Legislative elections were held in Slovakia on March 10, 2012. All 150 members of Slovakia’s unicameral legislature, the Národná rada or National Council, were up for reelection. There is a 5% threshold for representation in Parliament.
These elections are held a bit less than two years after the last elections in 2010, the third snap elections in the country’s post-independence history. The 2010 election had seen the formation of a four-party centre-right government led by Iveta Radičová, who became the first woman to be Prime Minister of Slovakia.
In 2006, the left-populist Smer-Social Democracy party led by Robert Fico won a plurality of seats, defeating Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda’s incumbent centre-right government, led by the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union – Democratic Party (SDKÚ-DS). Under Dzurinda’s tenure, Slovakia was lauded by its European partners for its bold structural reforms and pro-European liberal outlook, but at home its economic policies were perceived as being one-sided and unfair, while his government also faced allegations of corruption. Fico, who campaigned as a populist and has a reputation as being a mouthy type, formed a controversial coalition with Ján Slota’s far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar ĽS-HZDS. Mečiar, who served as Prime Minister between 1992-1994 and 1994-1998, had turned Slovakia into a semi-authoritarian pariah state shunned by the West for Mečiar’s autocratic tendencies, corrupt administration and statist economic policies. He was defeated in 1998 by a liberal coalition led by Mikuláš Dzurinda.
Fico, despite campaigning against them, largely stuck to Dzurinda’s liberal economic policies, but observers and the opposition accused his government of leading populist, unsustainable high-spending policies. The deficit increased under his years in power, but prior to the 2009 recession, it had no discernible impact on the country’s strong economic growth which had begun under Dzurinda. Abroad, Fico’s alliance with Slota, who has a very strong penchant for inflammatory anti-Hungarian statements (the country’s Hungarian minority makes up some 12%), did not win him many friends – especially not in Budapest – nor did his rather autocratic attempts to curtail press freedom (Fico and the Slovakian press, by and large, hate each other). In 2010, when Slota’s SNS lost seats and Mečiar’s party lost all its seats, Fico’s party, which had increased its seat count by 12, was left without coalition partners. Four right-wing parties, led by the SDKÚ-DS and including a new Hungarian party, Most–Híd and a libertarian party, Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) led by economist Richard Sulík formed a coalition led by Iveta Radičová, the SDKÚ-DS’ 2009 presidential candidate.
Relations between Radičová and her government’s main junior partner, Richard Sulík’s SaS worsened over the course of her tenure. The two came to an head in October 2011, when SaS joined Smer to reject the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) in a vote which Radičová tied to a confidence motion. Sulík claimed that Slovakia, the second-poorest Eurozone country, did not have the money to loan to states. On the other hand, Robert Fico used the EFSF-confidence vote to stage a very ingenious political ploy: force snap elections, in which he fancied his chances given that the government had failed to dethrone Smer as the most popular party in the country. Following the international chaos which ensued from the EFSF vote, Fico got what he wanted when the government was forced to call snap elections. In return, Smer voted for the EFSF in a vote a few days later.
Slovakian politics during the campaign were rocked by two huge corruption scandals. The first one, “Gorilla”, was leaked in December and concerns a wiretapping operation between 2005 and 2006 into privatization deals during Mikuláš Dzurinda’s government. At the heart of it all are juicy details about millions of bribes paid to officials to win contracts or privatization deals. The Gorilla files named ministers, foreign investors, a very powerful local investment fund (Penta) and the four parties in Dzurinda’s coalition government including the governing SDKÚ-DS. Penta has denied any wrongdoing, Dzurinda – now foreign minister – called the entire thing a fake while SaS went on an anti-corruption crusade which kind of blew up in its face when it was revealed that the SaS defense minister had gotten the secret services to spy on a journalist and when it emerged that Sulík failed to inform the police of another case, Sea flower, in which the government bribed MPs large sums of money in return for their support in a messy vote last December. The stench of Gorilla led thousands of protesters to throw bananas at Parliament during mass-protests earlier this year in Bratislava.
Gorilla seriously damaged the credibility of all governing parties, especially Dzurinda’s SDKÚ-DS. Incumbent Prime Minister Iveta Radičová retired, and with her the party lost her reformist, non-corrupt image (her government was fairly tough on corruption and accountability), replacing that with Dzurinda, seriously compromised with Gorilla and increasingly looking like an old corrupt “gorilla” of politics rather than the liberal reformer he had been seen as in the past, especially by the West. Robert Fico’s Smer was named in the files, and Fico had apparently met Penta co-owner Jaroslav Haščák in the infamous “safe flat” named in the files. Yet, that was ages ago, and Smer has claimed to have cut off all links with Penta and Fico has been known for his rocky relations since then with big business in Slovakia. Fico and Smer were basically the only ones left unscathed by the scandal.
The scandal prompted a flurry of new parties to raise to the scene, hoping to cash in on popular disgust over corruption and old politicians. Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO) separated from SaS, on whose list it had won a few seats in 2010. OĽaNO appears to be a populist conservative party. More on the left, a party inspired by the OWS movement, 99%, emerged and some believe it was behind the leaking of the Gorilla files. Eastern Europe seems to be a good place to start a new party; the Czech Republic being the most well-known case, though Poland and Hungary both had new parties enter their legislatures in their last elections.
