Slovakia’s Electoral Politics, an Interview with SME

Just a note to post the interview that recently appeared in SME (with thanks to Tomas Galas for good questions and good translation). The original interview is here (but limited to PIANO users):

I’ve inserted the text of the full English translation below in text and along with quite a few questions that did not make it into the print version. There was also a recent Slovak Spectator interview, in English, here:


SME,24 March 2012, Vikend, pp. 12-13.

V deň slovenských volieb ste na svojom blogu uverejňovali články, ktoré sa venovali exit pollom a výsledkom volieb. Prečo?
You were writing about exit polls and official results during Slovak election. Why?

My profession is political science–I teach at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, USA–and the thematic focus of my work is political parties and elections.  My regional focus is Central and Eastern Europe and the countries I know best are Slovakia and the Czech Republic.  I have spent more than twenty years studying those two countries and 4 total years living and working there, especially in Bratislava and have developed a deep affection for them.  When I return to Slovakia, I feel in some way as if I am returning home.  It is therefore utterly natural to me to pay attention to Slovakia’s politics, and when I began to blog 6 years ago as a way to communicate the results of my academic research, I began to blog regularly on public opinion polling in Slovakia.  I found that readers were most interested on election nights and so I began to live-blog on those nights (and since Slovakia’s polls close at 4pm my time (rather than 10pm Slovakia time) I do not have to stay up /all/ night :-)

Videli sme celkom veľké rozdiely medzi výsledkami exit pollov a skutočnými výsledkami volieb. Máte na to vysvetlenie?
The differences between exit polls and official results of the election were quite significant. Can you explain it?

I have not been party of the exit polling or seen the raw data, so this is difficult for me to judge, but in the past two election cycles we have seen big differences between these polls and the actual results and for at least the last two cycles these differences have pointed in the same direction.  It is noteworthy to me that the differences were similar for both FOCUS and MVK polls in both years suggesting that it is not something pollsters are doing wrong but that relates to the behavior of voters on exit.

Prečo sa nepriznávajú voliči HZDS a Smeru, že budú tieto strany voliť?
Why people, who are voting for Smer (and for HZDS), don´t admit it when they are asked by an interviewer?

I would need to see more information on this, but I would suspect that it may not be a refusal to admit but rather a refusal to engage.  My guess–but you should confirm this with FOCUS and MVK–is that these are the voters who cannot be bothered to answer or who are suspicious of anybody prying into their business.  Why this should be more likely among Smer voters is not clear, but it is notable that there have been relatively difficult relationships between pollsters and political parties in the past–difficulties capitalized upon by HZDS in the mid-1990’s.  As the HZDS electorate (and family members) have migrated to Smer, it is possible that these feelings have moved as well.  At the same time, it is noteworthy that the patterns are not wholly consistent.

Aký je váš názor na výsledky volieb? Prekvapilo vás niečo?
What do you think about results? Were you surprised?

As I noted to the Slovak Spectator, the surprises were mostly in the “known unknown” category—i.e. we knew there were things we probably could not know, especially the performance of parties very close to the 5% threshold: SMK, SNS, SDKU, SaS.  I was a bit surprised that KDH and Most-Hid could not capitalize better on the problems within SDKU, and also that OLaNO did as well as it did despite the internal difficulties and departure of candidates fairly near the election (though given the heterogeneous composition of the party, that kind of conflict was not actually a surprise).  I was also surprised at how poorly 99% did after a strong showing in some polls, but my post hoc rationalization says that voters were simply wary of something that new and that well-resourced.  The challenge for a new party is to run a big campaign to make yourself known without looking like you are running a big and expensive campaign.

I was also surprised by the turnout which I expected to drop in the light of the Gorilla scandals and other disillusionment, but perhaps I should not be.  Turnout rates dropped through the 1990’s and much of the 2000’s but turnout decline at every level has seemed to stop in the mid-2000’s and has stabilized.  Still, I thought this turnout would be lower than normal and I’m keen to learn from Slovak experts why it didn’t.

Je podľa vás v poriadku, keď v pomernom volebnom systéme získa jedna strana väčšinu mandátov? V čom je riziko takéhoto úspechu?
Is it OK, when a single party wins majority of mandates in a proportional voting system? Where is a risk of such success?

It is certainly v poriadku from an electoral perspective.  A party that can muster 44% in a proportional system has certainly done a good job persuading voters (or has seen its opponents do a particularly poor job).  It is slightly more problematic that a party without a majority of /votes/. Can win a majority of seats, but this is the consequence of electoral thresholds and parties that make it almost but not quite over those thresholds, producing a large number of votes that do not receive seats.  Slovakia in 2012 had its second highest recorded share of votes going to parties that did not, in the end, get seats.  That is in part because of the almost-but-not-quite performance of SNS and SMK, but also because of the emergence of a significant number of smaller parties getting small shares of the vote.  It is also worth noting that the Smer majority in parliament would have been much smaller if either SMK or SNS had made it over the threshold (a question of a mere 10,000-20,000 votes) and if both had made it over the threshold, there would have been no Smer majority at all (only 73 or 74 seats).

The bigger question, I think, is what a single party government portends for the country and on that I have fewer answers than I wish I did.  For the first time there are no barriers to Smer accomplishing its legislative agenda and it will be fascinating to see what it does.  That said, I think it’s possible to argue that SNS and HZDS did not pose much of a barrier to Smer’s economic agenda in 2006-2010, and yet even many politicians of the right privately admitted that the party had not pursued as “left-wing” an economic agenda they had feared.  So the real question to me is about the internal divisions within Smer and the kinds of barriers within the party that might prevent it from being unified around certain goals.  But those are quite “closed door” questions and so an observer from abroad (and even an observer at home in Slovakia) may have difficulty figuring that out.  Smer has its factions and interests, but they are not nearly as well known as, say, divisions within SDKU.  Over the next four years, however, I suspect we will find out a lot more.


