Bratislava, Slovakia – The Slovak parliamentary elections are around the corner, and all political parties are in full campaign mode ahead of the February 29 ballot.
Whether you’re eligible to vote or are just curious about Slovak politics, here’s a quick guide to help you make sense of everything that’s happening and who’s running. (Note: this first article will focus on parties already represented in Parliament – stay tuned for the new and extra-parliamentary contenders).
Run by Robert Fico, the former Prime Minister who had to step down last year and was recently charged by the police with inciting racial hatred, Smer has been the leading party for several years, but has recently experienced a sharp drop in popular support, following a number of scandals, including as part of the ongoing investigation into the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak that has shed some light on Smer’s corrupt practices and revealed the party’s strong ties to main suspect Marian Kocner. Despite these controversies, Smer remains in the lead in the most recent surveys, with around 20% support, although opposition parties appear to be slowly closing in.
Last year, former PM Robert Fico resigned, along with Interior Minister Robert Kalinak in the wake of the murder of Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, whose murder shock Slovakia to the core. A nominally left-leaning but socially conservative party, Smer’s core support stems from its generous social welfare policies (free train travel for the young and old, better maternity leaves, and more).
Although large parts of the population have welcomed these initiatives, observers have criticized them as reckless spending and buying the votes of citizens ahead of the February elections, all the while arguing that in all its years in power, Smer has failed to implement long-overdue structural reforms in key areas (education, healthcare, etc.).
Slovak National Party (SNS)
Another long-running and well-known party in Slovakia’s political landscape, junior government coalition partner SNS (Slovak National Party) is led by Andrej Danko, chairman of the lower house of Parliament. SNS also has a controversial past, as its former leader Jan Slota and closest associates were known for their divisive politics and incendiary statements – like urging Slovakia to invade Hungary and roll down Budapest streets with tanks, or claiming that ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia were like a tumor that needed to be removed.
Current leader Andrej Danko is no stranger to controversies of his own, far from it. Promoting a right-wing, nationalist and conservative program, SNS claims to be on a crusade to defend traditional Slovak values against foreign imports and has been a key ally of Smer, pursuing the long-time strategy it always remained faithful to: supporting Smer’s policies while adding a mix of nationalist legislation into the mix, all the while making sure not to disturb the overall status quo.
Most Hid, the only ethnic Hungarian party currently represented in Parliament, is led by long-time Hungarian representative Bela Bugar. The party seeks to act as a bridge between Slovaks and Hungarians in the country, promoting cooperation and regional development, with a strong emphasis on minorities, including ethnic Hungarians mostly residing in Slovakia’s southern regions.
But Most-Hid has been going through a rough patch and doesn’t enjoy the popular support it once did: criticized for its inaction following the murder last year of reporter Jan Kuciak; slammed for its inability to stand up to the governing Smer party; disappointing voters for lying about not joining a government coalition which would include SNS (which it eventually did); and many other controversies.
Alone, Most-Hid might not be able to send representatives into Parliament after the next elections, but it joined the race with another Hungarian party, SMK (The Party of the Hungarian Community), Bela Bugar’s former movement. Worth mentioning is the fact that Bugar had a falling out with this party in the past and said that he would never cooperate with them… And here we are now.
Freedom and Solidarity (SaS)
‘Freedom and Solidarity’ is the party of Slovakia’s liberal-minded thinkers, especially business owners and entrepreneurs. It has been a key opposition member, leading the fight against Smer and the other coalition parties. Touting itself as a progressive party, SaS has tried to implement its policies, with little success outside of capital Bratislava, where it enjoys a strong support.
Its leader, Richard Sulik, is a rather interesting politician when compared to Slovakia’s current political landscape, often labelled as too liberal for the country – like the party itself, often demonized as a radically liberal party trying, to exaggerate, to make everyone smoke pot in a free-for-all society. Despite these slurs, the party’s economic policies are fairly well-thought out, and their programme appeals to common sense, insisting on the need to modernize and properly fund several key areas, such as the education system, healthcare, and pushing through a sensible tax reform.
OLANO & NOVA
A smaller and younger party led by former SaS member Igor Matovic, OLANO is well-known for its theatrics in and outside Parliament, a discrediting factor that explains why the party is not taken very seriously by large parts of the electorate. While the liberal part of the population mostly votes for SaS, OLANO brands itself as a sort of SaS 2.0, also focusing on economic reform, regional development, defence and more. Although the party prides itself in being made up of ordinary citizens and experts in their fields with actual day-to-day and hands-on knowledge of daily life, OLANO appears, in the end, more conservative than SaS, while also being less experienced.
NOVA is a smaller party that entered Parliament with OLANO in a bid to get more seats in the legislature. A pro-democratic and economically liberal party, NOVA is also more conservative and Christian-value oriented than its partner.
Sme Rodina (We are Family), is also a fairly new party led by Boris Kollar, a famous Slovak businessman, especially known by Slovak citizens for having quite a handful of ex-wives and children. Although branding itself as a centrist, with no inclination to the right nor the left of the political spectrum, its strongly conservative values and virulent anti-migrant stance, which has led him to find alliances with other European far-right parties, appear to discredit that claim.
The party’s major self-declared goal is to protect the core of the Slovak family from both domestic and external threats. ‘Sme Rodina’ may arguably be the most populist party in Slovakia, promoting ideas as long as they resonate well with the majority of voters (promising free public transport for students, higher salaries, more money for women on maternity leave and so on) without any clear indication of long-term vision.
People’s Party our Slovakia (LSNS)
The last party currently sitting in Parliament is also the most controversial one. Led by Marian Kotleba, ‘People’s Party Our Slovakia’ is a neo-fascist party, outspoken critic of liberal values, deeply Christian, white, nationalistic, anti-migrant, anti-EU, anti-NATO, anti-LGBT and isolationist. A virulently anti-establishment party, LSNS’s program appears to appeal to a strong minority of the population (around 10-15% according to most polls), and is especially popular among the younger demographics.
Although Slovakia’s Constitutional Court ruled earlier this year against an outright ban of the party, presented on the grounds that it undermined Slovakia’s democratic system, Marian Kotleba’s far-right movement remains mired in controversy, both due to its outright neo-Nazi history and current political stance on a number of issues. One of its MP’s was recently expelled from Parliament – a first in modern history – for anti-Roma comments. Most parties, including Smer and the main progressive opposition groupings, have ruled out any post-election cooperation with LSNS.
Slovakia is at a turning point, and the February elections will determine, in a much more potent way than the 2019 presidential ballot, which direction the country will be taking in the next few years. Think deeply, before casting your vote.
Written by Mark Szabo
An international relations and European politics student at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, Márk grew up in a bi-cultural Slovak-Hungarian family, stoking his interest in Central European politics and cross-national relations. A former intern at the Bratislava-based Globsec Institute, Márk aims for a career in diplomacy. He joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019. To check out his latest articles, it’s right here!