Lies, silence and resignation in the Slovak EP election campaign

The European Parliament election campaign in Slovakia has been fairly invisible until now. It is as if the parties told themselves that, since only one in five Slovak voters showed any interest in the previous two EP elections, it is simply not worth the effort to get their votes. The good news is that ethnic mobilization has not made it into the mainstream media this time. The bad news is that its appeal is far from over.

Foto: CreativecCommons/ Sludge G

Slovak parties have a fairly long history of trying to catch voters’ attention by playing the ethnic card – or, to put it plainly, by lying to the voters and placing blame for the country’s problems on the Hungarians or the Roma. Let’s recall the pompous press conference of SDKU leader Frešo and former minister of labor Kaník in the summer of 2012, when they stood in front of a Roma settlement in Western Slovakia and introduced a plan to do away with illegal construction. Or the 2013 proposal of the governing SMER party to reform the welfare system by introducing forced labor. Or the leafletsdistributed by unknown actors during the 2009 presidential campaign in which Iveta Radičová supposedly promised autonomy to Hungarians if they voted for her.

The list could continue for many pages, but the common denominator is that Slovak parties who have opted for the ethnic card have proven their laziness in tackling economic challenges by instead trying to convince their voters that someone else is responsible for the country’s underinvestment in education and lack of job opportunities. No, Radičová never promised autonomy to Hungarians. No, the SMER welfare reform would not bring more jobs and better salaries, and neither would Frešo’s and Kaník’s theatrical gesture. Ahead of the upcoming elections, however, the parliamentary parties have largely abstained from such games. It is not clear why; in the best-case scenario, they have perhaps realized that the voters are not that gullible and it is finally time to be more responsible. Yet there are several non-parliamentary parties that are still trying to woo the voters with such cheap tricks.

Student elections bring surprising results

In the upcoming elections, Slovaks will be able to pick 13 new members of the European Parliament.

Earlier this week, the Institute for Public Affairs organized mock elections at 62 high schools around Slovakia, with a surprising result. The non-parliamentary “Peoples’ Party Our Slovakia” (PPOS) would get to send three MPs to the European Parliament – just like the most popular and currently governing Social Democratic SMER. (See table below for a list of MPs selected by Slovak high school students.) Out of 13,498 eligible voters, 6,175 cast votes. While this is not a representative poll, it is a good insight into the youth perception of politics today. It also is a good mirror of how much was neglected in the country’s public education system. Also, the results are fairly different from the latest public opinion poll conducted by MVK, in which the governing SMER would get six seats and none of the non-parliamentary parties would get in. Who is this party and what is responsible for such popularity among high school students?

Party No. of MPs
SMER-Social Democracy – current governing party, in the national parliament since 2002 3
People’s Party Our Slovakia – never been in national parliament, in 2013 the party’s chairman got elected to the post of governor of the Banská Bystrica region 3
Ordinary People and Independent Personalities – in national parliament since 2010, party combines a range of ideologies 2
Freedom and Solidarity – in national parliament since 2010 2
Christian Democratic Movement – in national parliament since 1990, served in several governments 2
Party of modern Slovakia – not in the national parliament, the seat would go to a former hockey player 1

Table: high school student preferences in mock EP elections organized by

Anger, adventure and banalizing fascism

The PPOS got attention last fall when its chairman was elected as head of the Banská Bystrica regional administration. Ensuing discussion of the “Kotleba phenomenon” revealed the complexity of voter motivations. For some, this was only a protest vote, a way to change one guard for the other. Kotleba’s predecessor, who also ran for reelection in 2013, did not mind holding a post as a member of the European Parliament at the same time, a situation that clearly did not facilitate his full engagement with the problems of a region with high unemployment. To many of his voters, Kotleba’s support for fascism and racist language seemed secondary. When SME daily interviewed voters in Banská Bystrica and the reporter hinted at Kotleba’s openly racist statements and actions, the voters responded with “although I know he is a real extremist” and “well, each of us has different hobbies – someone like him simply hates Gypsies, someone else hates homeless people. All of us have different interests. Someone listens to hip-hop.”