Na svojom blogu písali o extrémne vysokej dlhodobej stabilite volebných blokov pravice a maďarských strán. Je to dôkaz rozdelenej krajiny?
You wrote about extremely high degree of long-term stability of bloc-voting levels of Slovakia´s right and among the Hungarian national parties. Is it a proof , that Slovakia is a divided country?

Slovakia is in some ways a divided country but not unsustainably so.  One of its two significant ethnic groups has its own strong set of attitudes and political parties, and so this creates a 90:10 split (really about 88:12) that is pretty natural and not at all unusual for the region.  And these parties have not been consistently excluded from government, which helps to maintain a certain level of cooperation.  Within Slovakia’s majority population, there are splits that involve basic questions of economics on the one hand and questions about the importance of nationality on the other.  We’ve seen these two dimensions come into alignment of late as Smer has taken over some of the territory once occupied by SNS and HZDS, but the combination has probably actually softened the division a bit as more radical nationalists are either assimilated into Smer or left outside parliament.  And above it all, there are some cross cutting divisions between left and right, especially the question of corruption and good government.  SaS benefitted from some dissatisfaction with corruption in the Smer government in 2010 and Smer probably benefitted from some dissatisfaction with the shady dealings of SDKU and SaS.  A society cannot be /too/ divided if there are enough swing voters to let the incumbents know that they cannot take popular support for granted.  Slovakia has its stable blocs but not /so/ stable that the divisions can prevent accountability or cause conflict (which are the real problems with societal division)

Na svojom blogu písali o extrémne vysokej dlhodobej stabilite volebných blokov pravice a maďarských strán. Je to dôkaz rozdelenej krajiny?
You wrote about extremely high degree of long-term stability of bloc-voting levels of Slovakia´s right and among the Hungarian national parties. Is it a proof , that Slovakia is a divided country?

Slovakia is in some ways a divided country but not unsustainably so.  One of its two significant ethnic groups has its own strong set of attitudes and political parties, and so this creates a 90:10 split (really about 88:12) that is pretty natural and not at all unusual for the region.  And these parties have not been consistently excluded from government, which helps to maintain a certain level of cooperation.  Within Slovakia’s majority population, there are splits that involve basic questions of economics on the one hand and questions about the importance of nationality on the other.  We’ve seen these two dimensions come into alignment of late as Smer has taken over some of the territory once occupied by SNS and HZDS, but the combination has probably actually softened the division a bit as more radical nationalists are either assimilated into Smer or left outside parliament.  And above it all, there are some cross cutting divisions between left and right, especially the question of corruption and good government.  SaS benefitted from some dissatisfaction with corruption in the Smer government in 2010 and Smer probably benefitted from some dissatisfaction with the shady dealings of SDKU and SaS.  A society cannot be /too/ divided if there are enough swing voters to let the incumbents know that they cannot take popular support for granted.  Slovakia has its stable blocs but not /so/ stable that the divisions can prevent accountability or cause conflict (which are the real problems with societal division)

Vidíte nejakú možnosť, že by sa slovenská pravica do najbližších volieb spamätala a neskončila by tak ako 10. marca?
Do you see a chance that right-wing parties will recover till next election and succeed better than in previous one?

With a stable voting base, recovery is always an issue.  Nobody who looked at polling results in mid-2009 would have been likely to predict an electoral victory on the right in 2010 and yet the parties of the right managed a slim majority.  A lot will depend on the parties, of course.   There is some hope that Zitnanska can revitalize the SDKU, and that would certainly help, but I think the transformation will need to be quite energetic and thorough.  KDH is also seeing generational change in its leadership, and it has some energetic leadership, though it will be interesting to see if an energetic leader can try break through the party’s 9% electoral ceiling without in the process breaking the party itself.  Elsewhere on the right it is hard to know what to make of the prospects for SaS.  A 6% result does not bode well for a party that started two years ago at 12% and that had a clear (and not unpopular) stance on the Greek bailout.  The party has little organization to fall back on and its leader’s image is not as shiny as it once was and so it will need to get lucky to stay in parliament, either by recovering OL voters or being shown to be right on Greece.  As for OLaNO, I wait with some anticipation.  There is not much party there, and it is hard to see how it can survive for long in its present form.

Zaujímate sa o dianie nielen na Slovensku, ale v strednej Európe. V čom vidíte podobnosti a rozdiely našej krajiny oproti okolitým štátom?
You are interested not only in Slovakia, but in Central Europe as a whole. Do you see some similarities and differences between Slovakia and neighbouring countries?

I am extremely interested these days in the emergence of new parties throughout the region.  For a time, Slovakia was one of the most obvious cases that something different was going on: Slovakia produced one or two major new parliamentary parties in every election between 1992 and 2002 and then again with SaS and Most-Hid in 2010 and SaS in 2012.  Poland had some of the same significant shifts through the early 2000’s and the Baltics and Bulgaria have seen levels of change and new-party creation that are even higher than in Slovakia.  But what is really interesting is that in the last two years other seemingly stable party systems in the region have seen similar “new party eruptions”: VV and TOP09 in the Czech Republic, Jobbik and LMP in Hungary, Virant and Jankovic in Slovenia (and just recently Polikot in Poland).  I am extremely curious what these new parties mean for democracy in the region and it impairs democracy when parties do not last long enough for voters to vote for them a second time.  I am also really interested in the way that Smer stands out from this group.  As a new party with a strong anti-corruption appeal in the early 2000’s, it should have died like the others but it has instead gone from strength to strength.  Its survival may have depend on the fact that it did not go immediately into government in 2002 but had time to wait, strengthen itself and find an ideological profile on the left (no longer “the third way”) that let it provide a strong alternative to the neoliberals of the second Dzurinda government. 


