This is the first of a several part installment that looks at recent elections in foreign countries. As we wring our hands about Donald Trump and what his possible nomination means to the GOP and conservatism, as bad as he is, things could always be worse. Make no mistake: this writer is no fan of Trump whatsoever. The first installment involves the recent parliamentary elections in Slovakia.
To start, the party of Prime Minister Robert Fico managed to win only 49 of 150 seats in Parliament. The remainder are spread among eight other parties. To remain in power, his party must now forge coalitions with other parties. Unfortunately, given the diversity of the parties any coalition would be shaky at best. Fico’s party- Smer SD (the “SD” stands for social democrat)- managed 28.3% of the vote, well short of the 44.4% it garnered in 2012 when a one-party cabinet formed. The Freedom and Solidarity Party (SaS) finished in second place and that is a liberal party.
What is surprising, however, is the rise of the People’s Party-Our Slovakia (LSNS) headed by Marian Kotleba. Kotleba first rose to political prominence in 2013 by winning the Governorship of central Slovakia. Prior to that, he liked to wear the regalia of the Hlinka Guard, the 1939-1945 Nazi-sponsored Slovak state. In a 1941 agreement with neighboring Germany, the Hlinka Guard sent 75,000 Jews to Germany as slave laborers under the condition they not return. They actually paid Germany to take them.
After winning the office of Governor of Banska Bystrica, Kotleba retired the regalia although one of his first acts was to lower and remove the flag of the European Union in his area. Kotleba despises the European Union and NATO which he characterizes as a “terrorist organization.”
LSNS will send 14 members to the Slovak parliament and other parties have vowed not to associate with them or involve them in any coalition government. But, Kotleba certainly hit a cord with the Slovak electorate by attracting votes from many first-time voters and people living in economically depressed areas. Kotleba himself referred to parliament members who voted to accept EU quotas of Middle East refugees as “traitors.” His face appeared on billboards with the title “Stop Immigrants!!” During rallies in Bratislava, the Nazi salute is common among LSNS members.
But here is the problem: even the left-leaning party of Fico- Smer- has campaigned heavily on the immigrant issue. They have referred to the influx of Muslims as an “invasion” that will overwhelm this country of about 5 million mainly Catholics. Some commentators warned that such rhetoric would unleash the inherent nationalism which lies under the surface of most Central European countries.
So where is President Andrej Kiska in all this? Theoretically, he could form a caretaker government and call for new elections in early 2017 thus marginalizing the two biggest nationalist parties (LSNS is one of them), but that would only reinforce the notion that the nation’s elites are ignoring the will of the people. Short-term it would keep the neo-Nazis out, but strengthen them in the long-term. As for Fico as prime minister, he made a political gamble and lost having focused on the refugee question. Unfortunately for him, recent teacher and nurse strikes weakened his party’s standing with the people allowing the more radical Right Wing parties to emerge.
Compounding the whole issue is the fact that Slovakia will hold the EU Council Presidency starting in July. Fico’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is sure to soften somewhat, but the future of Greece may be at stake. The election’s second-place finisher SaS brought down a government in 2012 when it refused to contribute to a bailout plan. And there is the inevitable question of energy. A proposed pipeline under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Europe would allow Russia to bypass pipelines through Central Europe. Slovakia would stand to lose 1 billion Euros every year in lost transit fees from pipelines at the Ukrainian border to the rest of Europe.
Further, this election has the potential to set the course of the so-called Visegrad Group: Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary- a rather large slice of Central Europe. These countries are drifting towards, if not already there, an illiberal democracy paradigm where although elections take place, citizens are cut off about knowledge of the government’s activities due to the lack of civil liberties. In Poland and Hungary, the government has basically taken over the court system and media.
Ironically, Kotleba’s rise weakened the power of Fico so that it is highly unlikely that what has happened in Poland and Hungary will happen in Slovakia. On the flip side, the apparent chaos being created in Central Europe is playing directly into the hands of Vladimir Putin who would like nothing more than exploit any cracks in the European Union, and especially NATO.
The moral of the story is that no matter how strange this election season is in the United States, it pales in comparison to the intrigue and the personalities in Slovakia. While we discuss American political discourse where the GOP front runner assures us of the size of his manhood, actual brownshirts have gained power in Slovakia. It sort of puts things into greater perspective.