News Politics & International Slovakia

Forbidden polls, Facebook and badges: Civil defiance transforms Slovakia’s election campaign

Bratislava, Slovakia – The noise stops when the clock strikes midnight. As of yesterday, two days before Slovakia’s 2020 general election, the eighth in the nation’s 27-year long history, political campaigning is no longer permitted.

Vote-hungry candidates from the 25 running parties, factions and coalitions retreat to their headquarters to anxiously wait out the dog days of the campaign trail.

At 7 am the same day, they are joined by bone-weary pundits and journalists, who, given a legally imposed moratorium on publishing election-related information until the polls close on Saturday, no doubt greet the passing furlough with a sigh of relief.

With the stream of news drying up and an abrupt stop to stump speeches, everything seems to fall silent – except for bursts of mass civil action that outmanoeuvre moratoria and defy political intent.

Fifty days of solidarity

With less than two weeks until the big vote, a “secret” poll started mushrooming across Slovak social media, ignoring a 14-day ban on pre-election opinion polls that bars media from reporting data on voter intention.

The moratorium does not extend to individuals, however, thousands of whom crowdfunded a poll commissioned by civil initiative (“50days”, an innuendo to a government proposal late last year to introduce a 50-day embargo on polls, that was later shelved by the Constitutional Court).

“The goal of our initiative is to give ordinary citizens, and not just political parties, the opportunity to be informed about the development of electoral preferences and make a quality decision on who they are going to vote for,” read a statement on the website.

Nicknamed the “forbidden survey” in online parlance and jointly conducted by two of Slovakia’s largest polling agencies, two separate polls were emailed to all 9,200 donors on the brink of the pivotal ballot. The second wave of data appeared in inboxes as late as Wednesday before the 29 February election.

Surprise winners

For the first time ahead of the elections, the polls predicted a surprise winner. Thanks to the strong performance of its leader, Igor Matovic, in the last weeks of the campaign, the opposition fraction centred around the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO) movement gained momentum and comfortably triumphed with 19.1% of voting intentions.

Long-time favourites and government incumbents Smer-SD slipped to second place with 15.6% of the ballot, while the Marian Kotleba’s far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) polled third at 9.8 per cent.

The results spread like wildfire.

Emails were forwarded and the numbers flooded social media. While news outlets themselves refrained from publishing the exact totals in the face of steep fines, they reported on the polls and their outcomes with cheeky headlines. “The second non-public poll confirms analysts’ predictions,” said a caption by the SME daily.

Some media reassured their readers by issuing legal advice. “The law forbids the publication of the poll to everyone, but it can only sanction certain subjects. An individual [posting the poll on Facebook while not acting in a business capacity] does formally breach the law, but cannot be punished for it”, wrote the Dennik N daily while quoting lawyer and presidential adviser Peter Kubina.

Voting with humour

But not everyone was convinced. Fearing potential repercussions, a number of social media users ironically claimed the polls declared voting intentions in the fictitious town of Springfield from the Simpsons, an American animated sitcom.

Others shared the results on Facebook while replacing the names of political parties with emoticons. The Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) was marked by a cross while the Slovak National Party (SNS) took the shape of military tab that was once publicly kissed by party chief Andrej Danko.

It was Danko’s second Facebook episode in just a week. Perhaps inspired by a popular, albeit potentially unlawful OLaNO online campaign, in which the movement asked its supporters to answer eleven questions that would determine OLaNO’s future in parliament, Danko’s nationalists set up their own web survey.

SNS asked people on Facebook to vote on the party’s proposal to abolish highway tolls, one of four government measures ushered in by the executive just two weeks before the election in a sped-up, extraordinary fashion.

A thumbs up meant approval, an angry emoji face equalled objection.

Crushing defeat

From Friday until Tuesday this week, close to 21,000 users took part. With more than 18,000 angry faces, party boss Danko blamed the platform for the crushing rejection. “It shows how stupid Facebook is,” he said in a televised debate on Sunday, two days before his survey closed. More than 15,000 votes were already cast against the toll scrap at that point.

Parliament Speaker Danko added that the poll was thwarted by people logging in from Africa and America.

On Wednesday this week, last day before the campaign moratorium comes into effect, SNS’s toll scrap did not pass in Parliament. The day before, in a fast-track legislative procedure that non-governmental organisation Via Iuris dubbed “unconstitutional”, lawmakers managed to push through the introduction of 13th pensions, a move likely to cost the state €440 million.

MPs also said no to the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe treaty on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic abuse that has been stirring debate in Slovakia for months.

Badges against extremism

But it is not just online polls that seem to have united Slovaks. Offline, several civil initiatives appealed to voters to head to the polls. The likes of Not in Our Country, For a Better Country, or the College of Memory, joined forces to flag what they see as the threat of totalitarian ideologies and radicalism.

Activists from Not in Our Country are planning to distribute 100,000 badges across 46 municipalities in the country, reports the Slovak Spectator. “Democratic principles, human rights and a life without fear and violence is something uniting us,” said initiative manager Andrea Cocherova.

Badges have a firm place in Slovakia’s recent history. After the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova in February 2018, thousands of pins featuring the #allforjan rallying cry appeared on shirts and jackets across the country.

Elsewhere, more than 150 Slovak folklorists and ethnologists signed a statement by the Not in My Costume initiative, in which they warn from folk culture becoming a tool for dividing society.

The Catholic Church also stressed the importance of the upcoming vote in a pastoral letter read at masses past Sunday. “It is important to vote, and it is certainly possible to choose,” the letter said while cautioning against radical solutions and “new ideologies”.

On academic soil, rectors of the two largest universities in Slovakia granted all their full-time students leave on Friday afternoon to give them enough time to travel home and cast a ballot. “Let’s vote!” they urged in a statement. “And we shall vote in the spirit of our university values – democracy, humanity and tolerance.”

Main photo credit: Ľuboš Pilc/Pravda

Written by Edward Szekeres

Edward is a freelance reporter from Slovakia with Hungarian heritage. He is currently based in Belgium and the Netherlands where he is completing his international journalism studies. He is a regular contributor to several platforms delivering news and analyses in English from V4 countries and a thick-skinned fan of sport clubs that only keep on losing. You can check all his articles right here!

Coordinated by Ábel Bede, Kafkadesk's Budapest office is made up of a growing team of freelance journalists, editors and fact-checkers passionate about Hungarian affairs and dedicated to bringing you all the latest news, events and insights from Hungary.

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