Not in the print interview:

Myslíte si, že nacionalisticky orientovaný volič ešte niekedy dá svoju dôveru SNS alebo strana už nezíska stratené hlasy?
Do you think, that nationalist voters will ever vote for SNS or SNS will never get lost voters?

What happens on the Slovak national side of the electorate will be extremely interesting.  The voting for parties in this segment of the population has dropped significantly over time, but I do not see much evidence that passion about the Slovak nation has declined for many voters, so it reflects not so much a shift in attitudes as a shift in where people with those attitudes decide to cast their ballots.  We have seen a significant shift away from HZDS and now from SNS, mostly to Smer. One question is whether Smer can–or even wants to–give those voters what they want.  If it can, it may keep those voters from returning to SNS (though it may keep them by the kinds of actions that risk losing other voters who do not like strong national feelings).  The other question is whether SNS can adapt and change.  As Marek Rybar of Comenius University has pointed out, SNS has the most leader-centered stanovy of any party in Slovakia, and the current leader has some liabilities.  If he is willing to relinquish control, the party may have a chance to recover (it will still receive state funding because it got above 3%), but an SNS that continues to be controlled by Slota will have to be uncharacteristically skillful to avoid the result we saw after Meciar’s HZDS dropped out of parliament and simply disappeared from the political radar screen.

V Česku prebieha ďalšia vlna protestov proti vláde a „starým“ politikom. Pred mesiacom to bolo aj u nás. Napriek tomu si ľudia týchto politikov volia znova a znova. Prečo?
There is another wave of protests against government and „old“ politicians in Czech republic. There were similar protests one month ago in Slovakia too. But people are still voting for these „old“ politicians. Why?

Well they did vote for “not old” politicians in significant numbers.  The results for OLaNO, 99%, SSS and some other smaller parties was quite high and Slovakia continues to generate new parties in every election (2006 was the only exception so far).  The problem is that voting requires not just saying “no” to the old but saying “yes” to something else.  In the Czech Republic in 2010 there were two strong “new” options that people could (at the time) feel good about choosing as a way of saying “No.”  Slovakia saw much the same with SaS (and Hungary with Jobbik and LMP, and Slovenia with Jankovic and Virant, and Poland, to a lesser extent with Polikot).  But in 2012 the “yes to the new” options were somewhat scarcer: Matovic and OL were already a known and somewhat tarnished good, and 99% simply seemed too artificial (and lacked a single strong voice like Matovic or John or Schwarzenberg).  But this does not mean that another option isn’t out there.  Of course it’s not at all clear that it is a god thing to vote for the “new” without better understanding of what the new is.  The Czech example of VV–an “anti-corruption” party owned by a businessman who seems to have created it to make it easier to engage in corruption–points to the problem.  The other problem is the apparent inability of many parties in Central Europe to renew themselves.  It will be interesting to see what happens with Zitnanska at the helm of SDKU, but on election night five of the six parties in Slovakia’s parliament were headed by their founding leader: Fico, Sulik, Dzurinda, Matovic, Bugar.  Only KDH has had significant leadership changes, and it has had a remarkably stable support over time.  (It is noteworthy to me that SMK, another party with the possibility of leadership change, managed to sustain considerable support despite being out of parliament.)  If parties cannot renew themselves–if they are leader-driven vehicles, then new parties are more likely to emerge to challenge them when the leader becomes tainted and taints the party.

Prečo sa, ako Američan, vôbec zaujímate o slovenskú politiku?
Why are you, as an American, interested in Slovak politics?

In a sense my interest in Slovak politics began accidentally.  I was one of the wave of American teachers of English who crowded Czechoslovakia in 1990 in search of adventure and excellent beer (and in my case a fascination with Vaclav Havel), but I was lucker than most to the extent that my post-teaching work in graduate school forced me not only to pay attention to Prague (which I still love) but also to Bratislava (which feels like /home/) and gave me a broader sense of the region.  And Slovakia has many times over repaid my interest.  Not only have I developed deep friendships with Slovaks, but I have also come to understand ways of thinking that were at first new to me–the idea of “narod” was not something that I could grasp theoretically but had to experience directly.  And as this last election continues to show, Slovakia’s politics is never uninteresting.

Je medzi študentmi vašej univerzity záujem o dianie v strednej a východnej Európe?
Are students from your university interested in Central and Eastern Europe?

The inhabitants of Detroit include a very large number of immigrants and quite a few from Central and Eastern Europe.  Many of the children and grandchildren of those immigrants attend Wayne State University (we take great pride in the share of our students who are the first in their family to attend college).  The demographic balance is shifting a bit, however, and among the children and grandchildren of immigrants from Europe we are now seeing a higher proportion of Bosnians and Albanians (we have large populations of both in Detroit) as well as a fair number of Serbs and Russians.  And then there are some students who are interested in the region because of its beauty or its historical significance or its intellectual significance.  A surprising number of my more philosophically-inclined students are also interested in Vaclav Havel, and so I try to use that interest to get them to look beyond and see the intellectual and political ferment in the region.

Prečo Smer tak zdrvujúco uspel?
Why Smer succeeded so overwhelmingly?

Smer has been polling at around 40% for years now and so its success is not particularly surprising, even if the magnitude is higher than almost anybody suspected.  Smer kept its head down and ran a straightforward, businesslike campaign emphasizing stability and thereby had the good tactical sense to step out of the way and let its opponents on the right damage themselves.  The question for me is whether Smer will be able to sustain a reputation among its followers for being “the less corrupt one” when it will not have the opportunity to blame coalition partners (as it did in the last government with SNS and HZDS).  Smer’s future success will depend in part on its ability to keep its own supporters and functionaries disciplined enough not to engage in major corruption.



