The party system in Slovakia has for long been dominated by populist forces and the upcoming elections may bring them to power again. In our post, we assess how pervasive different populist strategies have been in the country and whether there is a chance to overcome them.
Tomáš Madleňák and Bálint Mikola
September 28, 2023
Debates surrounding the definition of populism have been one of the most proliferated areas of political science in the past two decades, and they will likely remain inconclusive. However, they give us some cues on how different understandings of the term may serve the interpretation of current political events. These are used here to explore shifts in Slovakia’s party system. More specifically, we will rely on Kurt Weyland’s categorization of different approaches toward populism, which distinguishes between ideational-discursive, economic, and political-strategic understandings of the term, and advocates for the latter approach, defining populism as “a political strategy through which a personalistic leader seeks or exercises government power based on direct, unmediated, uninstitutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganized followers”, moved by a driving force that is “political, not ideological”. However, it remains to be seen whether Slovakia’s parties, in fact, embody this notion of populism or whether they are driven by an ideology-laden dichotomy between corrupt elites and the “pure people” (as the ideational approach would suggest), or a tendency to boost electoral support through distributing social benefits (as proponents of economic populism would suggest). Even more importantly, it is worth revisiting how these different variations have permeated Slovakia’s party system.
Populism Before 2011
The 2020 general elections in Slovakia have been characterized as “a clash of emotions and populist moves” and this year’s contest seems no different. While the most recent waves of populism can be traced back to the emergence of the OĽaNO (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities) movement founded in 2011, the history of populist mobilization in the country dates back to the 1990s.
In particular, while Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HDZS) contributed to high levels of political polarization during the 1990s by using nationalist rhetoric, particularly against the Hungarian minority, Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda’s eight-year tenure saw a temporary shift in a pro-Western, pro-EU and market-friendly direction. While initially establishing itself as a “pure populist”, anti-elite force with a strong, anti-corruption agenda, once it gained power in 2006, Robert Fico’s Smer – SD (Direction – Social Democracy) party adopted an increasingly ideological character based on social democratic values. This helped the party to solidify a constituency based on older voters, especially women and citizens with lower educational levels who identify as left-wing and thus to overcome the difficulty of maintaining a populist strategy during its incumbency.
Despite these arguably non-populist tendencies, during its tenure Fico’s Smer also repeatedly made ad hoc agreements with the far-right populist People’s Party Our Slovakia (L’SNS) party, which fuses generic anti-elitism with interwar-period nostalgia, conspiracy theories, and appeals against the socially marginalized Roma minority.
At the same time, as Smer was in government from 2006 to 2020 (with a break in 2010–2012), its populism could no longer be ideational and transformed itself into economic populism due to the party’s ability to redistribute resources. The first “social package” was introduced shortly after Fico lost the presidential election in 2014, followed by four similar packages, some of them costing above €1 billion, passed every time the support of Smer went down or shortly before elections.
Despite the current wave of populism in Slovakia, the overall level of electoral support for populist parties remained relatively stable between 2002 and 2020, although the non-populist party space shrank from about 42% to 34% in terms of vote share. However, populist rhetorical elements and strategies have appeared on the agenda of non-populist parties, pushing the whole party system in that direction.
OĽaNO is a “pure populist” party established in 2011 that rose to significance after the 2018 protests that led to the resignation of Fico as prime minister. It rode the wave of discontent after the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée in 2018, which made anti-corruption appeals especially salient in the country. The party’s charismatic leader, Igor Matovič, turned its electoral campaign into a series of abrasive performances that guaranteed wide traditional and social media coverage, which reached voters in the countryside.
This resulted in a 25% win for the anti-establishment movement of Igor Matovič who was able to form a government through securing a constitutional majority in the parliament. However, OĽaNO was unable to transform its ideational populism into a stable ideology as Smer-SD once did, since it is an anti-party by design. Since its inception in 2011, OĽaNO was formally created as a political party, but with the stated objective to let people who are not members of any political party run for election. Therefore, it only had four members: Matovič and three of his closest colleagues. Its other electoral candidates have included “independent personalities” selected by Matovič based on their life stories, expertise, and social media presence—that is, “pure people” to fight the corrupt Smer and Fico.
While OĽaNO was in the opposition, this worked perfectly. When faced with governing, the model fell apart. Despite starting with a constitutional majority, the coalition proved to be fragile and unable to outlast crises. This culminated in a technocratic caretaker government being appointed until the new elections on September 30. Matovič tried to switch to the economic populism model and passed his own social package that increased monthly child allowances, but OĽaNO now hovers in the polls around the threshold to enter parliament.
The 2023 Elections
The reason for OĽaNO’s position is that it is competing in the coming elections as part of a coalition with the centrist Za ľudí (For the People) party and the Kresťanská únia (Christian Union), an ultraconservative party mostly known for relentlessly trying to pass a ban or restriction on abortions. As an electoral coalition, they face a higher threshold of 7%—instead of the normal 5%, and the polls right now give them between 6.3% and 7.0%.
Previous OĽaNO figures around former prime minister Eduard Heger formed the Demokrati (Democrats) party, hoping to draw support from the former’s votes without the drag of Matovič, whose trust ranking fell from 48% in May 2020 to 8% in February 2023. However, according to current polls, Demokrati’s support hovers around 3%.
