Fico doubles down on migration as Slovak poll lead ebbs away

Fico doubles down on migration as Slovak poll lead ebbs away
Protests by teachers and the resignation of hundreds of nurses have created headaches for Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico.
By Benjamin Cunningham in Bratislava February 22, 2016

With their support in opinion polls ebbing away less than two weeks before the general election, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and his governing Smer party are deploying the trademark gamesmanship that has made them the country’s dominant political force for the past decade.

Once seemingly a sure thing, Fico’s path to re-election has grown more complicated since the turn of the year as protests by teachers and the resignation of hundreds of nurses brought renewed attention to the ailing education and healthcare sectors. Though the smart money is still on Smer to win the March 5 vote, the party’s support has dipped below 35% in recent opinion polls. Fico is therefore recalibrating an electoral strategy that has emphasised Slovakia’s solid macroeconomic numbers and Smer’s role as a bulwark of security amid the migration crisis.

“There has been a gigantic shift in mood,” said Miroslav Beblavy, an MP and deputy chairman of the opposition Siet’ party. “Who knows whether it is enough for us.”

Indeed the labour unrest in the education and health sectors has driven the domestic news cycle in recent weeks. Amid a gaggle of opposition parties and rapidly shifting poll numbers, forecasting the result is increasingly difficult. With much to come, the outcome almost certainly hinges on three key factors: whether big picture issues (European migration, GDP growth) trump personal experience (crumbling schools and costly health care); how many smaller parties surpass the 5% parliamentary threshold; and whether Smer can fully mobilise its base.

Fico is unlikely to repeat the 2012 success in which Smer gained an outright parliamentary majority, and seems only to be left hoping that he can form a coalition with the hard right Slovak National Party (SNS). As of now any government that does not include Smer would require five small opposition parties to collaborate, a formula that recalls the disastrous instability of the 2010-2012 government led by Iveta Radicova.

“We have never had elections where somebody like Smer and SNS had a chance at both a constitutional majority and being out of government altogether,” Beblavy said. “The continuum of realistic outcomes is huge.”

Smer has 34.6% support in a Focus poll released on February 18, down nearly 6% from late 2015. The centre-right Siet’ is second with 14%; followed by the SNS with 8.7%; Most-Híd, which draws on the Hungarian minority, has 8.2%; the Christian Democrats (KDH) have 7%; a coalition of the populist Ordinary People (OL’aNO) and the conservative Nova parties has 6.1%; and the free market Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party has 5.5%. A handful of others are hovering just below the 5% threshold required to get into parliament.

“These smaller parties have a profound influence in how share of vote translates into actual parliamentary seats,” noted Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs think tank in Bratislava.

Uphill battle

Amid flagging support, Smer is seeking to reclaim the election narrative. The party held a hastily conceived “programme conference” on February 13. After offering just five vague sentences by way of a platform for much of the campaign, the event promised to specify clearer plans for another term in office. Instead, Fico largely sought to turn attention back to migration. “We will not create any compact communities with a different religion,” Fico said, recalling an earlier message critical of potential Muslim immigration.

Just a few days earlier, Fico held a press conference to accuse OL’aNO leader Igor Matovič of tax evasion. The prime minister took the unusual step of publicly releasing private tax documents and producing a former Matovič employee to support his claims. Matovič denied the allegations and called Fico “a liar” . Though OL’aNO poses no direct threat to Smer at the ballot box, the party is essential to any potential non-Smer government.

As Beblavy notes “elections are mostly referendums on incumbents”, and Smer’s core case for a return to power is economic. Slovak growth, at 3.55% for the year, was one of the fastest in the Eurozone.

But on the ground, those numbers can look different. Job growth has not followed apace. Unemployment remains above 10% nationwide, and at about 15% in the eastern part of the country, and youth unemployment is 26%. In the most recent Eurobarometer poll, Slovaks cited unemployment, the economy generally, health care and the rising cost of living as their top concerns.

The teachers’ strike sought to draw attention to low pay and lack of state investment. Some 15,000 took part and the events dominated headlines and airwaves over a period that paralleled a drop in Smer’s support. Slovakia has had 17 education ministers during its 23 years of independence. According to the OECD, the state spends just 2.7% of GDP on primary and secondary school education, second lowest both in the EU and the OECD, surpassing only Hungary. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education’s budget is set to decline by €266mn in 2016 — partially driven by a drop in EU funds.

Concurrently some 700 nurses resigned in early February, bringing renewed focus to waste and graft that has been linked to Smer powerbrokers. A recent study by Sweden’s Health Consumer Powerhouse found that the poor state of the health care system shaves 12 years off the average Slovak lifespan. According to Eurostat, the state spends a rounded 0% of GDP on long-term care. Fico denies responsibility for the sorry state of the sector, but on a recent television talk show he himself admitted that he “avoid[s] hospitals like the plague”.

For the opposition, defeating Smer remains an uphill battle. The party operates a significant clientelist network, has a formidable political machine and has skillfully used state funds to bolster its election prospects (refund checks purportedly tied to lower than expected natural gas prices went to every household in the country six weeks before the vote).

Fico’s prospects depend on mobilising what has occasionally been an unmotivated and ageing voter base, which is strongest outside booming Bratislava. In a textbook case of overconfidence, rightwing extremist Marian Kotleba defeated incumbent and Smer MEP Vladimír Maňka in a 2013 election to be governor of the Banská Bystrica region on a paltry turnout.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the opposition is that many voters find it difficult picturing any of the opposition leaders — with Siet’ chief Radoslav Procházka as the most prominent — as prime minister material.

“Young people think that Fico doesn’t know what he is doing, but he does,” said Alexander Buzáš, an 85 year-old retired engineer from Nová Dubnica in western Slovakia who backs Smer. “Fico should continue. There is no successor who would be better.”