Pred voľbami niektorí novinári či politológovia spomínali možnosť veľkej koalície Smer + jedna z pravicových strán. Pomohlo by to atmosfére v krajine?
Some journalists and political scientist were speaking about big coalition between Smer and one of the right-wing parties before election. Would it improve the atmosphere in our country?

I’m not sure it would improve the atmosphere.  It would bring conflict directly into government and might even make the conflict seem worse.  AT the same time while it would not improve the atmosphere, I do think it would improve the quality of government and adherence to democratic norms.  A second party in parliament would act as an internal watchdog and potential whistleblower.  That might worsen the atmosphere but it would improve the quality of governance.

2012 Parliamentary Elections in Slovakia: The Building Blocs of Success

Another year, another election.  This time a joint work by Tim Haughton and Kevin Deegan-Krause reviewing Slovakia’s most recent election and what it means (even for people who can’t find Slovakia on a map). Tim Haughton (not pictured here) is Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Fellow, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies & Senior Lecturer in the Politics of Central and Eastern Europe, University of Birmingham.   Kevin Deegan-Krause is Associate Professor of Political Science, Wayne State University, Detroit Michigan. 

Keeping a careful eye on Slovakia's elections. Photo courtesy of Reuters (

 Slovakia’s 2012 election never seemed to hold much room for surprise.  The Wall Street Journal forecast Slovakia Center-Left Party Headed for Election Victory, the Financial Times watched as Slovakia coalition heads for defeat and nearly every major newspaper and news service said the same thing: power in Slovakia would change hands from right to left on March 10, 2012. 

And so it did, but a look inside Slovakia’s election helps to make a simple story somewhat more complex and even offers a few insights into 21st century-style democracy for those who do not have much interest in Slovakia itself.

What happened in the election? 
The left won; another new “party” erupted; everybody else lost

  • Left over right: For the first time in the country’s history a single party won a clear majority in the elections.  The left-leaning (and sometimes nationally-oriented) Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD) led by Robert Fico won 44.4% of the vote and 55.3% of the 150 seats in Slovakia’s parliament). Fico supplanted a four-party right-leaning coalition that took power in Slovakia in 2010 with a narrow majority (replacing Fico, who had governed from 2006 until 2010) whose internal disagreements over the Greek bailout led to a vote of no-confidence in the coalition’s prime minister, Iveta Radicova, and early elections. 
  • Decline of Slovak-national parties:  Slovakia’s 2012 elections witnessed the continuing collapse of parties emphasizing the Slovak nation.  In 2012 the Slovak National Party (SNS) failed to exceed the country’s 5% electoral threshold and followed in the 2010 footsteps of its former partner the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), the once-mighty electoral machine of Slovak politics which this year could not muster even a single percent.
  • Split among Hungarian-national parties: On the other side of Slovakia’s national divide, the Hungarian vote split nearly evenly between the Party of the Hungarian Coalition (SMK), which fell just below the 5% threshold, and Bridge (Most-Hid) led by a longtime former SMK chairman, which managed parliamentary representation with a 7% showing.
  • Novelty on the right:  Finally as in every Slovak election but one (2006), a newly created party succeeded in crossing the threshold and entering parliament—the evocatively named “Ordinary People and Independents” (OLaNO).  Furthermore all right wing parties experienced shifts akin to the “defenestration” of Civic Democratic Party (ODS) leaders in the Czech Republic’s 2010 elections, as voters made significant use of preference voting to rearrange party lists and elevate new, seemingly cleaner candidates over less than angelic party regulars.

What happened in the campaign: 
The left ran smoothly; the right ran into a gorilla; the rest ran into each other

As with the results themselves, the world’s news sources had little doubt about the reason: corruption.  Reuters offered an explanation for the apparently clear outcome: Slovaks set to dump centre-right after graft scandal.  Yet the actual circumstances are more complicated.  Surveys suggest that the right-leaning coalition lost the support of the majority of voters only a few months after taking office in the summer of 2010, and by mid-2011, Fico’s Smer-SD was consistently polling at levels sufficient for a one-party parliamentary majority, well before the collapse of the coalition over the Euro-bailout or the scandals surrounding the so-called “Gorilla” file.

Prediction came easily in Slovakia’s 2012 election in part because the narrative of the two campaigns followed such clearly divergent paths.  On one side, Robert Fico’s Smer-SD managed to avoid any mistakes.  In part it succeeded in this because it took almost no risks running a similar campaign to those in previous elections; it managed to avoid significant taint (even in scandals that concerned some of its own members) and its campaign relentlessly pushed the key word “certainty” (istota), and maintained a unified, calm and confident (but not cocky) voice all the way through.

Standing in sharp contrast were the efforts of all nearly of Fico’s competitors.  The election campaign itself was often overshadowed by large-scale demonstrations provoked by the “Gorilla scandal,” so called after the leak of the eponymously-named police file purportedly highlighting intimate links and lucrative mutually-beneficial deals between financial groups and politicians, especially those in the 2002-2006 government.  Gorilla, along with allegations that MPs had been offered bribes in return for their loyalty in the fractious vote for the prosecutor-general in 2010, served to indict nearly the entire political class and its murky links with business and produced several vehement demonstrations in Slovakia’s major cities.