Much more successful was the new project of a breakaway from Smer. Peter Pellegrini, who replaced Fico as prime minister for two years after the 2018 turmoil, created Hlas-SD (Voice – Social Democracy) in 2020, hoping to create a modern social democratic party. It immediately rose to first place in the polls but was recently overtaken by Smer and Progressive Slovakia. Hlas nowadays scores between 15.1% and 14.6%.
Smer, now rebranded as Smer-SSD (Direction – Slovak Social Democracy—the word “Slovak” was added to signal the distinction from typical European social democracy, perceived as too liberal, which the Hlas – SD now represents), is back at the top of the polls, scoring between 19.4% and 18.9%. Unable to employ economic populist tactics given its current opposition status, and unable to employ ideational populism given its history of governing for years and its connection to a large number of corruption cases, Fico and his remaining allies—some of them running for election despite being actively investigated and/or charged in corruption scandals—have turned to increasingly radical rhetoric, seeking new enemies (“liberal fascism”, “progressives”, George Soros, President Zuzana Čaputová, the technocratic government, police investigators and prosecutors) and increasingly siding with Russia.
Therefore, the populism of Smer has become clearly political-strategic, with a personalistic leader who seeks direct power without the interference of the civic sector (whom Fico seeks to categorize as “foreign agents”), the EU, or domestic political actors who could undermine his rule. At the same time, political scientist Tomáš Nociar has suggested that, due to its pragmatism, Smer may return to a pro-European position.
Is There Room for a Non-Populist Coalition?
In the Slovak proportional voting and party system, it is almost impossible to form a government without forming a coalition of several parties. Usually, at least three are needed. Only once, in 2006, did a single party manage to gain enough electoral support to obtain the parliamentary majority and form a single-party government—that party was Smer. Nothing suggests that such a massive victory will repeat.
If Smer’s ideological shift is genuine, there are two obvious allies for it in eventual government-forming coalition talks. First is the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS), whose leader Andrej Danko has similar political-strategic populist tendencies and has referred to Hungary’s Fidesz as a model. SNS failed to reach the 5% threshold in 2020, but recently it has polled between 6.4% and 6%. Second, Fico could turn to the new extreme-right Republika party, which measures between 5.2% and 8% , and which shares the anti-EU, anti-NATO, and anti-Ukraine stances of the now-irrelevant L’SNS that it broke away from. Republika has a strong ideational-populist anti-elite rhetoric that blames nongovernmental organizations and other politicians for previous chaos and corruption while presenting itself as the antithesis, using slogans such as “We are not the ones who stole Slovakia” and “We will establish order”.
At the other end of the spectrum is the liberal democratic Progressive Slovakia, whose support is increasing. Its campaign is much more ideological than populistic but has some overtones of ideational populism—its latest billboards state “Enough of the past and chaos, let’s choose the future”, with “past” referring to Smer and “chaos” to OĽaNO and Matovič. For many of the “democratic voters”, Progressive Slovakia is the only party they can opt for without fear of their vote being wasted: all the other clearly pro-West and pro-liberal democracy parties—such as the liberal Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party, the conservative Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), the centrist Demokrati and the populist OĽaNO—are either below or barely over the 5% threshold (7% in case of OĽaNO).
This means that the formation of the next government is going to be decided by three factors.
- First, the magnitude of Smer’s expected victory. It will not be able to form a government by itself but the larger its vote share, the easier the task of forming a coalition is going to be.
- Second, the number of parties that will meet the threshold. This year, the number of wasted votes could be especially high since many parties hover around the threshold. This includes democratic parties, but also SNS, and the Sme rodina (We Are Family) party of Boris Kollár, which is a pro-West, pro-EU, and pro-NATO but nonetheless is close to the positions of Smer on the rule of law and cultural issues. Sme Rodina, which has recently polled between 4.9% and 5.3%, could therefore side with either Smer or Progressive Slovakia.
- Third, the performance of Hlas-SD. The party led in the polls from 2020 until February 2023, when it scored 20.8%. It was overtaken by Smer in March, and it was third with 14.2% in August. Pellegrini is unable to employ any ideational populistic strategy due to his past in Smer, unable to employ an economic populistic strategy due to his opposition position, and unable or unwilling to engage in the aggressive political-strategic populism of Fico. Still, Hlas-SD could be the kingmaker. It has ruled out a government with Fico but not with Smer.
To conclude, even though Slovakia’s party system has seen the emergence of non-populist democratic forces, they remain so fragmented that it seems unlikely that a functioning governing coalition could be established without populist forces. Whether these forces will moderate themselves after a highly polarized electoral campaign, however, remains to be seen.
The parties’ polling numbers used in this article come from the latest polls done by two established Slovak polling agencies, Focus and AKO. Focus conducted its poll between September 6 and 13, 2023, on a sample of 1001 respondents. AKO polled between September 5 and 11, 2023, on a sample of 1000 respondents.
Tomáš Madleňák is an investigative reporter at the Investigative Centre of Ján Kuciak.
Bálint Mikola is a post-doctoral researcher at the CEU Democracy Institute.
The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their individual authors.
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