Harsh election campaign: Does Europe have to fear a Slovak Orbán?


Nach Monaten politischer Instabilität finden am 30. September in der Slowakei vorgezogene Parlamentswahlen statt. 

© picture alliance / EPA | JAKUB GAVLAK

Violence, hate speech and fights accompany the last phase of the election campaign of the snap parliamentary elections in Slovakia. The focus of the election campaign is on the alleged biggest threats to Slovakia: progressivism, liberalism, LGBT and gender ideology, illegal migration, the USA, Brussels, Soros NGOs, the media and so on.  Role models are being sought in Poland, in Hungary and even in Russia. Will Slovakia ultimately continue its pro-Western course or fall prey to populism and pro-Russian propaganda? At the moment, it looks as if the undecided voters will reshuffle the cards at the last minute, because according to the polls, more than 30% of the voters have not yet made up their minds.

Chaos, disappointment and fear

After the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in 2018, many of the corrupt affairs of the long-ruling SMER-SD ("Direction - Social Democracy") party came to light. After large protests, liberal Zuzana Čaputová won the 2019 presidential elections, and a year later Igor Matovič and his right-wing conservative movement Oľano ("Ordinary People and Independent Personalities") won the parliamentary elections. These election results represent a symbol of the fight against corruption as well as a sign of Slovaks to change the destiny of their country. However, the right-wing conservative four-party coalition under Matovič's leadership had to struggle with fierce internal quarrels immediately after the elections. Even the change of prime minister brought no improvement. The coalition finally broke up after two and a half years when parliament passed a vote of no confidence on the government of Eduard Heger(Oľano) in December 2022. The cabinet continued to govern with limited powers at the request of the president until Heger finally gave up in May 2023 and Čaputová was forced to appoint a technocratic caretaker government.

Slovakia has had five prime ministers since 2018, when Kuciak was murdered and protests erupted across the country. Even before Slovaks could process the journalist's murder and the corruption scandals, the world, and thus Slovakia, was shaken by the Covid 19 pandemic and the economic crisis that followed. When people were able to breathe freely and without masks again, Russia invaded Ukraine, causing high inflation, rising prices, fear for survival in the winter months and general worries about the future. At a time when crises overlap, the mistakes of the previous government seem to be forgotten. The corruption cases of the SMER-SD party have apparently become trivial considering the desire of Slovak citizens for more "order". Fewer and fewer people in Slovakia today associate Robert Fico, the SMER party leader, with the murder of the journalist. Instead, he is associated with a time when order and calm reigned in the country.

The chaos of the last few years and the tension around the war in Ukraine contributed to the fact that SMER-SD has been leading in the election polls for months, currently with 19.4%. To explain this, one has to look at the pro-Russian disinformation campaigns in Slovakia, which are very much present in the public narrative and are spread by the anti-system parties like the SMER-SD, but also by the far-right Republika. They have meanwhile extremely influenced and polarised the Slovak population. This is also reflected in the current election polls. In recent weeks, however, an unexpected opponent has been breathing down Robert Fico's neck, the liberal party Progresívne Slovensko ("Progressive Slovakia" - PS) with 18.2%. Slovakia is currently almost divided into two camps: populist and pro-Russian social democrats and progressive liberals.

The choice between liberalism and populism

Slovakia is by no means a traditionally liberal country, nor is it likely to be liberal in the near future. The country has a long Christian tradition with a still influential role of the Church. The society is predominantly conservative, which is also reflected in Slovak politics and leadership (the situation of the LGBT community is desperate by European standards). The most liberal social group among which Progressive Slovakia can win votes are young people, but they represent the smallest percentage of the Slovak electorate. However, the liberals can score points with other arguments. For example, the PS represents an alternative for many because, as a relatively new party, it has not yet had the opportunity to govern or to sit in parliament. This also means that it has not yet committed any affairs or mistakes that could be blamed on it. Moreover, the PS is considered a party that put up a very high-quality list of candidates full of experts, moreover more than 50% of whom are women. Last but not least, in the last weeks before the elections, it looks like the PS is one of the few parties that consistently positions itself against Robert Fico's SMER and at the same time is probably the only party that has a chance to beat SMER in the elections.

