or destabilization of social rights. What is more, former president Kiska accused SMER of publishing a series of compromising videos regarding his previous property sales.
The pro-democratic opposition differed in ways of mobilizing the people. In general, it called for a substantial change of the course of the country and the end of SMER rule. The atmosphere of low political trust of the society showed up to be a fertile ground primarily for OLANO with its populist and anti-corruption profile. The party used several guerilla tactics to increase its support. For example, its leader Igor Matovič took a trip to Cannes to visit the villa of a former minister of finance by SMER who (secretly recorded) talked about heavy corrupt practices with the maintenance of the public funds. Similarly, OLANO launched an e-voting on eleven selected topics and claimed its results to be binding for future negotiations on a coalition government. These activities gained much public attendance, and a panel of more than 40 domestic experts ranked them as one of the most important events of the whole campaign.
Besides corruption, another campaign topic was the rise of extremism in Slovakia. In the 2016 election, the extreme right People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) scored eight per cent of votes and gained parliamentary seats. In the following years, the party intensified its mobilization efforts, and with the help of a variety of alternative media with a broad audience, its support gradually increased. At the end of 2019, the party ranked second only below SMER making it the strongest opposition party. As a reaction, the coalition PS-SPOLU alongside with civic activists started to organize protests in places of LSNS’s meetings. This activity led to substantial tension, and in one of such meetings, the supporters of LSNS physically attacked and injured representatives of PS-SPOLU including one of their candidates.
Despite the government reconstruction in 2018, the ruling parties were unable to stop the continuous decline of their support. In light of this, the government announced a prolongation of the already 14 days of election silence on publishing surveys to 50 days. With such a measure, Slovakia would belong to one of few countries in the world holding the silence for such a long period. Only three months before the election the law was adopted by the parliament. President Čaputová who unsuccessfully vetoed the bill asked the Constitutional court to suspend the measure, and the court decided the silence would not be applied for the upcoming election. In the meantime, a civic initiative 50dni.sk (50 days) started crowdfunding, and with the help of several thousands of people, it collected enough resources for two surveys shortly before the election. Thus, the governing parties not only failed to blur their declining support, but they also adopted a measure that led the public to bypass even the 14 days silence.
The final attempt of the ruling parties to fight the lowering trust occurred only a few days before the actual election. Despite the official goals of the cabinet to keep a balanced budget, SMER and SNS announced to double the family allowances, add a 13th pension and to abolish highway tolls. The opposition called this a clear case of electoral corruption. The parliamentary session had a complicated running as the opposition used obstructions to delay its progress. Finally, only four days before the election and with the help of LSNS and the populist party We are Family (SR) of billionaire Boris Kollár, SMER and SNS succeeded in adopting the 13th pensions. On the other hand, the remaining plans have not found enough support. President Čaputová – who has 15 days to use her veto power – stated that she would not decide the election to not interfere in the campaign clashes.
The election was held on 29 February. Nearly 66 per cent of eligible citizens attended the vote, which was substantially higher compared to previous elections. In both the 2012 and 2016 elections, the turnout stayed below 60 per cent. The high turnout in the 2020 election was a result of both the low political trust of people and strong mobilization oriented on regular voters as well as on abstainers.
The results showed several surprises. OLANO party became the clear winner with more than 25 per cent of votes. Several months ago, the party had only a fragment of this support, but its campaign showed up to be very effective. Although the final surveys indicated an increase of its support, they projected only a low margin of victory with SMER being second. In reality, the longtime dominating party of Robert Fico scored second with only 18.3 per cent of the vote. The results confirmed a continuous decline of the party which won the 2012 election with more than 44 per cent support. Junior coalition partners of SMER, the SNS and Bridge lost even more as they dropped out of parliament with only marginal support. Shortly after the announcement of the results, OLANO declined any probability of cooperation with SMER, hence forcing this party to stay in opposition.
Concerning other parties, the impressive gains of OLANO depressed the overall support of each of the opposition forces. The party of former president Kiska as well as SaS managed to pass the five per cent threshold. On the contrary, KDH was unable to do so, and it repeated its result from 2016. The coalition PS-SPOLU witnessed a bitter outcome. Despite its previous electoral successes, the coalition scored only 6.97 per cent of the vote, hence below the seven per cent threshold required for two-party alliances. PS-SPOLU gained more than 200 thousand votes, but it needed less than a thousand more to pass the threshold. Altogether more than 28 per cent of votes were wasted, the highest number ever since 1989.
A specific case of the losing side is the Hungarian minority in Slovakia. Both ethnic Hungarian parties who rejected to cooperate before the election failed to pass the threshold. As a result, for the first time since 1990, no Hungarian party will represent the minority in the Slovak parliament. Finally, the extreme right LSNS failed to confirm its gains as indicated by pre-electoral surveys. The party more or less repeated its gains from 2016 and with less than eight per cent of the vote became a minor parliamentary force.
The 2020 election in Slovakia might be labelled as an earthquake, however with unclear consequences. The composition of the next government seems to be clear. Although the trio of OLANO, SaS and ZL gained a majority of 78 MPs (out of 150), the OLANO leader and the expected new PM Matovič announced the will for greater cooperation to gain a majority of 90 votes required for constitutional amendments. The upcoming negotiations will thus include the populist SR party, and a four-party government is about to emerge. OLANO and its partners show high ambitions concerning the reduction of corruption, depoliticization of the state service and restoration of political trust. The expectation of the public is also high; however, the main challenge for the new government lies in its stability. OLANO is a party dominated by its leader and with minimal membership. Given its non-party character, in two previous terms, its parliamentary group disintegrated and lost a considerable amount of its members. Hence, there is relevant doubt whether OLANO will be able to address this issue and control the loyalty of its MPs, many of which are not members of the party and their ideological positions differ significantly. In other words, the shift of political course is about to happen, although the change itself is blurry and fragile.
Photo source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/01/world/europe/slovakia-election.html