Although Gorilla and similar scandals cast shadows over all political leaders, the main victim was the leading government party, the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union – Democratic Party (SDKU-DS), and its leader Mikulas Dzurinda.  SDKU also suffered from the decision of its prime minister, Iveta Radicova, to leave politics after her frustrating experience of trying to hold together a fractious coalition in which even her party colleagues Dzurinda and Ivan Miklos were not always safe allies.  Dzurinda, a two-time prime minister (1998-2006) and foreign minister (2010-2012), liked to remind voters that it was his governments that took Slovakia back into the European mainstream after the illiberalism of the Meciar years, but faced struggles of his own.  In 2010 a different scandal forced him to relinquish his top spot on the party’s election list (a position taken by outgoing prime minister Radicova); in 2012 he regained the top ballot position but not the affection of his party’s voters.  In the wake of “Gorilla,” Dzurinda received the preference vote support of only one sixth of his own party’s voters (a drop from 165,000 in 2006 to just 27,000 in 2012) and ceded the leadership of the party—which he had held since its inception—to reformer Lucia Zitnanska.

Leadership change does not appear to be on the table for the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH)—the only other party in Slovakia’s parliament that has not had the same leader since its foundation—but this party, too, saw a shift in preference votes toward younger and more energetic figures including party vice-chair Daniel Lipsic.  The party did not lose strength in this election, but its reliance on its loyal electorate and its weak campaign (encapsulated in the ill-judged slogan ‘white Slovakia’) prevented it from capitalizing on SDKU’s woes and taking clear leadership on Slovakia’s right.

Also on the right—but from an economic rather than a cultural perspective—Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) was only narrowly able to scrape past the 5% threshold.  The party suffered from pre-election revelations that party leader Richard Sulik held monthly meetings with dodgy businessmen, but managed to hang on to enough voters through its unique combination of libertarian morality and pro-market values and its prominent negative stance on the Euro bailout (a position so important to Sulik that he allowed his opposition to bring down the government of which he was a part). 

Among other parties, neither of the two major Hungarian contenders faced a similar taint (although Bugar’s links with businessman Oszkar Vilagi were mentioned on several occasions) but neither could boast of particular accomplishments or a particularly noteworthy campaign.  On the other end of the national spectrum the Slovak National Party  did manage a noteworthy campaign, but only by pushing the boundaries of decorum.  In its 2010 campaign, SNS projected aggressively xenophobic images of bandit Hungarians and indolent Roma with (photoshopped) chains and tattoos.  In 2012 the party abandoned any pretense of style and embraced raw confrontation, borrowing liberally from anti-Semitic caricature and even internet pornography (one billboard featured a female model wearing only an EU-flag thong and the message “the EU is screwed.”) and

Weak performance by major parties in Central and Eastern Europe seems more often than not to benefit brand new parties, a phenomenon common to Slovakia but now apparent also in Hungary (Jobbik, Politics Can Be Better), the Czech Republic (Public Affairs, TOP09), Poland (Polikot’s Movement), and Slovenia (Jankovic’s List, Virant’s List).  In 2012 Slovakia again produced a new parliamentary party, but stopped short of producing two.  Igor Matovic, elected unexpectedly in 2010 through preference votes on the SaS party list, tentatively positioned his new “Ordinary People and Independents ” party on the right-hand side of the spectrum, but took full advantage of the corruption scandals (including a revision of the Slovak seal replacing its hills and cross with a similarly-shaped gorilla and banana) . 

A second new party, evocatively called “99%” briefly succeeded in attracting voters with a well-designed and lavishly-funded campaign (including one of the first to use a legal loophole to air paid-television commercials), but quickly lost momentum as questions emerged about the source of the lavish funding and the possibility of systematic falsification of signatures on the party’s establishing petition.  With its final tally of only 1.6% of the vote, 99% suggests that there are limits on the degree of artificiality that even the most disillusioned voters are willing to accept from a new anti-corruption, anti-elite party.

What stayed the same?
Despite the shift in seats, the relative vote share of electoral blocs changed little.

Although the world’s news sources explained their election predictions on the basis of the corruption scandals—Reuters suggested that Slovaks were “Slovaks set to dump centre-right after graft scandal”—the actual footprints of the gorilla-scandal appear to have been relatively shallow. While it certainly had individual and institutional effects, toppling Dzurinda and helping to rearrange the complexion of parties on the right, the scandals actually produced no little change in the overall array of Slovakia’s parties. Surveys suggest that the right-leaning coalition lost the support of the majority of voters only a few months after taking office in the summer of 2010, and by mid-2011, Fico’s Smer-SD was consistently polling at levels sufficient for a one-party parliamentary majority, well before the collapse of the coalition over the Euro-bailout or the scandals surrounding the so-called “Gorilla” file.

Share of votes and seats for relevant political blocs in Slovakia. Click image to enlarge.

When we delve deeper into Slovakia’s results over time we see that frequent changes in party and government obscure a remarkable degree of stability within the electoral blocs. The figure here shows the development of both Slovakia’s electorate and its parliamentary representation over time, beginning with the assumption of four relatively distinct electoral blocs: left and right, and Hungarian national (those of Hungarian ethnicity) and Slovak national (those of Slovak ethnicity for whom ethnicity is particularly important). The figure shows an extremely high degree of long-term stability of bloc-voting levels on Slovakia’s right and among the Hungarian national parties. Whom these voters vote for (indeed, which party is even on the ballot) has changed significantly over time, but the relative percentage in these two categories has not changed by more than a few percentage points over the four elections of the past decade (and not much before that). In the other half of the political landscape, there are more significant shifts—the decline of the Slovak-national parties and the rise of the economic left, but these two developments are almost perfectly reciprocal, and the overlap of themes suggests a high degree of compatibility between the voters in these two blocs.

The horizontal mid-line of the graph suggests that unlike the combination of left and Slovak-national parties, the coalition of right and Hungarian-national parties has never actually constituted a majority of Slovakia’s voters. The right has been able to form coalitions only when allied with the left (as for a brief time in 1994 and again from 1998 to 2002) or benefited from fragmentation among left and Slovak-national parties that kept some of them from passing the 5% threshold and produced a disproportionate number of seats for the right (as between 2002 and 2006 and again, to a lesser extent between 2010 and 2012). In the 2012 election, threshold failures by parties on both sides produced a roughly even redistribution of seats which benefitted the larger combined bloc, that of the Slovak-national and left, and because of the collapse of the Slovak-national parties, and consolidation of the left, this space was occupied entirely by Robert Fico’s party, Smer.

