Political Parties and Flying Cars (a brief and mostly irrelevant interlude)

One extremely belated note on Slovakia’s elections.  I was delighted in 2015 when my colleague and co-author Tim Haughton snapped this picture of a pre-pre-pre-election poster for the Slovak Civic Coalition SK-OK (Slovakia OK and also in acronym terms “JU-MP” or “LE-AP”):


Aside from the clever name pun, the interesting color scheme, the solid font, I was surprised to see the triumph of the hipster iconography in Slovakia’s politics: tablets, bikes, hats, beards, big round glasses.  (I shouldn’t be surprised in the current international media environment that there is an almost universal visual dictionary of hip, but it saddens me slightly to find it everywhere without much local or regional variation).  The most fascinating touch of all, however, is the flying car.  For years I’ve been a constant follower of Matt Novak’s Paleofuture blog (http://paleofuture.gizmodo.com/) and I’ve appreciated his sardonic take on each announcement that flying cars were just around the corner.  But I did not expect his blog to intersect so directly with my own.


In retrospect, I probably should not have been surprised.  The flying car has the same “I’m in on the joke” feel as the handlebar mustache and the panama hat.  It captures the “what’s old is new again, only now with more irony” aesthetic, and maybe even goes one further, since it refers to something that is not only very much “back then” but was then regarded as something to be expected around now, so there’s a kind of triple reflection: an unfulfilled present looking back with fondness at the sweet naïveté of somebody looking forward to something that would never come.  So flying cars are hip and can be a signal to voters that parties are hip to their hipness.  (As Novak points out, John Kasich in the US has also used the theme, though without a lot of conscious thought: http://paleofuture.gizmodo.com/john-kasich-is-the-only-candidate-bold-enough-to-promis-1764651805)

The other reason I should probably not be surprised to see this overlap is that one of the most visible contenders in the “flying car that nobody actually seems to want or need” race is the Slovak firm Aeromobil (http://www.aeromobil.com/) which has been testing an impressive looking product (pictured here in front of that other symbol of a mostly lost future, Mochovice nuclear power plant):



SKOK’s flying car image was always a bit of a risk.  AeroMobil 3.0 crashed on a test flight in May of 2015 (though thanks to the car parachute, the inventor surivived to continue his efforts).  SKOK, the party, had no parachute.  Despite a few polls that showed it at least potentially viable (MVK consistently put it around 3%, though other polling firms showed it closer to 1%), the party did not even manage to jump the one percent threshold, in the 2016 election, it’s 22,000 votes accounting for only 0.84% of those voting.   I haven’t yet seen polls that would tell me for sure, but it may be that the hipster vote went not to the flying car but to the guy with the carefully knotted scarf and red glasses and the ever so slightly ironic (given his own family history) name “We Are Family” (Sme Rodnia): Boris Kollar (seen here either flashing the victory symbol or putting something in quotes”)kollar

And then the question is whether, having gotten off the ground, SME Rodina stays up (like Smer-SD and, more recently, SAS and OLaNO) or follows the trajectory of previous new parties ZRS, ANO, and soon-to-be former-new party SIET).




A few thoughts on Slovakia’s marriage referendum 2015

There is almost no circumstance that has not been covered first by Monty Python. Take for example the cricket coverage of Episode 20:

[Cut to fast bowler. He bowls the ball but the batsman makes no move whatsoever. T
he ball passes the off stump.]
Jim … and no shot at all. Extremely well not played there.
Peter Yes, beautifully not done anything about.
Brian A superb shot of no kind whatsoever

Yesterday most residents of Slovakia did nothing about the referendum on gay marriage, gay adoption and sex/euthanasia education and it failed quite badly as a result.

This is not much of a surprise.  As the graph shows, the citizens of Slovakia do not have a strong track record for voting in what they perceive to be minor elections, particularly the European Union, regional governments and referendums.  (Their turnout rates for national parliament, president and local elections are, by contrast, passable, at least from an American perspective, which isn’t saying too much. And turnout rates for all elections have remained quite stable for the last decade).skturn2015

The turnout for referendums is traditionally not as low as for European elections but as the graph below shows, it has hovered between 20% and 30% (closer to 20) with three exceptions: the 1997 NATO referendum which was exceptionally low–because of allegations of ballot tampering (not just ordinary tampering but rather the omission of an entire question by the Ministry of the Interior), the 1998 privatization referendum which occurred at the same time as the 1998 parliamentary election (and still did not reach the magic participation point of 50% even though overall election turnout was in the 80’s) and the 2004 European union referendum (which just barely managed 50% turnout even though most government  and opposition figures supported it and the stakes were extremely high). Into this environment stepped Slovakia’s Alliance for the Family (Aliancia za rodinu) with a referendum proposal (four questions, reduced to three by the Constitutional Court) for which it gathered over 400,000 signatures (almost all of them ultimately found to be valid, yielding well in excess of the 350,000 minimum).  The politics of gay marriage and gay rights in Slovakia I will not get into here, nor will I attempt to speculate whether the organizers thought they could actually overcome the 50% referendum hurdle or merely saw this in as a way to gain attention, identify supporters and force leaders to commit themselves one way or another.

