Slovak election deadlock hands president key role

Slovak election deadlock hands president key role
Slovak President Andrej Kiska is now in a strong position after the country’s March 5 general election ended in chaos and deadlock.
By By Benjamin Cunningham in Bratislava March 6, 2016

Slovak President Andrej Kiska is now in a strong position after the country’s March 5 general election ended in chaos and deadlock, with eight parties including a pair of far right groups and four newcomers reaching parliament. Prime Minister Robert Fico’s ruling centre-left Smer party led the way with a much lower than expected 28.3%, but will struggle to form a government with either the centre-right or the far right.

As the smoke cleared on March 6, speculation was increasingly focused on the possibility that Kiska would appoint a caretaker unity government to see Slovakia through its turn as EU Council president in the latter half of the year.

The free market Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party finished a surprising second with 12.1%, followed by the populist Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OL’aNO) with 11%, and the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) at 8.6%. The ultra far-right People's Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) led by Marian Kotleba scored 8% to gain 14 seats and reach parliament for the first time. Millionaire Boris Kollár’s protest party Sme-Rodina took 6.6% and the largely ethnic Hungarian party Most-Híd won 6.5%. The centre-right Siet’, led by the Yale-educated lawyer Radoslav Procházka and once considered Smer’s prime challenger, barely reached parliament with 5.6% of the vote.

“The biggest surprise for me is Kotleba and the rise of an extremist protest party,” said Pavol Hardoš, a political scientist at Comenius University in Bratislava.

Smer and Fico had focused their campaign on security and the European migration crisis, but strikes by teachers and nurses shifted the election narrative at the turn of the year — and Smer’s poll numbers along with it. Fico’s support faded as election day approached, as the party had as high as 40% late last year. The result is 16 percentage points below what Smer won in 2012, a result that gave it an outright majority in the 150-seat parliament.

Much of the post election analysis has focused on how much Fico’s anti-migrant rhetoric might have aided the two far right parties — SNS and LSNS. Though it no doubt fostered an atmosphere of fear, exit polls showed that LSNS voters were more motivated by social inequality and corruption concerns. A shocking 22% of first time voters opted for LSNS. 

The results were a disaster for the country’s traditional centre-right parties, the Christian Democrats (KDH) and the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), as both are now out of parliament. Their anointed successor, Siet’, also had a particularly weak showing. A broad five-party centre-right coalition would only have 72 seats in the 150-seat parliament and is unlikely to be tolerated by the other three parties.

Personality clashes among party leaders would make such a coalition agreement difficult. Prochazka has long clashed with OL’aNO chief Igor Matovič. Though the two look to have patched things up, the enigmatic Matovič and Most-Híd chief Béla Bugár also appear at odds. Bugár has repeatedly said he would find it difficult to cooperate with Matovič in a government.

In recent weeks Matovič also drew fire from Fico, when the prime minister personally held a press conference to accuse Matovič of tax evasion. Fico produced documents he claimed to receive from an anonymous citizen, which he then turned over to police. The episode was part of what political analyst Grigorij Mesežnikov called a “chaotic” Smer campaign effort.

“They wanted to weaken Matovič, but the effect was the opposite,” he said. “Smer was trying to speak to their constituency, but this was a demonstration of weakness.”

Smer will now find it difficult to form a government with the nationalist SNS. Fico has publicly ruled out the possibility of working with Kotleba’s neo-fascist LSNS, though they theoretically could give a Smer-SNS government tacit support.

A broad coalition between Smer and the centre-right is a more likely path forward, but this will also be difficult as both the SaS, OL’aNO and Kollar’s Sme-Rodina have refused to work with Fico, leaving Smer potentially with just Siet and Most-Hid and 70 seats, unless one of the parties changes its stance.

Though Fico’s posturing on election night seems to indicate he would be interested in leading that government, some speculate that longtime Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák might take the helm for the EU presidency.

Even though there are serious underlying structural problems, perhaps Smer’s best case for re-election was the relatively strong macroeconomic conditions in the country. The economy grew at 3.55% last year, one of the fastest rates in the eurozone. Though still over 10%, unemployment is down and the budget deficit for 2015 is estimated at just 2.5%. Whether it contributed directly to the far right party’s success or not, Fico’s decision to focus on migrants appears to have been a major tactical blunder.