What changed?
Despite stable vote shares, some blocs lost seats when small parties fell below the 5% threshold.

The dynamics of public opinion are always filtered through the institutions of electoral politics and in Slovakia those institutions have recently made the difference between winners and losers. Party change more than voter change has produced most of Slovakia’s recent political volatility.

As an example, of such “supply-side” volatility, it is worth noting that while Slovak-national parties have disappeared from parliament, the Slovak-national party vote has actually changed relatively little. Together, parties which appeal to the Slovak-national themes managed to win nearly 8%, only about two percentage points less than what they achieved two years ago. As with most other changes in Slovakia’s politics, the collapse of parliamentary representation for the Slovak-national bloc lies in the interaction between party splintering and the 5% threshold. Although perhaps less decisively than in 2002, when SNS also lost its representation in parliament, a splinter from SNS led by a former leader may have pulled away a vital share of the SNS vote, and another radically anti-Roma and anti-immigrant party with roots in the skinhead subculture may have done the same. The 0.6 won by the breakaway Nation and Justice (NaS) or the 1.6 won by the People’s Party-Our Slovakia (LS-NS), would have been sufficient supplement to the 4.6 won by SNS to take the Slovak-nationalists back over the threshold and into parliament. It is possible that a new leader could emerge to replace Jan Slota in SNS or that a new national party could supplant SNS entirely, but with Slota’s party still dominating the (vastly diminished) national bloc and with Slota still dominating his party, it is difficult to see alternatives in the short term.

Similar institutional conflicts have affected parliamentary representation on the Hungarian-national side. Although the landscape of the Hungarian voters in Slovakia has long been complicated by division into multiple parties and factions (as befits a national community with a population larger than Luxembourg or Iceland), in electoral contests, Hungarians tended to band together during elections, forming electoral coalitions or even common party structures to maximize the gain above the electoral threshold. That changed with the breakaway in 2009 of popular former party leader Bela Bugar and his new party Most-Hid. Since the Hungarian parties tend to garner between 11% and 12% of the vote, there is a relatively narrow window in which two competing parties can both exceed the 5% threshold. In both 2010 and 2012 only Most-Hid managed to attract more than 5%, in part because of its more moderate stance on national questions and the ethnic Slovaks attracted by Bugar. Its rival, the Party of the Hungarian Coalition (SMK) fell in both 2010 and 2012, each time by less than 1%. While the competition between the two parties may help to keep them responsive to the electorate, it also cost the Hungarian population 2/5ths of its potential representation in parliament. Whether two successive losses like this can produce a rapprochement between the parties before the next election will depend on the concessions that either side is willing to make in the interest of overall Hungarian representation. So far that willingness has been quite small and Bugar’s complaints of a “dirty campaign” waged against him and the clear preference of Viktor Orban and the Hungarian government for SMK make a rapprochement unlikely in the short term.

An even bigger challenge awaits Slovakia’s right. Outside observers (and quite a few domestic ones) blame the right for losing the 2012 election, but as the figure above suggests, its combined vote was not much worse than in 2002 or 2006. The figure below indicates that its seat total was actually somewhat higher than in 2006.

Dimension 1: Changes in relative coalition size. Red represents the Fico-led coalition; Blue represents the Dzurinda/Radicova-led coalition

In retrospect, the exceptional election for the right may have been not 2012 or 2006 but 2010. In that year, four years of Fico government, with some sizeable scandals, sent some moderate, anti-corruption Smer voters across bloc lines to vote for anti-corruption right wing parties such as SaS. In 2012, by contrast, the right parties were the target of anti-corruption motivated votes and some migrated (back) to Smer, while others left for Ordinary People or a host of small new parties which had (so far) avoided the taint of the major parties.

The main source of Fico’s victory may thus lie in his ability to calmly preserve his party’s unity and wait for the return of former voters or the arrival new ones as the right parties sawed off their own limbs. Fico secured near complete dominance of a large part of the political spectrum, consolidating the left under his leadership and attracting the support of the more nationalistically-inclined voters, especially those from his erstwhile coalition partners, the SNS and Meciar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), parties whose demise he at times helped encourage. In 2010 this cost him the premiership when it left him without a strong enough coalition partner to form a government, but in 2012 it actually helped increase his parliamentary majority since seats not going to SNS went 5-in-9 to his own party (based on a hypothetical situation in which SNS received 5.01% of the vote).

Dimension 2: Changes in relative bloc size. 2010 figure indicates lost seats in light grey and gained seats in deeper colors (deeper still for seats gained in 2012)

Fico gained an impressive number of seats in the 2012 election: 21 out of a 150 seat legislature. (The additional MPs in Fico’s party would, if they defected, immediately become the second largest party in parliament). The growth was the result both of transfer between sides (a swing of 12) and a nearly equal size transfer within his own side (a swing of 9 from SNS to Smer). This kind of victory creates new risks and rewards for Smer. On one hand, Smer must now govern alone and so unlike the 2006-2010 government, when the most viscerally-unpleasant corruption cases were those perpetrated by its coalition partners, it will not be able to avoid close identification with everything that goes wrong. If the right benefitted from disillusioned anti-corruption voters in 2010 and Fico got some of those back in 2012 when the right seemed to behave no better, then the flow of such voters in the next election will depend largely on how Smer conducts itself in government. The flip side of this focused responsibility is focused power. Smer can now govern alone, and it is worthwhile considering the consequences of a one-party Fico-led government

What happens now?
Robert Fico tests how the limits of one-party-rule in Slovakia (and one-man-rule in his own party)

When Robert Fico left the communist-successor Party of the Democratic Left in 1999 to form Smer, observers asked whether he was “a man to be trusted or feared”? (Indeed one of the authors of this piece, Tim Haughton, wrote on this exact question ten years ago). The question is even more relevant today. In the early 2000s, Fico offered Slovakia “new faces” and a “new direction.” In the 2012 campaign he offered the promise of certainty and stability. After a year and a half of a fractious coalition government, there will be some benefit to citizens and investors in a one-party Smer government, but what kind of certainty and stability can Fico offer?

