Interview with Oľga Gyárfášová on the election results in Slovakia

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Oľga Gyárfášová

The election results and in particular the entry of neo-Nazi Marian Kotleba’s extreme right-wing People’s Party – Our Slovakia” (ĽS-NS) into the parliament was a shock for many observers in Slovakia. What was the biggest surprise for you in the election results?

There were many surprises in this election. The biggest one was certainly that Kotleba will enter the parliament with 8 per cent of the vote. He was not visible in the national media, but ran an intensive campaign at the communal level. Many people believe this direct contact with voters was the reason for his strong performance. Kotleba not only advocates an extreme neo-Nazi ideology, he also tries to cultivate the impression that he cares about people in disadvantaged regions, unlike the other politicians whom he sees as living in an “ivory tower”.

Another surprise was the poor showing by the Christian Democratic Party (KDH), which has been in the parliament continuously since 1990. Other surprises included the strong result for Boris Kollár’s “We are a family” (Sme rodina) – another new protest party, which was established just a few months before the election. Kollár, a wealthy businessman who is known to the public through the tabloid press, campaigned with the slogan “Trust me, I’m not a politician”. And – last but not least – also the poor showing by Radoslav Procházka’s new party “Network” (Siet’).

Why do you think so many voters rejected the established and moderate parties, and instead cast their ballots for nationalist, far-right parties?

I think one of the reasons is that the political class were too occupied with themselves, with their own disputes and animosities, with internal problems. They were unable to address people’s problems in an authentic way. This was the case not only for Robert Fico’s ruling Smer-SD party, but also for the opposition parties, which were unable to offer a clear alternative or to present a vision for Slovakia’s future.

Another reason why Slovak voters have let the right-wing genie out of the bottle is the strong anti-refugee rhetoric and the absolutely inhumane discourse on this issue since last summer, particularly on the part of the ruling party. Extremist sentiments were greatly exacerbated by the manner in which the refugee issue was discussed in Slovakia.

Robert Fico’s own rhetoric was reportedly intended to prevent right-wing extremist parties from entering parliament – yet this is exactly what happened...

Of course it is very difficult for a mainstream party to compete with such extremist views. Fico quite obviously failed in this effort, because both the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS) and Kotleba’s right-wing extremist party will now enter the parliament.

What does the fact that voters have cast such a clear vote against the established parties say about the political culture in Slovakia?

Many commentators and analysts are now blaming the voters, but I think one should look more to the political parties, the media and other actors in society. Politicians are able to influence the public discourse. Certainly, one can argue that the values of a democratic political culture are not yet so deeply rooted in our society, but on the other hand we must take note of the fact that there are similar parties even in European Union countries with long democratic traditions.

Hitherto, Slovak citizens have always topped European opinion polls with respect to support for EU membership. How do you explain the fact that the Slovaks have now consistently voted for parties that oppose European integration?

I call this “Europeanism Slovak-style”. Slovaks’ perception of the European Union is certainly extremely positive, but it is also very instrumental and pragmatic. It has more to do with the material benefits Slovaks receive as a result of EU membership, and less to do with common values, solidarity or a sense of collective belonging. I think the political discourse in recent months played a rather significant role as well. Instead of speaking of “common problems”, the blame for current difficulties was cast on others, especially Germany and the German Chancellor, and people asked: “Why should we be the ones to solve these problems?”

Marian Kotleba campaigned openly for Slovakia leaving the EU, but if this were to happen there wouldn’t be any more material benefits...

Marian Kotleba is anti-European and anti-Atlanticist – he could be called anti-Western. He once referred to the EU as an “occupying power”. Slovakia leaving the EU is an extreme position, but I think it was not ultimately decisive for Kotleba’s voters. For many people from socially disadvantaged regions, Kotleba is perceived as a charismatic leader who seems to be interested in their everyday problems, and who offers very simple solutions – which are of course aimed against “others”, in particular against the Roma minority.

Nearly one quarter of young voters aged 18 to 21 voted for the right-wing extremist party ĽS-NS. How do you explain this?

Extremist ideology seems to be particularly attractive to young people, especially young men. It gives them a sense of strength and belonging. But I believe that many young people were not completely informed about what this ideology actually entails; it appears that many were not exposed to any other points of view.

What do the election results mean for the formation of a government?

It will be a very complicated process. There seem to be two scenarios: One is that Fico’s Smer-SD remains the ruling party and forms a coalition with former opposition parties. The other scenario is that a government will be formed by Richard Sulík, leader of the main centre-right party Freedom and Solidarity (SaS). Many pro-European Slovaks would view this latter scenario with great trepidation, however, because they see no guarantee that a Sulík government would pursue a pro-European policy.

In Germany and other Western European countries, the four Visegrad countries (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary) are often perceived as a bloc. Do you see the election results as having confirmed that Slovakia is following a path similar to those of Hungary and Poland?

The tendency to vote for anti-establishment parties who are against the system is evident in Slovakia as well, but for the time being I don’t see any Orbán or Kaczyński here. The political landscape in Slovakia is very splintered, very fragmented. There is no dominant ideology as is the case for Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who is backed by a strong party and a majority of the electorate. Kaczyński’s position in Poland is similar. In Slovakia, however, the political forces are too fragmented for a clear trend away from liberal democracy to emerge. The parties will offset one another according to a system of checks and balances, so that liberal democracy is preserved. Indeed, all seven parliamentary parties have clearly rejected any cooperation with Kotleba’s extremist ĽS-NS; it will remain isolated in a cordon sanitaire.

Ms. Gyárfášová, we thank you for the interview.


Oľga GYÁRFÁŠOVÁ is a sociologist and teaches at Comenius University in Bratislava. She is a founding member of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), a think-tank in Bratislava. Her research focuses on public opinion, political culture and voter behaviour.


The interview was conducted by Silja Schultheis.