Bratislava, Slovakia – On the first morning of March, an earthquake shook Slovakia’s political landscape.
The centre-right, conservative and anti-graft Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO) movement scooped Slovakia’s first parliamentary election since the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak two years ago with a staggering 25% of the vote, securing 53 spots in the 150-seat National Council.
“We will try to form the best government Slovakia has ever had,” said OLaNO chairman and former media mogul Igor Matovic, 46, to a crowd of 2,000 supporters cheering in a sports hall as the results trickled in.
“We take the result as a request from people who want us to clean up Slovakia,” Matovic was quoted as saying by Reuters. “To make Slovakia a just country, where the law applies to everybody regardless if he is rich or poor.”
Amid fears of the spreading COVID-19 disease, Matovic, a self-made millionaire, ordered party officials to check the temperature of every person entering the gathering. Slovakia is yet to confirm its first coronavirus case.
Debacle or sensation?
Meanwhile, the three-headed ruling coalition suffered a crushing defeat, with Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini’s Smer-SD, which has governed the country for twelve of the past fourteen years, languishing in second place with slightly more than 18% of ballots cast. It was Smer’s worst result since 2002.
Opinions on the political behemoth’s performance were split. While some tabbed Smer’s result a debacle that would lead to a “total political reset”, others claimed its numbers were “sensational” in light of the barrage of criticism the party received in the run-up to the vote.
Adding salt to Smer’s injury were the heavy blows dealt to its two coalition partners who finished far off the 5% threshold to enter parliament.
The Slovak National Party (SNS) of Parliament speaker Andrej Danko barely mustered above 3% while the Slovak-Hungarian Most-Hid party struggled to get past 2%, an abysmal result for veteran party chief Bela Bugar who will now lose state funding only available to parties with at least 3% of the vote.
Fascists and libertarians
Along OLaNO and Smer, four other parties made it into parliament.
Populist right group We Are Family (Sme Rodina), referred to by some commentators as the local flatterer of France’s far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen, finished third with more than 8% of the vote, equal to 17 seats.
The same amount of spots went to the People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS), garnering just below 8%. The far-right party of Marian Kotleba openly glorifies the legacy of Slovakia’s wartime fascist state and its members have reportedly used Nazi salutes in the past.
Libertarian-leaning Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) secured 13 seats with more than 6% of the ballot. Liberal newcomer For People (Za ludi), set up by former President Andrej Kiska, narrowly passed the doorstep of parliament with 5.8% (12 seats).
Prime Minister Pellegrini admitted defeat after the vote count closed and said his party was on its way to the opposition. “Even if we had won the election, we wouldn’t have been able to create a coalition,” he told reporters from TV Joj.
Pellegrini did not rule out a potential coalition with OLaNO, but he said an agreement between the two parties was unlikely to be inked. “Mr. Matovic made it clear that we don’t exist for him.” Pellegrini also stated that he was prepared to bid for the now vacant post of Deputy Parliament Speaker “that should belong to the opposition, as custom goes.”
The outgoing prime minister picked up the second most individual preferential votes after Matovic, who was listed in last place – the 150th – on OLaNO’s candidate list.
Lessons from the past
Still, the controversial Matovic, notorious for his eccentric showmanship and frequent pinches at Smer chief and former PM Robert Fico whom he repeatedly accused of corruption, bagged nearly half a million preferential circles.
In 2016, Matovic parked up a caravan in front of the parliament bearing the slogan “Fico protects thieves”. He also led a three-month long protest in front of a flat Fico was renting from convicted entrepreneur Ladislav Basternak.
“Matovic knows how to spark momentum, with his posters and stickers. But this is not politics – it’s marketing. While he is genius at it, if this is the future of politics, we have a problem,” said author and columnist Martin M. Simecka in the Dennik N election studio.
He cautioned that fighting against corruption was different from being a democrat. “Even dictators got elected on anti-corruption themes. Matovic is consciously targeting the elites. We see it today in Poland and Hungary. Hitler also did the same.”
Clown and comedian
Some commentators branded Matovic a textbook populist. “He is the loudest and he’s been doing it for longest. He won because he’s became the most authentic voice of anger and frustration,” said political scientist Pavol Hardos in an interview with Bloomberg.
The news agency pointed out that Matovic has often been compared to Beppe Grillo, former Italian comedian and ex-chairman of populist anti-graft Five Star Movement.
“He is an intuitive politician, he knows where he can get support, and is able to communicate with voters very well as he is a very good speaker,” political scientist Grigorij Meseznikov told the Slovak Spectator.
He added that anti-Smer emotions were a strong motivation in these elections. “We can assume that half of those who voted for OLaNO did so only because they hoped Smer would be defeated.”