The fact that the PS resolutely rejects a future coalition with SMER could influence the undecided voters: For the party with which the PS alternates second place in various polls is currently HLAS-SD ("The Voice - Social Democracy") with 15.1%. HLAS, led by former Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, split from SMER in 2020 as a more moderate wing. There has been no clear rejection of post-election cooperation with SMER, nor of cooperation with the PS. The experts say that the future of Slovakia could therefore be in the hands of Peter Pellegrini.

The "danger" of liberalism unites the small parties fighting for seats

The rise of the liberals also worried especially the parties fighting for the 5 percent threshold in these elections. The closer the election date gets, the more they intensify their anti-liberal rhetoric.

The PS's electoral programme offers great scope for attack: free contraceptives, the complete separation of church and state, same-sex partnerships, a progressive approach to abortion, and menstrual leave for women are among the most controversial points in the PS's electoral programme for the conservative parties.

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, SMER has built its election campaign on stoking fear and hatred towards the policies and values of the West. Robert Fico not only blames the West for the war in Ukraine, but also has stated for a long time ago that if he will get into the government, he would stop all Slovak aid to Ukraine. Around the war in Ukraine, Fico and his fellow party members spread pro-Russian narratives and celebrate national holidays in the presence of representatives of the Russian and Belarusian embassies. At the same time, they stress that it was the Soviet Union from which freedom always emanated, as in the case of the liberation of Slovak territory from the hands of the Nazis, while the West only threatens Slovakia's national interests and identity. These threats, according to many Slovak populists, not only Fico's, include liberalism as such and the spread of so-called LGBT and gender ideology, as well as non-governmental organisations allegedly funded by the US and George Soros, which they say manipulate polls and even elections.

In the eyes of Slovak populists, the supporters of the pro-Western course are "liberal fascists". The conservative SNS ("Slovak National Party"), currently polling around 6%, is campaigning with the slogan "Together we will stop liberalism!”. The far-right Republika party, which is currently down to 5.2% in the polls (but has a higher potential) and whose candidate list includes criminally prosecuted persons and convinced neo-Nazis, represents exactly the same narratives as SMER and SNS. If SMER wins the elections, a coalition of these three parties is quite possible. SNS party leader Andrej Danko already announced in a  TV discussion that he would like to form a strong right-wing conservative bloc following the model of Poland's PiS and Hungary's Fidesz.

The Catholic party KDH ("Christian Democratic Movement"), currently at 6%, also made a name for itself with vulgar anti-LGBT rhetoric. During a live debate, its leader Milan Majerský called the LGBT community a plague. The self-proclaimed defender of traditional values, Boris Kollár, leader of the SME-Rodina party ("We are one family", current poll rating 5.3%,) who has 13 children with 11 women, also made moralizing statements on the issue. And recently, the Slovak Catholic and Protestant churches also join the fight against liberals and progressive policies towards the LGBT community. The bishops published an official statement and the priests in the churches call on people not to vote for parties that supported the so-called gender ideology and same-sex partnerships.

The only other party with liberal roots close to the PS is the SaS ("Freedom and Solidarity"), currently with 7.4%. Although the SaS agrees with the PS on many points, including its position on same-sex partnerships, there are also points where the two liberal parties differ. The leader of the SaS, Richard Sulík, makes this very clear because he is aware that it is the PS with which he is fighting for voters. Sulík is particularly harsh in his criticism of the PS's economic policy, which is in fact rather left-wing.

The former prime minister and self-proclaimed fighter against the mafia and corruption, Igor Matovič (OĽaNO), recently got into a fight with his opponents on the streets. Only few take him seriously, and as his poll ratings (currently around 7 per cent for his coalition) are dropping, it is quite possible that the winner of the last election will not even make it into parliament this time.

Putting it all together, Slovakia's future is highly uncertain and dependent on many unpredictable factors. What is worrying, however, is the rise of anti- liberal forces in Slovakia and the very limited coalition potential of Progressive Slovakia. However, as is common in Slovakia, many voters will choose at the last minute and make their decision based on the last emotional message they take away from the parties' election campaign.

Barbora Krempaská is a Project Manager at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom's Central European and Baltic States Office in Prague.