Slovakia Referendum 2015 turnout

Source: http://www.politicaldatayearbook.com/Chart.aspx/38/Slovakia, download data here: http://bit.ly/pdyi_slovakiadata . See http://is.muni.cz/th/103226/fss_m/Diplomova_praca.txt for a good summary of Slovakia’s referendum history.

The actual turnout, 21.4%, ranks this referendum 5th out of the 8 in Slovakia’s post-1989 history, just below the 2010 reform referendum and just above referendums on privatization and early elections from more than a decade ago.  The actual share of “Yes” votes on the marriage question, 95.8% gave the marriage referendum the fourth highest positive share of the 14 valid referendum questions asked in Slovakia since 1989.  The adoption referendum received 94.3% support, for 6th place, and the sex/euthanasia referendum received 92.6% for 8th place.

Combining the low turnout with the high levels of support yields tells us the total number willing to turn out to support the topics of the referendum.  In the case of the 2015 referendum, this ranged from 0.202 supporters per registered voter for the marriage question (7th highest of the 14 questions), 0.198 for adoption (9th highest), and 0.193 (10th highest) for sex education.  The overall share of total supporters per voter was quite similar to that of the 6 reform questions introduced by the party Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) in 2010, which ranged between 0.161 and 0.218.  In this case, however, it is not clear that the real number of active supporters is quite so low: by contrast to the reform referendum of 2010 and other referendum questions, the 2015 referendum had to contend with worse weather and also with some degree of apathy about turning out to vote for a core policy demand (forbidding gay marriage) that had already found its way into Slovakia’s constitutional law earlier in the year.

Slovakia Referendum 2015 yes votesI find it useful to think about the turnout level in its geographical and temporal patterns as well.  As a battle of “turn-out” or “stay home” rather than “yes” versus “no, the spatial distribution of turnout may say more about regional support than does the actual vote margin.  The Slovak Statistical Office map shows a gentle gradient of support from highest levels in the north and east to much lower levels in the south and east, a near-perfect inversion of the 2001 census map (the only one I can easily find) of non-believers.


Turnout in the 2015 Referendum (darker is higher turnout).  Source: Slovak Statistical Office, http://www.statistics.sk

Subregions by share of non-believers (lighter=more believers). Source: http://www.unipo.sk/public/media/14066/peregrinus%20cracoviensis%2013.pdf

I took this opportunity to do something I’d never done before and compare levels of turnout by sub-regions and found some moderately surprising results:

Correlations between subregional voting patterns, by election in Slovakia 2010-2015

Correlations between subregional voting patterns, by election in Slovakia 2010-2015.  Red indicates more positive correlations, blue more negative correlations.  Depth of color indicates higher correlation strength.

Turnout patterns in the 2015 referendum most closely resemble the recent 2014 local elections and are quite different from those of the 2010 referendum–another turnout-based vote, but in this case one supported by the urban, secular SaS.  I haven’t taken time to dig any deeper, but I am struck at the correlation between that 2010 referendum, the 2012 parliamentary election, the 2014 European Parliament election and especially the 2014 presidential election.  This needs some more explanation.  I suspect that Vladimir Krivy would do it (or has done it already–I need to check.)


“The correlation is about this big.” (Vladimir Krivy knows all.)

Unlike the situation in Slovakia, a referendum forbidding gay marriage succeeded in 2013 in Croatia by a 2-to-1 margin with 38% turnout, but differences in strategy around the referendum law obscure a fairly high degree of underlying similarity.  Because Croatia does not have a minimum turnout requirement, opponents were forced to mobilize “no” voters rather than to encourage them to stay at home.  The resulting opposition boosted turnout above Slovakia’s levels, but not enough to sink the referendum.  The marginal turnout and significant-but-not-enormous share of “yes” voters meant that the clear win for Croatia’s referendum resulted from with only 24.96% of the total electorate, just 5 percentage points more than in Slovakia.  In a slightly different institutional environment, it is possible to imagine either of these referendums coming out quite differently.