One-party government is not without its risks. Slovakia’s political institutions have been protected to some extent in recent years by its tense coalitions, whose inability to agree have hampered their ability to deliver fundamental change (both good and bad). Because of Slovakia’s relatively open constitutional framework, a united parliamentary majority can impose significant changes not only on policy but on the institutional structure. For many in Slovakia any one party government would be source of worry even if its prime minister had not exhibited similarities to Vladimir Meciar, the three-time prime minister who came close to toppling Slovak’s democracy during the 1990s. Indeed there are some clear parallels between the two men, especially their central position to their parties’ identity and appeal and their willingness to the national card in political competition. Nor do some of the differences between the men offer much solace. Fico has demonstrated himself to be a more capable politician Meciar. Whereas Meciar oversaw the consistent decline of HZDS (from an admittedly high starting point), Fico has pushed Smer to more votes and more seats in every successive election.

But Smer’s progress also reflects Fico’s recognition of certain political limits and (unlike) Meciar, he has rarely pushed the boundaries too far. Chastened by a disappointing result in 2002, Fico spent much of the subsequent four years building his party’s organization and positioning Smer as the left-leaning alternative to the neoliberal policies of the second Dzurinda-led government. The party remains entirely dependent on Fico, but its organizational expansion has left it with a variety of internal factions and (it is said) financial sponsors that may begin to impose some of their own constraints. If they do not, Slovakia may now be able to fall back on other institutional structures that have strengthened since the Meciar era. Slovakia’s civil society has also demonstrated its ability to play a vibrant (if not always decisive) role. The anti-gorilla demonstrations may not have impacted much on the election result, but they show the willingness of many Slovaks to come out onto the streets if given provocation.

Although the Russian Pravda declared in a headline on Monday that the ‘good times may begin for Russia’ with this election because ‘it is difficult to find a more pro-Russian politician in all of the European Union’ than Robert Fico, it is worth recalling Fico’s press conference in the early hours of Sunday morning when it had become clear he would be the next prime minister. Fico was keen to stress his pro-European credentials. His last time in government began badly when he was roundly condemned by ideological allies in Europe for jumping into the coalition bed with the xenophobic and racist SNS leading to suspension from the Party of European Socialists. He will not want to be marginalized in Europe again. He knows that there are tough decisions ahead in Europe and that Slovakia’s future prosperity is dependent on Europe returning to healthy levels of growth. Past examples have revealed that Fico cares more about the give and take of domestic politics than anything else. He may thus simply ignore EU pressure, but he may have a harder time ignoring the supporters of his party whose livelihoods depend on the EU and wish to be left in peace to make their money.

The last time Fico held power he rode the wave of economic boom which his predecessors had done much to create. This time Fico takes power in an era of austerity and gloom. During the boom years some foreign investors were willing to turn a blind eye to the less than angelic behavior of members of Fico’s government, but with money now tighter, Fico will need to ensure that his government does not get embroiled in corruption scandals and that it stamps down on corruption at lower levels of government and administration. Admittedly many of the worst scandals affecting his government last time were those associated with ministers from Smer’s coalition partners SNS and HZDS, but Smer politicians were not immune. Fico knows that there are some in his ranks who have jumped on the Smer bandwagon hoping to feather their own nests. He must also be aware that if he does not succeed in controlling the greed of his party members, foreign investors may simply take their money elsewhere.

Maintaining support in government is intimately linked to how an administration deals with unexpected challenges and the economic context in which those decisions are made. If as Eurozone leaders are keen to stress, the European economy has turned the corner, Fico may benefit as Europe recovers from euro-related woes, but a glance at Greece indicates we might want to draw a different conclusion.

We have both spent long enough observing Slovak politics to expect the unexpected. Recent history offers us a guide, but as financial advisers would remind us past performance is only a guide to future outcomes. The only certainty is that to understand Slovak politics we need to understand the building blocs of party politics in Slovakia.

The results so far (close to definitive)

I am going to bed as Slovakia is waking up.  The result tonight is a big win for Smer, bigger than expected.  Smer did what it set out to do in this election: avoid mistakes, avoid scaring people, letting the other side self destruct. 

Party Votes Seats
Smer 44.85 84
KDH 8.76 16
OL 8.46 16
Most-Hid 6.94 13
SDKU 5.79 11
SaS 5.56 10
Totals 80.36 150

None of the parties of the right did as well as they polling would have suggested except for the not-really-a-party-at-all (and it’s built into the name) OLaNO.  So we have 1 large left party and 5 small right parties.  There are no explicitly Slovak national parties, for the first time in Slovakia’s history, and three of the parties did not exist 3 years ago.   And nearly 20% of the vote went to parties receiving less than 5%. 

How this story fits together will have to wait until (my) tomorrow (and probably a lot longer than that).