Fico himself publicly called Matovic “a clown” on several occasions. On election night, the OLaNO chief said he was happy to embrace the derogatory title. “I always felt authentic, telling the truth as it was, with no regards to consequences … Yes, I’ve always felt like a clown and I will probably remain one, because I will always defend the truth,” he quipped to the Pravda daily.
The jabs between Matovic and his arch-rival from the left continued throughout the night.
With the vote count still in process, Fico tossed up a prognosis that a Matovic-anchored government would disintegrate within two years, paving the way for the former three-time Prime Minister to return even stronger.
“Let Mr Fico continue dreaming his boozer dreams,” responded Matovic.
It is not just its leader that lends an air of rebellion to OLaNO. For a long time, the movement did not have a standard inner structure, with only four official members, but always 150 candidates at elections.
That changed with an SNS-backed piece of legislation from 2018 that required all political parties to have at least 45 members. Many observers saw this as a direct attack at the unpredictability of OLaNO.
Putting new names on the candidate list at every election cycle was designed to attract attention to the party. But the tactic also carries imminent risks that could threaten a future coalition.
“This is a group of people with a similar interest in becoming members of parliament. The only thing that links them is a general idea,” politicial scientist Meseznikov said.
OLaNO’s smashing victory is likely to break Slovakia’s old politics wide open. In his bid to replace Smer, Matovic, a shoo-in for future Prime Minister, said his priority was to secure a constitutional majority, or 90 seats in parliament.
With potentially difficult political wrangling ahead, the OLaNO chief was quick to allay concerns. “There’s nothing to worry about,” he told his voters, as quoted by the Association Press. “We’re not here to fight cultural wars.”
Having secured 53 seats of his own, Matovic will need 37 coalition MPs to rule in a constitutional majority. Pundits predict a big tent coalition of 95 seats from OLaNO, We Are Family, SaS and For People as the most viable option.
Other coalition scenarios, though less likely, are in play too. But any combination of three of these four parties would strip Matovic of his much-desired power of constitutional change.
Trouble looming on the horizon
On Sunday after the vote, the OLaNO boss told reporters that the 17 seats of We Are Family chief and celebrity entrepreneur Boris Kollar were top priority.
Kollar had previously declared that he was going to be “an expensive bride”. Securing the Ministry of Transport was a deal-breaker for his party, he said. Matovic, on the other hand, is keen on controlling the strategically crucial Ministry of Interior.
Economy expert Richard Sulik from SaS is expected to vie for the post of Finance Minister. As of Monday morning, no one from the potential four-party government expressed interest in the ministries of culture and foreign affairs.
All said, experts remain doubtful as to the long-term stability of an OLaNO anchored coalition. For sociologist Michal Vasecka, trouble is already looming on the horizon. “I am sure that the future coalition will be at each other’s throats,” he told the Dennik N daily.
- The 65.8% turnout represents a solid uptick from the 2016 elections, when slightly less than 60% of all ballots were cast. This year’s vote sparked most interest since 2002, when more than 70% of eligible voters headed to the polls.
- With OLaNO’s heterogenic candidate list steamrolling the vote, three members representing the Roma minority are set to sit in the 150-strong parliament. BBC correspondent Rob Cameron tweeted that the neighbouring Czech Republic, with 281 MPs in two houses of the legislature, has zero Roma members.
- The National Council’s (official name of Slovakia’s lower chamber of Parliament) gender imbalance will remain gaping, with only 33 women about to enter the new parliament – less than a quarter of all MPs. Though slightly more than the 2016 total of 28 elected women, Slovakia still lags behind the EU standard of at least a third of female MPs in national parliaments.
- For the first time in 25 years, Slovakia’s large ethnic Hungarian minority will not have a party acting for its interests in Parliament. The Party of the Hungarian Community (MKO-MKS) came closest, with 3.9% of the vote. But observers suggest that ethnic voters turned their backs on MKO due to its close ties with Hungary’s nationalist PM Viktor Orban, who openly supports “illiberal democracies”.
- The proto-fascist LSNS party performed below all expectations. Comfortably polling in third place in most pre-election surveys, Marian Kotleba’s party only came fourth in the big vote, with less than 8% of the ballot. Though gaining more absolute votes than four years ago, it is a disappointing result for Kotleba, whose party is likely to be reduced to a loud voice in the opposition. Its coalition potential remains close to zero as all major parties had previously ruled out cooperation with LSNS.
- With six parties already clinching their parliamentary spots, the iffy fate of extra-parliamentary coalition Progressive Slovakia-Together (PS Spolu), winner of the 2019 EU election, became the thriller story of the night as the votes were still being counted. Being a coalition, they needed 7% to enter parliament. While exit polls predicted the progressives close to 10% of the vote, they became the big losers of the election by the end of the count, ending with 6.97% of the votes and falling short of office by less than a 1,000 votes, despite winning most ballots from abroad that were cast in record numbers.
Main photo credit: Sme.sk
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!