Bratislava, Slovakia – Slovakia looks all set for major change in the forthcoming general election on 29 February. Robert Fico’s Smer party, who have been in almost uninterrupted power for nearly 15 years, are still leading in polls, but corruption and scandal are about to catch up with them. Lacking in coalition partners and deeply unpopular with all but their hardcore supporters, they seem to be on their way out.
Could neo-Nazis be part of Slovakia’s next government?
Where will the country turn for an alternative? There is a realistic possibility that the parliamentary election could be won by neo-Nazis. Polls from January showed Marian Kotleba’s People’s Party Our Slovakia (often referred to as the Kotlebovci after their leader) in second place with 13.6%, a rise of nearly 2 percentage points on the previous month.
Last year’s presidential election was won by Zuzana Čaputová, a progressive who rode the wave of mass street protests which called “For A Decent Slovakia” and led to the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico and other prominent members of his government.
These protests were a reaction to the murders of journalist Ján Kuciak and his girlfriend Martina Kušnírová. Kuciak’s murder was a contract killing intended to silence his investigation into the misuse of European Union funds, a racket involving government ministers, dubious businessmen, and the Italian crime organization the ’Ndrangheta.
The brutal murders stunned the nation and Slovaks made their feelings very clear by rejecting the government candidate and electing the relatively unknown Čaputová. They wanted a decent forward-looking country free of the corruption and scandal that has dogged its short history as a country.
But lurking in third and fourth places in the first round of the poll were Štefan Harabin and Marian Kotleba, both hard right candidates. Between them, they represented 25 percent of the vote, and if one of them had stood aside, then the other would certainly have made it into the run-off for the presidency.
Black uniforms and 88: At the roots of Kotleba’s rise
And it is Marian Kotleba’s party who are strongly in the running in this year’s parliamentary elections. Kotleba is a former secondary school teacher and a neo-Nazi. Some years ago, he had to give up the teaching profession, as it became clear that his day job had become incompatible with his extra-curricular activities.
These activities involved leading a fascist group on torchlit marches and dressing in black uniforms reminiscent of the Hlinka Guard – the shock troops of Slovakia’s Nazi puppet state in the Second World War. It was the Hlinka Guard who helped to round up thousands of Jews to be sent to their deaths in the concentration camps. Kotleba himself described Jews as “devils in human skin”.
Kotleba’s groups were periodically banned and in trouble for hate speech. In fact, he is currently facing charges related to a cheque he gave to three families at a prize-giving at a school in Banská Bystrica, the region in Central Slovakia where he used to be governor. The cheques were each for €1,488, an innocuous-looking number, but 1488 is a well-known and widely used symbol among right-wing extremists. The number 14 denotes the ’14 words’ of the white supremacist slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” and the 88 refers to “Heil Hitler” (it’s the eighth letter of the alphabet twice).
Kotleba later returned with a rebranded organisation he named People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS). The aim of this iteration was to move from the fringes into the mainstream as an electable force.
From the fringes to the mainstream
Gone were the black uniforms and boots in favour of country-style green collarless jackets (think Hitler at his hunting lodge). No more torchlit marches were held and Kotleba redirected his fire from the Jews to Slovakia’s Roma community, who he referred to as “Gypsy parasites”.
Despite representing 2% of the Slovak population, the Roma population are not well integrated into Slovak society, and are trapped in a cycle of disenfranchisement, poverty and sometimes crime. As a consequence, they are an easy target for nationalist rabble-rousers like Kotleba.
Nevertheless, it still caused shockwaves in 2013 when, against the odds, he was elected governor of the Central Slovak region of Banská Bystrica.
In the last parliamentary elections in 2016, Kotleba pulled off another shock, with his party winning 14 out of 150 seats in the Slovak Parliament.
What does Marian Kotleba stand against?
So, what does Kotleba stand for? It would be simpler to describe what he is against. His party’s web-site state their opposition to “western liberalism which encourages atheism, materialism, consumerism, dangerous sects and sexual deviations.” He also promises to keep Slovakia “safe for all decent citizens so they are not terrorized by gypsy or other extremists and corrupted politicians”.
An outright win for the Kotlebovci would signal a clear tilt to the East and Putin’s Russia. He would pull Slovakia out of EU and NATO – the People’s Party Our Slovakia manifesto goes so far as to describe the “criminal policies of NATO and the USA”.
However, the relative popularity of Kotleba’s party does not necessarily indicate that Slovakia has swung dramatically to the extreme right. There is huge disillusionment in politics and a very low level of trust in politicians. Kotleba will pick up votes from people who see him as an outsider to the political process, even if these voters do not agree with many of his views or policies. There is a definite sense with many voters that things need to be ‘shaken up’.
Kotleba’s message is classic populism. Where global elites and immigrants are targeted by populists in Western Europe and the US, the Slovak version is corrupt politicians and the Roma community. He offers vague and simple solutions, but his messages are clear and easy to understand.
A “sack of potatoes” now taken seriously?
In 2013, Kotleba’s chances were dismissed by Robert Fico who said that a “sack of potatoes” would beat him in the mayoral run-off. Nobody is taking him lightly this time.
The prospect of seeing the far right in power has brought many Slovaks to the streets again, as an anti-fascist movement has emerged organising counter-demonstrations whenever the Kotlebovci are in town.
Sociologist Martin Slosiarik, talking to the Slovak Spectator, described these gatherings as “an attempt to show another face of Slovakia”. Indeed, it is a battle over the very meaning of decency. The movement that came to streets in such numbers following Jan Kuciak’s death named themselves “For A Decent Slovakia”, seeking to put an end to the venality dragging down the country’s reputation. The Kotlebovci have their own version of decency, and many of their statements talk about protecting the rights of decent people against the iniquities surrounding them. Kotleba never states exactly who ‘decent people’ are, but you can be certain they do not include anyone from the Roma or the LGBT communities.
For “a decent Slovakia”, but which one?
When looking to counter Kotleba’s rise, opponents could do worse than follow the example of Ján Lunter, who unseated Kotleba as Banská Bystrica governor in 2017. He realised that Kotleba had done the hard yards and had spent a lot of time talking to people in the sorts of towns and villages where other politicians were seldom seen, so he followed suit.
He also recognised that people crying out for change would not be repulsed by extreme rhetoric or shamed into not voting for it. So, he instead ran a positive campaign focused on his own record as a businessman. The words Kotleba, Nazi, extremism and similar were simply not used in the campaign. In the end, Lunter won easily.
Whatever happens, this month’s election will be close and will be won by deals and coalitions made after the ballot. Democratic opposition parties should have a narrow majority according to the most recent opinion polls. But it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the discredited Sme government is returned to power propped up by neo-Nazi parties. Not a ‘decent’ result, whatever your reading of the word.
Main photo credit: Czech News Agency
Written by Brendan Oswald
Brendan Oswald is a freelance journalist based in Slovakia. He worked for the British Council for twenty years in several countries, including three years (2012-2015) as a director in Ukraine.