Hungary Insight Slovakia

Slovakia: Big win for anti-corruption activists, but a loss for Hungarians?

OLaNO leader Igor Matovic in Slovak Parliament

Bratislava, Slovakia – The Slovak parliamentary elections, which took place at the end of February, had very interesting results. And while anti-corruption movements emerged as the clear winners, the Hungarians minority parties from Slovakia took a heavy beating.

After spending several years as an opposition party, spearheading the fight against corruption in the ranks of politicians and the leading Smer and other parties, the OLaNO party of Igor Matovic, who spent years of his career pulling memorable stunts in Parliament trying to steer the conversation towards the corruption at the heart of Slovak policy-making, is now putting together a new coalition, with his eyes set on creating a more transparent government.

But while Matovic and his partners are celebrating and enjoying the spoils of victory, former career politician and representative of the Hungarian minority, Bela Bugar of the Most-Hid party is retiring after a sweeping defeat in the elections. Such an unprecedented failure had never happened before to a Hungarian party: this is the first time that neither Most-Hid nor any other party defending the rights of the Hungarian minority were able to cross the threshold of 5% to sit in Parliament.

The fall of Bela Bugar

Bela Bugar, former leader of Most-Hid, resigned after the February parliamentary elections in Slovakia.

Bela Bugar, 61, is a Slovak politician, whose long-standing goal and ambition were to represent the Hungarian community in Slovakia’s political landscape, himself hailing from the country’s sizable Hungarian minority. A former leader of many key Hungarian minority parties, such as MKDH (Hungarian Christian democratic movement) and SMK (Party of Hungarian Coalition), he eventually founded Most-Hid (Bridge) in 2009.

Bugar’s self-declared goal was to create a bridge between the Hungarian and Slovak communities, promote stronger regional policies for Hungarians, mostly living in the country’s south, and make their case before the Slovak nation. For a long time, he was one of the Hungarian minority’s most prominent, trusted and popular spokesman.

But quickly enough, cracks began to show. Even though some of the policies Bugar put forward were usually reasonable and well-thought, he lacked the political stamina to go against the current and promote truly innovative ideas, even if it meant going against what he publicly declared. After spending years as the leader of the then-largest Hungarian minority party SMK, he left it with some of his closest associates due to internal disagreements and went on to found Most-Hid instead.

For a few years, Bugar spent his time either in a government coalition or in the opposition, usually being the most vocal in the latter case. But then, something changed with the Gorilla scandal, which exposed and revealed many embarrassing truths about Bugar, who slowly started losing the trust of his electorate from that time forward.

A final straw came during the 2016 parliamentary elections, when Bugar promised he would never join a coalition with neither Fico’s Smer-SD nor Danko’s SNS (Slovak National Party), the latter having antagonized and attacked the Hungarian minority in Slovakia for many years. But then, he performed a political U-turn for which many voters never forgave him: when asked by then-Prime Minister Robert Fico to join the government, he accepted.

This was only the beginning of a long list of grievances that accumulated during Bugar’s time in the Smer-led coalition: he never voted against the leading party, never stood up in time to protect Hungarians, (especially after Parliament passed a legislation banning foreign, and Hungarian, anthems in Slovakia, though it was later withdrawn). When the opposition urged Fico to resign after another series of scandals and the game-changing murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and called for new elections, Bugar stood by Smer, cementing his role as a staunch pillar of the coalition come what may.

It all came back to haunt him during the 2020 election. His party, Most-Hid, got only 2.05% of the votes, a staggering drop compared to 6,5% four years earlier. Last year, when Most-Hid’s chairman ran for president, he received a measly 3,1% of the votes, with figures showing that most ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia massively voted for Zuzana Caputova.

Nonetheless, Bugar’s career was essentially over as soon as the election results came in. And so were any prospects that Most-Hid would get into Parliament ever again, since it was now tainted by Bugar, his failures and his poor track-record. Perhaps the new leadership will be able to turn it all around, but that is still up in the air.

A campaign billboard of the MKS party.

Beyond Most-Hid

Of course, Most-Hid wasn’t the only Hungarian party running for Parliament earlier this year. So were other lesser known parties, such as the MKS (Hungarian Community Together), comprising the former MKS party and other smaller movements. MKS actually got more votes than Most-Hid, coming in at 3.90%, albeit still below the threshold to get into Parliament. For the first time in Slovakia’s modern history, no Hungarian minority party will be represented in the National Council (the official name of the lower house of Parliament).

Although there aren’t any Hungarian parties in Parliament, a number of MP’s from the ranks of OLaNO and several other parties do come from Slovakia’s Hungarian minority. As a matter of interest, OLaNO received massive support in the southern regions, prompting some analysts to argue that ethnic Hungarians would rather have individual Hungarian personalities in much larger and powerful parties than vote directly for the smaller and weaker Hungarian community’s parties.

Indeed, with people like Jan Kerekreti or Gabor Grendel from OLaNO, Hungarians will still have some sort of representation in the new legislature. It remains to be seen, however, how far will the new government coalition go to address the numerous problems faced by the Hungarian community, with a still-open question about who will be appointed as the next governmental representative for minorities.

Gabor Grendel (left) and Igor Matovic (right, background)

Is the ‘Hungarian question’ still important?

Seeing as no Hungarian parties made it into Parliament this year, it appears like a good time to ponder about the ‘Hungarian question’. The perception of the current minority situation in Slovakia might not be as important as it used to be, seeing as the southern regions voted largely in favour of OLaNO, except for a few regions such as Komarno, Dunajska Streda and Rimavska Sobota, where MKS came out on top. I’ve written in length before about the ups and down of Hungarians’ integration in Slovakia, so for more detail and for fear of repeating myself, I invite you to take a look at it to understand exactly what’s at stake.

As many have argued, a large majority of Hungarians may have voted for OLaNO simply in a strategic move to make sure Smer would not win the election after seeing the latest polls putting Igor Matovic’s party in the lead. However, wouldn’t it be better for ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia if there was an actual, full-fledged party in government able to represent their interests and voice their concerns?

A united Hungarian minority party might possibly have been able to pass the threshold (5% for individual parties, 7% for coalitions) to enter Parliament and, maybe, government. But internal division between the different factions decided otherwise.

Former minister Arpad Ersek holding bilingual Slovak-Hungarian street sign

Where does the truth lie?

The often-argued point among Hungarians in Slovakia is that Bela Bugar disappointed them, and that ethnic Hungarians should have created one large party. An earlier change in leadership, a better policy focus and a larger roster of politicians would probably have been enough to send representatives to Parliament.

This can be seen as a purely hypothetical scenario, nonetheless backed by the discussions I’ve had with some ethnic Hungarians who said it was as if the Hungarian community parties squandered their chances on purpose. Most people I’ve talked to voted for Andrej Kiska’s Za Ludi, OLaNO or MKS. The Hungarian minority question may indeed not be as important and significant a fault-line as it used to be.

It might even be hypothesized that the former governing parties may actually have inadvertently brought the country together by alienating both ethnicities and ended – or at least put in the background – frictions between Slovaks and Hungarians.

The February debacle is grand enough to really start wondering: How will Slovakia’s Hungarian minority parties remain relevant in the years to come?

Headed by Kafkadesk's chief-editor Jules Eisenchteter, our Prague office gathers over half a dozen reporters, editors and contributors, as well as our social media team. It covers everything Czech and Slovak-related, and oversees operations from our other Central European desks in Krakow and Budapest.