The following post-election report on Saturday’s 2012 Slovak elections is co-authored by Kevin Deegan-Krause, Associate Professor of Political Science, Wayne State University, and Tim Haughton, Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Fellow, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies & Senior Lecturer in the Politics of Central and Eastern Europe, University of Birmingham.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the 2012 Slovak parliamentary elections was how unsurprising they proved to be. The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The European Voice, domestic media organizations and even the outgoing Prime Minister Iveta Radicova, all expected Smer-Social Democracy to win the election and for its leader Robert Fico to return to power. Even the early exit polls which cast doubt on Fico’s chances of an overall majority and opened up the prospect of a center-right coalition for a few hours were not that surprising. Exit polls in Slovakia are rarely accurate, but at least they contributed to the drama of election night.
By the time the left-leaning Smer-Social Democracy (Smer-SD) held a press conference at 6am on Sunday morning it was clear Fico was on his way to winning 44.4% of the vote and 83 of the 150 seats in Slovakia’s parliament. Nevertheless, a closer look at Slovakia’s election helps to make a simple story somewhat more complex and even offers a few insights into 21st century-style democracy for those who do not have much interest in Slovakia itself.
As with the results themselves, the world’s news sources had little doubt about the reason: corruption. Yet the actual circumstances are more complicated. Surveys suggest that the right-leaning coalition lost the support of the majority of voters only a few months after taking office in the summer of 2010, and by mid-2011, Fico’s Smer-SD was consistently polling at levels sufficient for a one-party parliamentary majority, well before the collapse of the coalition over the Euro-bailout or the scandals surrounding the so-called “Gorilla” file.
Fico’s Smer-SD took few risks in running a similar campaign to those in previous elections and relentlessly pushed the key words “certainty” (istota) and stability, whilst maintaining a unified, calm and confident (but not cocky) voice all the way through. In contrast, the election campaigns of Fico’s main competitors on the right were largely lackluster, not least because the early parts of the campaign were overshadowed by large-scale demonstrations provoked by the “Gorilla scandal” so called because of the ominous name of a leaked police file purportedly highlighting the intimate links and lucrative mutually-beneficial deals between financial groups and politicians, especially those in the 2002-2006 government led by Mikulas Dzurinda. Gorilla, along with allegations that MPs had been offered bribes in return for their loyalty in the fractious vote for the prosecutor-general in 2010, served to indict nearly the entire political class and its murky links with business and produced several vehement demonstrations in Slovakia’s major cities.
Although Gorilla and similar scandals cast shadows over all political leaders, the main victim was the leading government party, the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union – Democratic Party (SDKU-DS), and its leader Dzurinda. But his party was also harmed by the decision of its prime minister, Iveta Radicova, to leave politics after her frustrating experience of trying to hold a fractious coalition together whilst all the time being undermined by her party colleagues Dzurinda and Ivan Miklos. Dzurinda paid a high price for these missteps: he came in third among preference votes in his own party receiving support from only one sixth of his own party’s voters. He responded by announcing he would step down as party chairman.
Others on the right, however, did not capitalize on SDKU-DS’s woes. The Christian Democratic Movement’s (KDH) reliance on its loyal electorate and its weak campaign (encapsulated in the ill-judged slogan ‘white Slovakia’) prevented it from taking clear leadership on Slovakia’s right. Equally, the social and economically liberal, Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), was only narrowly able to scrape past the 5% threshold. The party suffered from pre-election revelations that party leader Richard Sulik held monthly meetings with dodgy businessmen, but managed to hang on to enough voters through its unique combination of libertarian morality and pro-market values and its prominent negative stance on the Euro bailout (a position so important to Sulik that he allowed his opposition to bring down the government of which he was a part).
Among other parties, neither of the two major Hungarian contenders, the Party of the Hungarian Coalition (SMK) and the more moderate Most-Hid (‘Bridge’) ran a particularly noteworthy campaign. At the other end of the national spectrum the Slovak National Party (SNS) did manage a noteworthy campaign, but only by pushing the boundaries of decorum. Whilst its 2010 campaign projected aggressively xenophobic images of bandit Hungarians and indolent Roma with (photoshopped) chains and tattoos, in 2012 the party abandoned any pretense of style and embraced raw confrontation, borrowing liberally from anti-Semitic caricature and even internet pornography: one billboard featured a female model wearing an EU-flag thong and the message, “the EU is screwed”.
Weak performance by major parties in Central and Eastern Europe seems more often than not to benefit new parties, a phenomenon common to Slovakia but now apparent also in Hungary (Politics Can Be Different), the Czech Republic (Public Affairs, TOP09), Poland (Polikot’s Movement), and Slovenia (Jankovic’s List, Virant’s List). In 2012 Slovakia again produced a new parliamentary party. Igor Matovic, elected unexpectedly in 2010 through preference votes on the SaS party list, tentatively positioned his new “Ordinary People and Independents ” party on the right-hand side of the spectrum, but took full advantage of the corruption scandals. A second new party, evocatively called “99%” briefly succeeded in attracting voters with a well-designed and lavishly-funded campaign, but quickly lost momentum as questions emerged about the source of the lavish funding and the possibility of systematic falsification of signatures on the party’s establishing petition. With its final tally of only 1.6% of the vote, 99% suggests that there are limits on the degree of artificiality that even the most disillusioned voters are willing to accept from a new anti-corruption, anti-elite party.