Not too much left to say…

We’re down to the final 1/3 of the vote count and it gets harder and harder for surprises to emerge.  From this point onward in 2010 the following things happened:

  • Smer dropped by a little over a point (extrapolate that from the present and you get Smer results of about 45%)
  • SDKU rose by just under a point (extrapolate from that and discount a bit for its currently much smaller size and you get SDKU results of about 5.9%)
  • Most-Hid rose by about a point (extrapolate and you get about 7.35%)
  • KDH dropped by about a tenth of a point (extrapolate, 8.7%)
  • SaS didn’t change much at all (extrapolate, 5.3%)
  • SNS dropped slightly (extrapolate, 4.6%)
  • SMK rose by half a point (extrapolate, 4.5%)
  • OLano didn’t exist.  (extrapolate using SaS patterns, 8.4%)

Take that and run it through the seat generator and you get something pretty striking:

  • Smer: 84
  • KDH: 16
  • OLano: 15
  • Most-Hid: 14
  • SDKU: 11
  • SaS: 10

Hard to talk much about a coalition when you’ve go that kind of majority.  So KDH may be spared the decision about whether to go into coalition.  And Slovakia will find out what happens when one party has a majority.  Its last experience with a near-majority was not so pleasant, but times were different then (one can hope).

Sceniarios, but not much difference

I like to run various scenarios, just in case.  Using the most recent FOCUS numbers, I offer a few different possibilities, though as the numbers come in, those are looking less and less likely.  The upshot:  if the polling numbers are right, the only way there is not a significant majority in the hands of Smer is if all of the borderline parties don’t get in.  That means SNS, MK and SaS.  SaS looks to have a good shot, so it’s really up to SMK and SNS but as the past post shows, time is running out for those two.  One party government (de facto if not de jure) here we come.

As predicted by FOCUS As predicted minus SaS As predicted plus MK As predicted plus MK and SNS
Smer 43.70 43.70 43.70 43.70
KDH 9.00 9.00 9.00 9.00
OL 8.50 8.50 8.50 8.50
Most-Hid 7.00 7.00 7.00 7.00
SDKU 6.50 6.50 6.50 6.50
SaS 5.90 4.99 5.90 5.90
SNS 5.01
MK 5.01 5.01
Seats Current minus SaS plus MK plus MK&SNS
Smer 82 88 77 73
KDH 16 18 16 15
OL 16 17 15 14
Most-Hid 13 14 12 11
SDKU 12 13 11 11
SaS 11 0 10 10
SNS 0 0 0 8
MK 0 0 9 8
Sum 150 150 150 150

Smer, SNS and Hungarians trending

At this point I’d put more faith in the recent FOCUS adjustment ( than my own, which are not based on regional patterns (that’s a project for some future effort–I don’t know what the FOCUS numbers are based on but they look OK), but for those who are interested here’s the trending for the parties on which I have a good read:

Smer, until the most recent numbers was running exactly at its 2010 rate plus 10%.  The most recent pushed the bottom of that window a bit.  Don’t know if this is a blip or a sign of a trend.  Still, hard to see Smer under 43 for the night

Thought I’d check out SNS as well.  Here’s the party’s election night trending.  The party’s election night profile is remarkably flat in both 2006 and 2010.  In 2006 it dropped then recovered.  In 2010 it kept dropping, to within 2000 voters of the threshold.  In 2012 the slide is even more pronounced.  Even a recovery in big cities that report late (as happened in 2006) might not be enough.  Not yet dead, but slipping further and further away.

And finally the Hungarian parties.  Here the pattern is less pronounced for individual parties so I thought I would combine SMK and Most Hid to see what I get.  Even here the pattern isn’t as clear except tha tHungarian parties tend to rise as the night progresses.  Following current patterns, the two should together end up with between 11.75 and 12.75.  Since SMK has been getting just about .4 of the total of the two parties, this raises the barest hope that if the two parties do end up following the 2010 pattern, it could get about 5.1% of the vote.  But as the big cities report in, SMK’s share of the overall is dropping slightly, suggesting that it is Most-Hid that will be the bigger beneficiary of further growth and that it will be very difficult for SMK to make it.  They look to end up just barely outside parliament.

Smer then and now

Keeping up with the Smer track, the party is trending almost exactly as it did in 2010 with one exception: it is 10% above its trending last year.  It does of course make a difference about which polling places return results when, but certain kinds of polling places tend to return results at particular times and so the pattern tends to follow.  Here is 2012 (small, dark circles) versus 2010+10% (light circles) and 2006 +18% (plusses).

Elsewhere, I have to say that FOCUS’s revised predictions look pretty good.  But more on that in a moment.  Trending is downward for SNS and for SMK.  This would mean a /big/ group of votes below the threshold and would sharply magnify the Smer majority…

Better guesses: after 1000 polling stations

Usually once we get to 1000 polling stations, we can make a better guess.  Based on the experience of 2010 (and 2006), I’ve got a rough model of how it changes over time.  Here is that model applied to what we have in now.  I’m off to calculate the seat consequences of that, but it looks like 78-79 seats for Smer if all other parties get into parliament (including SNS and SMK) and more if one or more does not..

I think, by the way, that the estimate for SaS is too low.  For that party we just don’t have as much of a track record.  Same for OLANO.

Party After 1000 polling stations 2012 Prediction based on 1000 in 2010 Range
Smer 49.73 Will drop by about 5%-7% 45.8 47.7
SDKU 4.69 May rise by 10-15% 5.2 5.4
KDH 9.02 Should stay approximately the same (2010) or fall slightly (2006) 8.6 9.5
Most-Hid 5.45 should rise considerably 10% (2006 SMK) to 30% (2010 Most) 6.0 7.1
SNS 4.93 Should stay the same (2006) or rise slightly by a about 5-6% (2010) 4.9 5.2
SMK 4.24 should rise considerably 10% (2006 SMK) to 30% (2010 SMK) 4.7 5.5
SaS 3.97 Should rise by about 5-7% (2010) 4.0 4.4
OLaNO 7.1 May rise slightly? 2-5% (2010 based on SaS) 7.1 7.5