Structured over a decade ago on the personal charisma of media baron Igor Matovič, OLANO’s main goal has been to “clean up” the Slovakian politics from the corrupt establishment. Despite its full-fledged populist features, however, many agree that OLANO’s fight against corruption has so far been a credible one.
Slovakia, officially the Slovak Republic, is a unicameral parliamentary democracy in central Europe and a small-sized EU member. Slovaks gained their independence when the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved in the aftermath of the First World War and together with Czechs formed Czechoslovakia (the country had significant numbers of German and Hungarian minorities). Having inherited the bulk of the Austro-Hungarian industrial complex, the First Czechoslovak Republic (1918-1938) emerged as a prosperous country relative to the other Habsburg successor states. The first republic turned out to be a stable democracy, and Slovak was recognized as an official language alongside Czech. However, Slovaks had a comparatively less favorable political and economic position and thus sought more autonomy within the republic. When Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and annexed the Czech lands in line with the infamous Munich Agreement, Slovakia became a separate state, though it came under heavy German influence. Slovaks reunited with the Czechs to form the Second Czechoslovak Republic following the Second World War; under the ensuing Soviet influence, the 1948 communist takeover of power interrupted democratic rule.
When Soviet-led troops occupied the country in response to Alexander Dubček’s 1968 reforms for political liberalization known as the “Prague Spring,” Czechoslovakia came under strict Soviet domination. The increased Soviet influence ended any democratization efforts, but it led to some progress in the federalization of the republic and expanded Slovakia’s autonomy. Through a wave of protests and demonstrations in 1989, which came to be known as the Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia transitioned from communist one-party rule to democracy and a free-market economy. In 1993, federal Czechoslovakia went through a nonviolent “velvet divorce” and Slovakia became a separate independent state with Vladimir Mečiar being the first prime minister in a coalition government.
In the post-communist period, joining NATO and integrating with the European Union (EU) have consolidated Slovakia’s democracy while the often-populist reassertion of Slovak national identity led to ultra-nationalist policies targeting minority communities such as ethnic Hungarians and the Roma. The tension between the necessity for liberal economic reforms and the problems associated with the transition to a market economy and privatization, such as corruption and limited success in poverty reduction, have fed left-wing populist rhetoric in Slovak politics. However, the left-wing populism also serves to mask ethnic nationalism and xenophobia, to a certain extent.
The first populist wave emerged under Prime Minister Vladimir Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), which led Slovaks to independence in 1993, ruled the country until 1998, and in the process became a dominant party. Mečiar developed a nationalist-populist discourse, setting aside the divide between the communist and the anti-communist in the newly independent country and defining the Slovak people in purely ethnic terms that excluded minorities. Mečiar, while making efforts to centralize power, promoted the idea that the Slovaks suffer because of the elites “supported by external powers” and similarly identified the opposition parties with these outside actors. The HZDS-led government, especially over the period of 1994 to 1998, weakened the judiciary, defied checks and balances, and undermined the consensus-building capacity of Slovakia’s fledgling democracy. Mečiar’s authoritarian populism nearly derailed Slovakia’s democratic transition (Deegan-Krause, 2012: 187-188, 191, 194).
After the Mečiar governments, Slovakia’s democratic progress got back on track with a new 1999 law decreeing the popular election of the president and key constitutional changes, made in 2001, to improve the rule of law and recognize the rights of minorities. Both President Rudolf Schuster and Prime Minister Dzurinda’s center-right coalition governments in late the 1990s and early 2000s advocated for Slovakia’s democratic transition and economic reforms. Slovakia joined NATO and the EU in 2004 and also initiated the process towards entering the Schengen Area and the eurozone in this period.
Slovakia’s second populist wave came with a surge of leftist protest votes against Slovakia’s neoliberal turn. These voters enabled Ivan Gasparovic, a former aide to Vladimir Mečiar, to be elected president in 2004 and Robert Fico’s rise to power when his party won approximately one-third of the votes in the 2006 parliamentary elections. Fico has headed the government thrice: first from 2006 to 2010; again from 2012 to 2016, and most recently from 2016 to 2018. His party, Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD), formed coalitions with the other populist and nationalist parties. In 2006, Smer-SD entered into a coalition with Mečiar’s HZDS and the ethnic-nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS). Smer-SD came to power again after the 2012 elections with a clear majority, but following the 2016 elections, it won only 49 of 150 seats in the legislature and again formed a coalition with three other small parties, the ethnic-nationalist SNS, the center-right Most-Híd, and the Slovak Conservative Party (Sieť).
Since the 2006 elections, Smer-SD has gradually turned into the leading populist force. The party runs on a left-wing platform. Smer-SD is a nationalist-populist actor although it uses socialist rhetoric mostly as window dressing (Mesežnikov and Gyárfášová, 2018: 83). While the Fico cabinets have taken some steps to improve labor rights and strengthen trade unions, Smer-SD’s populism has been more pronounced in promoting Slovak nationalism and fomenting anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments.
