A far-right party in Slovakia could become a powerful parliamentary force after elections this weekend. Long cheered as a model central European country, Slovakia is now at risk of following the same path as Poland and Hungary.
By Jan Puhl
Early on in his political career, Marian Kotleba wore mostly dark clothes, a black leather jacket and a black baseball cap. The uniforms of his supporters were also black, resembling those of the Hlinka Guard, the paramilitary force in Slovakia that assisted the Nazis with the Holocaust during World War II. Since then, Kotleba has changed his color. Now he can mostly be seen wearing a green jacket — an attempt to make his connection to the dark history a bit less obvious.
Kotleba hopes to gain a foothold in the political center, where voters would find overt fascist symbols to be off-putting. Green is the color of his People’s Party – Our Slovakia (L’SNS), which is currently polling at around 11 percent. Chances are good that the L’SNS will become the second-most powerful party in parliament in Feb. 29 elections. And the party is only a few percentage points behind the left-wing populists of the Direction – Social Democracy (SMER), who have ruled the country almost without interruption for the past decade and a half.
Kotleba’s far-right party has enjoyed a meteoric rise recently in a country long considered one of central Europe’s model states. What fuels L’SNS is a hatred of the elites in Bratislava and Brussels and a hatred of Roma, migrants and gays. The group is so radical that it makes the national conservatives in neighboring Poland and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party in Hungary look downright mainstream.
The other parties in the Slovak parliament, to be sure, have made clear that they do not intend to form a coalition with Kotleba under any circumstances. But whether they will remain true to their word is by no means certain. The political landscape is fissured and the liberal camp is divided: If the far-right does as well as polls suggest it could in next week’s election, democracy in Slovakia could soon follow the same path as Poland and Hungary. And this despite the fact that Slovakia has long been considered an example of successful integration with the West. Slovakia’s roughly 5 million citizens have for years achieved annual economic growth of at least 3 percent and the country enjoys full employment. Carmakers like Mercedes, Kia, VW and Renault are the largest employers. Slovakia adopted the euro in 2005.
A Watershed Moment
Two years ago, though, the façade of the model country began to crack. An investigative journalist, Jan Kuciak, and his fiancée were murdered, with their killing exposing dark undercurrents in Slovakia. Leading members of the left-wing populist party SMER had apparently built up a broad, corrupt network connecting leaders from politics and business with the country’s seedy underworld. Kuciak had been working to expose these connections. The Slovak public prosecutor’s office accused the oligarch Marián Kočner of being the mastermind behind the journalist’s murder.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate solidarity with the murdered journalist and Prime Minister Robert Fico was forced to resign. In many people’s eyes, he embodied the crooked system more than anyone else leading to a plunge in SMER’s approval ratings. A liberal alliance led by the party Progressive Slovakia won European elections and its frontrunner, Zuzana Čaputová, a feminist and environmental lawyer, was elected president.
For a while, it looked as if the fallout from Kuciak’s murder would strengthen pro-European forces who wanted to turn Slovakia into the country the West had thought it was all along. “But now it’s becoming apparent: Above all, it’s the extremist far-right that has benefitted,” says political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov.
Polls show that Slovaks agree on one thing: Reforms are long overdue and the corruption of the SMER years must come to an end. But liberal forces have failed to establish themselves as the custodians of greater transparency and justice.
Those forces include Michal Truban, an IT entrepreneur and the leading candidate for Progressive Slovakia. He is primarily popular with urban voters, but has little support outside Bratislava. Another is former President Andrej Kiska, who will represent his party, Za l’udi, on the ballot, but has a reputation among Slovaks for being part of the establishment.
Neo-Nazis in Plain Sight
Ideological differences have prevented the formation of a united, democratic bloc in the center — one that could siphon off support from SMER on the left and fend off the demagogue Kotleba on the right. The political center, though, is frayed, and the egos of the party leaders has made any kind of rapprochement difficult.
Marian Kotleba, on the other hand, presents himself as a fresh alternative. He offers his voters the same kind of social welfare-tinged nationalism that has been so effective for other conservative parties in Europe, only his is far more radical. The elites in Bratislava and Brussels don’t care about “normal Slovaks,” Kotleba argues. His view of the world is anti-Semitic and xenophobic. He disparages Roma as being “noxious” and wants to prevent an allegedly approaching “invasion of migrants.”
In 2017, he even handed out checks to poor families worth exactly 1,488 euros ($1,610). The number is a popular code among white supremacists: The number 14 is shorthand for the “14 Words” slogan popularized by the American neo-Nazi David Lane, while 88 stands for “Heil Hitler,” as H is the eighth letter in the alphabet. The message that Kotleba sends to voters is that they can feel comfortable identifying with their nationalist history. And that includes the Slovak government, which during World War II was long controlled by Hitler. The clerical-fascist regime of the dictator Jozef Tiso eliminated members of the opposition and helped deport Slovak Jews, most of whom were sent to Auschwitz.
Mesežnikov, the political scientist, says Kotleba is addressing the exact same constituency that SMER represented until Kuciak’s murder two years ago: People who are overwhelmed by the demands of today’s world; those who, even 30 years after the end of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain, are still uncertain that present-day prosperity will hold some; and those who feel that Brussels and urban elites want to dictate how they should think and live.
In the language of the L’SNS, such elites are “liberal fascists” — and Peter Bárdy is almost certainly seen as one of them. He runs the news website Aktuality.sk and was Jan Kuciak’s editor-in-chief. “We still think about Jan everyday,” he says. They’ve hung stylized portraits of their former colleague in the hallways. After Kuciak’s death, Bárdy expanded his investigative team, and now there are 12 men and women reporting on corruption in the ruling party.
Bárdy estimates that at least 50 percent of all EU money that flows into Slovakia is misused by politicians and their cronies in the business world. But he also knows that every case they uncover plays into the far-right’s hands. “He successfully portrays himself as the only non-corrupt politician,” Bárdy says.
No Immediate ‘Danger’
More than anything, though, Aktuality.sk continues to report on the murder trial, which is ongoing. The accused include Marián Kočner, the alleged mastermind behind the murder, in addition to two other men. Kočner is said to have kept his empire alive with a combination of blackmail and cronyism in addition to allegedly collecting compromising material on officials, judges and prosecutors. For a time, he lived next door to the former prime minister and SMER chief Robert Fico in an exclusive apartment complex in Bratislava. Kočner has remained silent and denies all charges.
Bárdy fears that every little detail of the court proceedings plays into the hands of Kotleba. And the far-right leader has spread an especially bizarre and conspiratorial theory about Kuciak’s murder. Behind the attack, Kotleba claims, was a plan to give a boost to liberal, pro-European politicians.
Slovak authorities have tried to push through a ban of Kotleba’s party, but judges on the country’s Supreme Court have so far denied their requests. They argue that even if a party is anti-democratic, the system must withstand it. The L’SNS, according to the judges, does not represent an immediate danger.
But that could soon change. It’s far from certain that conservative and liberal parties would even be able to form a coalition, what with all the discord between them. As they compete for the same voters, their party platforms are at times indistinguishable. All it would take to thwart the possibility of a moderate coalition would be for one of the mainstream parties to do poorly on election day.
None of them. after all, are interested in an alliance with the strongest party, SMER — the longtime ruling party with ties to the oligarchy. If SMER is given a mandate to form a government at the end of February, the far-right could have its moment in the sun, Bárdy fears. SMER is ruthless, he says, and focuses entirely on “maintaining its grip on power.”
It’s unlikely that even SMER would dare openly involve itself with fascists in the government. But they could play an inconspicuous role as kingmakers — without direct power, but with plenty of influence.