Election preview: Slovakia

Slovakia (not to be confused with Slovenia) goes to the polls tomorrow, in an election that at one point looked likely to be path-breaking but now may just return the same sort of confused parliament as last time.

In the last election, four years ago, the centre-left (but anti-immigrant) Smer-SD, led by then prime minister Robert Fico, suffered a substantial swing against it and lost its parliamentary majority. But it remained the largest party in parliament, and was able to put together a new government in coalition with three other parties: Most-Híd and Network, both centrist, and the Slovak National Party (SNS), which, in an expression that says much about the state of play in eastern Europe, can best be described as moderate far right.

Between them, the four held 85 of the 150 seats in parliament. Against them were another four parties: Freedom & Solidarity (liberal Eurosceptic) with 21 seats, Ordinary People (conservative populist) with 19, the People’s Party (neo-fascist) with 14 and We Are Family (also moderate far right) with 11.

Fico had already attracted a lot of criticism for his growing authoritarianism, which was less pronounced than in neighboring Hungary and Poland but perhaps less excusable since he nominally came from the left. But this escalated in early 2018 after the murder of a journalist who had been investigating high-level corruption.

Mass protests forced Fico’s resignation. But he was replaced by a colleague, Peter Pellegrini, and the government continued much as before. Fico remained as leader of Smer-SD and was widely regarded as still the one ultimately in control.

Last year, elections to the European parliament showed that Slovakia’s voters were not happy. Turnout jumped (to a still dismal 22.7%), and Smer-SD lost further ground, dropping to just 15.7% of the vote. In first place was a new centre and centre-right alliance, Progressive Slovakia – Together, with 20.1%. The neo-fascists also gained, reaching third place with 12.1%.

So it looked as if Slovakia this year would be headed for a change in government. But in recent months the opinion polls have shown increased confusion, suggesting that the new parliament will equal and probably exceed the eight different parties represented last time.

Voting is D’Hondt proportional across the whole country, with a 5% threshold. Smer-SD is leading the field, with about one-sixth of the vote. It’s followed by four parties all close to the 10% mark: Ordinary People, the People’s Party, Progressive Slovakia – Together (which has dropped sharply from its peak in the middle of last year), and another new centrist party, For the People, led by former president Andrej Kiska.

Behind them are another seven in the mid-single figures, battling to get or stay above the threshold. They include four of the other five to make it last time – We Are Family, Freedom & Solidarity, the SNS and Most-Híd (Network has splintered and disappeared) – plus the Christian Democrats and the Party of the Hungarian Community, which both just fell short in 2016, and Good Choice, a recent split from Smer-SD.

So the likelihood is that there will be something like ten parties in the new parliament, none of them with more than a fifth of the seats, and covering pretty much the full range of the political spectrum (although neither far left nor Greens are in the running). Putting together a new government is going to be a challenge.

But at least the days when a single leader could hold sway are gone for now.

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