In July 2009, the first Fico government passed a law to force the use of Slovak even in minority gatherings and to impose fines on the use of minority languages in public buildings. The controversial law discriminated against Slovakia’s ethnic Hungarian nationals, who make up around ten percent of the country’s population. Prime Minister Fico resorted to anti-immigrant discourses and loudly opposed the EU’s refugee relocation initiative with which the Union, in 2015, planned to move around 800 refugees from Greece and Italy to Slovakia. Within the context of immigration, he also employs vitriolic anti-Muslim rhetoric, declaring that “Islam has no place in Slovakia” and Muslims “change the face of the country” in a negative way (Chadwick, 2016).
In 2018, Slovak politics plunged into a crisis with the murder of Ján Kuciak, a prominent journalist who was investigating the alleged corrupt ties between business groups and members of the Fico government. Following public outrage about the murder, and upon the government’s attempts to obstruct further investigations, tens of thousands of Slovaks took to the streets, forcing both the Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák and Prime Minister Robert Fico to resign.
In 2019, Zuzana Čaputová, an anti-corruption and environmental activist, won the presidential elections, and following the 2020 parliamentary elections, Igor Matovič’s anti-corruption OLANO formed a center-right coalition as Smer-SD failed to win a majority of votes. OLANO is often described as a populist party due to its leaders’ employment of excessive anti-corruption, and anti-elitist rhetoric. Structured over a decade ago on the personal charisma of media baron Matovič, OLANO’s main goal is to “clean up” the Slovakian politics from the corrupt establishment (The Economist, 2020). With his flashy publicity stunts and strong anti-corruption speeches, Matovič has already managed to construct a popular public image that has earned him a limited cult-like following. His party is now increasingly looking for ways to expand its influence on even larger masses across the country. Following Matovič’s resignation upon a month-long coalition crisis in March 2021, Eduard Heger, a member of the presidium of the OLANO, was appointed Prime Minister in April 2021. Despite its populist features, many agree that OLANO’s fight against corruption has so far been a credible one. However, its transformation of the anger of the society into “a class war” in form of “the common people vs. the elites” is likely to bring even more polarisation in Slovakia (Sirotnikova, 2020).
Alongside Smer-SD, the Slovak National Party (SNS) and the People’s Party-Our Slovakia (LSNS) are the two radical parties resorting to populist rhetoric. The Slovak National Party, established in 1989 and led by Andrej Danko, adopts an ideological stance based on right-wing nationalism, social conservatism, and Euroscepticism. The party’s previous leader, Ján Slota, is known for his provocative anti-Hungarian discourse, calling Slovakia’s ethnic Hungarian citizens as “a tumor on the body of the Slovak nation” (Cienski, 2009). The SNS, as part of the Smer-SD’s governing coalition in 2006-2010, won 15 seats in the 2016 parliamentary elections, but in the 2020 elections, failed to pass the 5 percent threshold required to have a seat in Slovakia’s parliament, the National Council. The SNS is outside Parliament and remains in opposition.
The People’s Party-Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) is a right-wing extremist party based on an anti-establishment and anti-globalist platform and with a virulent fascist-leaning. The neo-Nazi party, officially known as the Kotlebists-People’s Party-Our Slovakia and led by Marian Kotleba, combines ultranationalism (often in the form of white racism), Christian fundamentalism, social conservatism, hard Euroscepticism, anti-Americanism, and Russophillia. The ĽSNS vocally opposes Slovakia’s integration with the Euro-Atlantic institutions, calls for withdrawal from the EU and NATO and supports an alliance with Russia. The party targets immigrants, particularly Muslim asylum-seekers and ethnic minorities (especially the Roma), and brazenly defies the rule of law. The party incites hatred towards Roma people and organizes so-called “security patrols” in order to safeguard white Slovaks from “the crimes” of the Roma community (Mesežnikov and Gyárfášová, 2018, 85-86). The ĽSNS entered the National Council in 2016, gaining 14 seats, and won 17 seats in the 2020 parliamentary elections.
In terms of civil liberties, Slovakia is a free country. Elections are largely free and fair. Leaving behind Mečiar’s cunning efforts for autocracy during the 1990s, Slovakia has progressively transitioned to democratic rule. Media are usually free but the murder of Kuciak was a flashpoint, displaying the limits of investigative journalism when it comes to probing into government corruption. Though populist politicians have not been at the forefront since 2018, political tendencies for ethnic Slovak nationalism and discourses provoking anti-Hungarian, anti-Roma, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim sentiments remain part of contemporary Slovak politics.
August 23, 2020.
Updated June 15,2022
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