Economic issues played a major role in the campaign, given the country’s 13% unemployment rate and weakened 3% growth rate. The outgoing centre-right government passed some important reforms, including a pension reform, and it claims to have put the country’s finances on the right track. As in the last election, the governing parties have warned against Smer’s populist economic policies. SaS campaigned on a more Eurosceptic platform, hoping to hold a referendum on Europe on election day and Sulík described the EFSF as the greatest theat to Europe. The right-wing Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), led by Ján Figeľ, were far more pro-European and warned against Smer’s ‘socialist policies’ which would lead to Greek-like debts. Robert Fico has seemingly been trying to hit two birds with one stone on economic issues. While reassuring the EU about his commitment to sound finances, the Euro and financial stability; at home he talked about maintaining the welfare state, opposed privatizations, raising taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals, repealing Dzurinda’s government’s 19% flat tax and against a VAT increase.
Turnout ended up very strong at 59.11%, up 0.28% from 2010. Given Gorilla and the anti-politician movements it has inspired, many had feared that turnout would drop to its lowest level in years, but it ended up holding up strongly. The most likely explanation is that voters chose to express their backlash against the corrupt politicians by voting rather than symbolically not voting. The results would indicate that this is true:
Smer-SD 44.41% (+9.62%) winning 83 seats (+21)
KDH 8.82% (+0.3%) winning 16 seats (+1)
OĽaNO 8.55% (+8.55%) winning 16 seats (+16)
Most–Híd 6.89% (-1.23%) winning 13 seats (-1)
SDKÚ-DS 6.09% (-9.33%) winning 11 seats (-17)
SaS 5.88% (-6.26%) winning 11 seats (-11)
SNS 4.55% (-0.52%) winning 0 seats (-9)
SMK-MKP 4.28% (-0.05%) winning 0 seats (nc)
99% 1.58% (+1.58%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 8.86% winning 0 seats (nc)
Smer outperformed both polling and the exit polls and won an absolute majority, the first time since independence that any party has won the right to govern alone. It increased on its already fairly strong 2010 performance by nearly 10 percentage points and gained 21 seats to take 83 seats in the country’s 150-seat legislature. Smer had always been confident of its chances in a general election, thus the reason for Fico’s ploy in the EFSF vote in October. But the Gorilla scandal, far from hurting Smer, was a godsend for the party given that it totally destroyed whatever credibility the fractious governing parties had, especially the credibility of his main opponent, Mikuláš Dzurinda and the SDKÚ-DS. Smer appealed for a strong, stable and cohesive government which could take the right decisions. It also appeared relatively clean to those concerned at least a bit about corruption, and Smer’s more populist rhetoric of sorts on issues such as unemployment has always been popular with the electorate.
On the right, the main victims were Dzurinda’s SDKÚ-DS and SaS. The Gorilla files directly hit Dzurinda and SDKÚ-DS, so understandably the party’s ratings took quite a tumble and it was even hovering on the verge of falling below the threshold and thereby losing all seats. It has saved all seats, but the party, Slovakia’s main right-wing force since the early 2000s, is in shambles and Dzurinda will face internal opposition if he decides to stick on as leader until the next party congress. SaS was unable to use its anti-corruption, clean hands image to turn its image around, likely because it happened that Sulík and SaS’ record on the issue was less than crystal. The party’s shenanigans on the EFSF debacle hurt its image a lot, and its more Eurosceptic rhetoric since then has not really helped the party. It lost a bit more than half of its 2010 votes. OĽaNO, the new populist-right party, was likely the main benefactor of its collapse. With 16 seats, it emerges as the third strongest force. The far-right SNS lost all seats, likely losing a handful of voters to Smer. Mečiar’s career, meanwhile, ended when his old beast, the ĽS-HZDS, won only 0.93% of the vote.
The KDH, led by Ján Figeľ, did well despite its presence in the ‘infamous’ Dzurinda-2 cabinet, though it does not appear that the party was hit much by Gorilla. Its minor gains likely came at the SDKÚ-DS’ expense, but they allowed the KDH to become the main opposition party.
The Hungarian parties had a fairly bad night, with Most–Híd losing a bit more than 1% of its vote and the old party of Hungarian interests, the SMK-MKP, failing to reenter the legislature.
Robert Fico had said that he wanted to form a two-party coalition government no matter what, and some have thought that KDH could be its most likely partner. Fico, who knows that he will need to take some tough measures to curb the country’s deficit and debt load, is seen as being keen on sharing the blame for such measures with another party. However, of the remaining batch of parties, none of them appear as likely allies for Fico. Whatever happens, it will be interesting to see how different a Smer majority government is from Fico’s old controversial Smer-SNS-HZDS cabinet. On a foreign policy front, this could be especially interesting, given that part of the spat between Budapest and Bratislava during the first Fico government was because of Slota’s inflammatory anti-Hungarian pronouncements. Fico has some nationalist inklings, which might still augur poorer relations with Budapest, especially given that Budapest is now led by Viktor Orbán, who has similar nationalist inklings in his autocratic nature. At the European level, relations will likely be smoother in Slota’s absence. Smer voting the EFSF should not, I think, be interpreted as sign of an anti-EU streak in the party, but rather as a domestic political gambit. Fico can probably be counted on to lead fairly moderate economic policies. His relations with big corporations (which he wants to tax more), the Slovakian media (which he loves going on foul-mouthed tirades against) and the authorities investigating Gorilla will prove interesting to observe.