Although the world’s news sources explained their election predictions on the basis of the corruption scandals, the actual footprints of the gorilla-scandal appear to have been relatively shallow. While it certainly had individual and institutional effects, toppling Dzurinda and helping to rearrange the complexion of parties on the right, the scandals actually produced little change in the overall array of Slovakia’s parties. Surveys suggest that the right-leaning coalition lost the support of the majority of voters only a few months after taking office in the summer of 2010, and by mid-2011, Fico’s Smer-SD was consistently polling at levels sufficient for a one-party parliamentary majority, well before the collapse of the coalition over the Euro-bailout or the scandals surrounding the so-called “Gorilla” file.
When we delve deeper into Slovakia’s results over time we see that frequent changes in party and government obscure a remarkable degree of stability within the four electoral blocs: left and right, and Hungarian national (those of Hungarian ethnicity) and Slovak national (those of Slovak ethnicity for whom ethnicity is particularly important). Whom these voters vote for (indeed, which party is even on the ballot) has changed significantly over time, but the relative percentage in these two categories has not changed by more than a few percentage points over the four elections of the past decade (and not much before that). In the other half of the political landscape, there are more significant shifts—the decline of the Slovak-national parties and the rise of the economic left, but these two developments are almost perfectly reciprocal, and the overlap of themes suggests a high degree of compatibility between the voters in these two blocs.
A closer look at these blocs indicates that unlike the combination of left and Slovak-national parties, the coalition of right and Hungarian-national parties has never actually constituted a majority of Slovakia’s voters. The right has been able to form coalitions only when allied with the left (as for a brief time in 1994 and again from 1998 to 2002) or benefited from fragmentation among left and Slovak-national parties that kept some of them from passing the 5% threshold and produced a disproportionate number of seats for the right. In the 2012 election, threshold failures by parties on both sides produced a roughly even redistribution of seats which benefitted the larger combined bloc, that of the Slovak-national and left, and because of the collapse of the Slovak-national parties, and consolidation of the left, this space was occupied entirely by Robert Fico’s party, Smer.
The dynamics of public opinion are always filtered through the institutions of electoral politics and in Slovakia those institutions have recently made the difference between winners and losers. Party change more than voter change has produced most of Slovakia’s recent political volatility. As an example, of such “supply-side” volatility, it is worth noting that while Slovak-national parties have disappeared from parliament, the Slovak-national party vote has actually changed relatively little. Together, parties which appeal to the Slovak-national themes managed to win nearly 8%, only about two percentage points less than what they achieved two years ago. As with most other changes in Slovakia’s politics, the collapse of parliamentary representation for the Slovak-national bloc lies in the interaction between party splintering and the 5% threshold. Although perhaps less decisively than in 2002, when SNS also lost its representation in parliament, a splinter from SNS led by a former leader may have pulled away a vital share of the SNS vote, and another radically anti-Roma and anti-immigrant party with roots in the skinhead subculture may have done the same.
A big challenge awaits Slovakia’s right. Outside observers (and quite a few domestic ones) blame the right for losing the 2012 election, but a close examination of bloc patterns suggests its combined vote was not much worse than in 2002 or 2006. In retrospect, the exceptional election for the right may have been not 2012 or 2006 but 2010. In that year, four years of Fico government, with some sizeable scandals, sent some moderate, anti-corruption Smer voters across bloc lines to vote for anti-corruption right wing parties such as SaS. In 2012, by contrast, the right parties were the target of anti-corruption motivated votes and some migrated (back) to Smer, while others left for Ordinary People or a host of small new parties which had (so far) avoided the taint of the major parties.
The main source of Fico’s victory may thus lie in his ability to calmly preserve his party’s unity and wait for the return of former voters or the arrival of new ones as the right parties sawed off their own limbs. Fico secured near complete dominance of a large part of the political spectrum, consolidating the left under his leadership and attracting the support of the more nationalistically-inclined voters, especially those from his erstwhile coalition partners, the SNS and Meciar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), parties whose demise he at times helped encourage. In 2010 this cost him the premiership when it left him without a strong enough coalition partner to form a government, but in 2012 it actually helped increase his parliamentary majority since seats not going to SNS went 5-in-9 to his own party.
Fico gained an impressive number of seats in the 2012 election: 21 out of a 150 seat legislature. This kind of victory creates new risks and rewards for Smer. On one hand, Smer must now govern alone and so unlike the 2006-2010 government, when the most viscerally-unpleasant corruption cases were those perpetrated by its coalition partners, it will not be able to avoid close identification with everything that goes wrong. If the right benefitted from disillusioned anti-corruption voters in 2010 and Fico got some of those back in 2012 when the right seemed to behave no better, then the flow of such voters in the next election will depend largely on how Smer-SD conducts itself in government.
We have both spent long enough observing Slovak politics to expect the unexpected. Recent history offers us a guide, but as financial advisers would remind us past performance is only a guide to future outcomes. The only certainty is that to understand Slovak politics we need to understand the building blocs of party politics in Slovakia.
[Note: A longer version of this report is available on pororblog.com, where the photo was also posted courtesy of Reuters.]