Explaining the popularity of the extreme right in Slovakia

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Oľga Gyárfášová
Oľga Gyárfášová

Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Comenius University in Bratislava

Slovakia is approaching critical parliamentary elections. On 29 February voters will decide whether the main centre-left coalition party Smer-SD – which has led governments almost uninterrupted since 2006 – will stay in power, or whether the predominantly liberal opposition will force a change in government. The vote takes place two years after the murder of young investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. This unprecedented act, and the investigation that followed, opened a Pandora’s box and shook Slovakian society to its core.

The aftermath of Kuciak’s murder saw revelations of widespread corruption and numerous acts of misconduct. It also exposed close ties between leading Smer party politicians, judicial officers and police representatives, and dubious business and semi-mafia man Marian Kočner. He has been at the centre of the Kuciak case, having been formally charged with ordering his murder. The degree of oligarchising and the impact Kočner had on politics shocked even the most cynical in Slovakia.

However, Slovak politics does not merely run along a ‘coalition vs. opposition’ divide. A third ‘pole’ has emerged in the form of the extreme right-wing ‘Kotlebovci – People’s Party Our Slovakia’ (ĽSNS). This party falls into the category of radical right-wing populist parties, similar to Rassemblement national, Lega, FPÖ or AfD. However, the Slovak brand is even further to the right on the political spectrum. In fact, they are so far to the right that their two elected MEPs were considered too extreme even for the Identity and Democracy (ID) group and are among non-attached MEPs.

ĽSNS’ popularity is rooted in a social mood marked by dissatisfaction with the quality of governance, crises of trust and increased political alienation

Recent pre-election polls predict that ĽSNS could win up to 14% of the vote, which would make it the second strongest party after Smer-SD. Although the prospect of ĽSNS making the biggest electoral gains is cause for concern, other, newly-formed parties with a clear democratic profile have a combined electoral support that outweighs that of the extremists.

This rising radical nationalism, populism and extremism is part of a wider zeitgeist present in many Western societies today. However, each country has its own specific context and explanatory factors. ĽSNS openly embraces social demagoguery, anti-Semitism, racism, anti-Western views and has spoken fondly of the Slovak Nazi client state. Until 2013, the party’s electoral popularity and public visibility was marginal. L’SNS’ initial breakthrough occurred at the regional level, when it won the seat of governor in Central Slovakia. Success continued in 2016, when the party gained 8% of votes and entered Slovakia’s national parliament. This gave extremists a new impetus.

The party did not come out of nowhere. Its popularity is rooted in a social mood marked by dissatisfaction with the quality of governance, crises of trust and increased political alienation. In addition to this, widespread corruption creates the – false – impression that all politicians are corrupt. This only serves to strengthen anti-establishment resentment, anger and inclination towards a protest vote. L’SNS leader Marian Kotleba’s claim that his party is the only one “not soaked in corruption” has convinced many.

ĽSNS is very good at manipulating emotions

The so-called ‘refugee crisis’ also exacerbated political discourse, even among mainstream parties. Dehumanising rhetoric fundamentally shifted the limits of how one talks about the ‘other’. Thus, Roma came to be called ‘gypsy parasites’, refugees were automatically labelled ‘terrorists’, and ‘liberal fascist’ emerged as an epithet to describe those who espouse the values ​​of an open society. This radicalisation of mainstream parties does not neutralise the radical ones; quite the contrary – it empowers extremists.

ĽSNS has also managed to gain popularity across a broad range of social groups by spreading the illusion that they will take care of ‘ordinary people’ – those left behind, forgotten by the political elites sitting ‘up there’ in the capital. They make clever use of social media to create the impression that they have people ‘working across regions’ to assist people in their everyday struggles – from aid during floods, to ‘protecting harvests from Roma thieves’. This is amplified by various websites spreading disinformation and conspiracies.

ĽSNS is very good at manipulating emotions. They raise or address existing fears – such as the belief that migrants are a threat to Slovakia’s national identity, that Islam threatens ‘Christian values’, or that gender ideology threatens ‘traditional families’ – and then offer a simple solution: fear not, we will protect you, you can rely on us. They speak to and capitalise on anger by identifying causes of dissatisfaction and frustration, pointing at enemies, and offering quick and easy solutions. Of course, this is not a new invention. This kind of political mobilisation can be witnessed across Western democracies. The party’s catchphrase, “we will put Slovakia on its feet again”, is clearly inspired by Brexit or Trump’s campaigns.

Fortunately, the threat of ĽSNS potentially strengthening its position after the 2020 elections is mobilising its opponents. Recently, liberal parties and civil society have taken a clear, united stand against fascists. It remains to be seen how this confrontation will translate into votes.

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