A good illustration of his controversial and contradictory political ideology and behavior would be a gesture conducted on March 14, 2014, an anniversary of the wartime Slovak state that Kotleba and PPOS hold every year. On this day, Kotleba took down the “occupational flag of the EU” from the regional government office. The wartime Slovak state, a satellite of Nazi Germany, belongs to the darkest period of Slovak history. A fascist regime that sent part of its population to death, it was far from independent. And attacks on Brussels are far from consistent with one of Kotleba’s main goals in office: assessing how the previous administration handled eurofunds. Let us recall that it was “Brussels bureaucrats” who uncovered the mismanagement of eurofunds in Slovakia in the first place.

Moreover, in January of this year, Kotleba addressed a letter to then-president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych supporting his “fight to save Ukraine.” In this letter, the Bystrica governor, who often presents himself as a fighter against the “political mafia,” addressed the Ukrainian leader as a fellow “Slav.” Yanukovych’s deep profits from Ukraine’s corruption and mismanagement of public finances went unnoticed in the Bystrica governor’s letter. Thus, paradoxically, the fighter against political mafia supported a man whose power rested on the support of oligarchs.

But the really recurring theme for PPOS and Kotleba are the Roma. Their program for the European Parliament election consists of numerous misleading statements that have no basis in reality and hence can hardly be used to make the policies that many of the poor and frustrated long for. In the past, Kotleba has argued that some welfare benefits recipients get more money than the minimum wage for people who work. Yet such a situation is extremely rare; the majority of welfare recipients get less money than those who work (see numbers here). In this year’s EP election program, Kotleba’s party argues that “The unfairly set up social system causes literally boundless preferential treatment of a minority that has made a business out of making children.” However, a look at the data proves him wrong; over 60% of recipients of the basic welfare benefit (dávka v hmotnej núdzi) are singles. Families with more than four children constitute a negligible 3% of welfare recipients. The party tries to tap into the general sense of frustration with low incomes, but simply points to the wrong sources of income inequality.

Of the party’s many misleading statements, let us highlight one more. The PPOS states as its goal to “Prevent further subsidies for Gypsy extremists and through this enable their free movement to EU countries. Out of the money the Union draws from Slovakia, it annually sends back several million euros tied to the Gypsy problem. It does this so that the Gypsies will not go to the West and will stay in Slovakia.” The fact is that Slovakia remains a net recipient of EU money, meaning that more is received from the EU budget than is actually sent. The really worrying aspect, of course, is how the funds are managed by Slovak authorities; as already mentioned, earlier this month the European Commission announced that it had found numerous inconsistencies. More importantly, the funds allocated for Roma settlements have not always targeted the most needy, as a UNDP study found. Of equal concern is that many funds allocated for Roma inclusion ended up being used for useless projects that sometimes did not even reach the Roma. Once again, the PPOS twists the facts and looks for the culprits in the wrong place.

Why the resignation?

It is fairly obvious that the two and half decades since the regime change have not left everyone happy. It is clear that many reforms have been neglected and many have found themselves humiliated. In the years after regime change, Slovakia has seen a convergence in prices with Western Europe but not so much in incomes. Its public education system has so far never seen a relevant reform that would create schools that stimulated critical thinking, encouraged critical reflection on current politics and offered an opportunity to take a healthy look at the country’s history. Those schools that do are an exception, not a rule, and they do that despite underinvestment in infrastructure and human resources. Certainly EU membership did not come only with positives. But a party that does not get its facts rights and builds its program on nostalgia for a fascist state is unlikely to bring about policy change.

Importantly, even if its members did make it to the European Parliament, they would be very lonely. The European Union does need several reforms, but these are unlikely to be carried out by those who look for answers in war. If anyone feels there is no difference between war and peace, please switch on the news from Syria. Having lived for several decades in peace, we often forget that saying “no” to fascism is a foundation stone of that peace, and of any reasonable debate on meeting the many public policy challenges ahead of us. The PPOS’ appeal to young voters should certainly send a message to the parliamentary parties. But it should also send a message to the voters: building the Slovak future on rediscovery of its ugliest past is not a sign of “sticking it” to the “incompetent mainstream politicians.” It is a sign of resignation.

Tibor Javorek and contributed research for this article.

Lucia Najšlová

Lucia Najšlová

is the editor in chief of the V4 Revue. She is a lecturer at the Charles University in Prague and at UPCES CERGE-EI and associate fellow at the IIR in Prague.