Finally, a few haphazard notes about political parties and this referendum.  While it is nice to see that the Slovak National Party and the Party of the Hungarian Community have something in common, I am not sure that their shared support for this referendum is something that will bring them together on other issues or will lead to a more peaceful Slovakia.  I’m also not sure that this was the finest moment for many politicians except to the extent that it demonstrated their ability to dance around issues that they did not want to address directly (Question: “Are you voting for this referendum?” Answer: “I am voting in accord with my long personal history of supporting Slovaks and their families.” Question: “Yes, but…”  Answer: “Seeing that there are no other questions…”).  I have to admit being surprised by Radoslav Prochazka’s comment on the adoption question that “It is better for children to be in any household where people get along than in an orphange („podľa presvedčenia, že deťom je lepšie v akejkoľvek domácnosti, kde sa ľudia majú radi, ako v detskom domove“).  On a personal level–a place I have not usually gone with this blog–I would only prefer that he could have stopped at “along” and acknowledge the absolute rather than the relative value of a loving home, regardless of parents’ genders.

"Daddy, why is that man following us?"

“Daddy, why is that man following us?”

New Publication: Party Law and Regulation in Slovakia

EPP coverQuick note, for those who care, that I’ve got a new article coming out with Fernando Casal Bertoa and Peter Učeň, “Limits of regulation: party law and finance in Slovakia 1990–2012” in East European Politics, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/21599165.2014.933412 (or just email/message me and ask for a copy). This article is part of a much bigger project on party regulation spearheaded by Ingrid van Biezen (and coordinated in part by my friend and co-author Fernando Casal Bertoa).  See: http://www.partylaw.leidenuniv.nl/news


East European Politics, Volume 30, Issue 3, September 2014 is now available online on Taylor & Francis Online.

Special Issue: Party Regulation and Party Politics in Post-communist Europe

This new issue contains the following articles:

Party regulation and party politics in post-communist Europe
Fernando Casal Bértoa & Ingrid van Biezen
Pages: 295-314
DOI: 10.1080/21599165.2014.938738

Party regulation and the conditioning of small political parties: evidence from Bulgaria
Ekaterina R. Rashkova & Maria Spirova
Pages: 315-329
DOI: 10.1080/21599165.2014.933413

Regulating Polish politics: “cartel” parties in a non-collusive party system
Fernando Casal Bértoa & Marcin Walecki
Pages: 330-350
DOI: 10.1080/21599165.2014.933415

Limits of regulation: party law and finance in Slovakia 1990–2012
Fernando Casal Bértoa, Kevin Deegan-Krause & Peter Ucen
Pages: 351-371
DOI: 10.1080/21599165.2014.933412

When permissiveness constrains: money, regulation and the development of party politics in the Czech Republic (1989–2012)
Tim Haughton
Pages: 372-388
DOI: 10.1080/21599165.2014.933414

Engineering party competition in a new democracy: post-communist party regulation in Romania
Marina Popescu & Sorina Soare
Pages: 389-411
DOI: 10.1080/21599165.2014.933416

From party cartel to one-party dominance. The case of institutional failure
Gabriella Ilonszki & Réka Várnagy
Pages: 412-427
DOI: 10.1080/21599165.2014.938739


Slovakia’s Presidential Election: What the numbers say.

I thought there was not much to say about the results of the recent presidential elections in Slovakia, but I after writing the 2000 words below, I seem to have been wrong (or I have written a lot of words about nothing. Having taken a closer look at the numbers, I see in them both a confirmation of conventional wisdom—the strength of the right-wing vote, the weakness on the left-wing vote—along with often overlooked considerations about the role of political supply in addition to political demand and the pivotal role of new faces. 

The Big Picture:
Fico gets some voters back, but Kiska takes the center right

After the first round, I made the (rather obvious) argument that this election would be decided by 1) the degree to which Fico the degree to which he could mobilize his own voters and simultaneously 2) could delegitimize Kiska and thereby pry center-right voters away from him, and that some combination of both would be necessary.  The results of the second round suggest that his efforts fell short on both counts, but especially on the second.  On the first front, Fico managed in the second round to increase his support in areas where he was already popular, suggesting that he did manage to increase turnout among his own supporters by a significant, but even among these he did not reach the mobilization levels he obtained in the (admittedly unusually pro-Smer) 2012 parliamentary election. On the second front, Fico’s efforts appear to have failed completely: evidence suggests that in the second round Kiska won nearly all of the votes of the supporters of other center-right parties in addition to his own (relatively fewer) first round voters.   In a way that is not surprising since voters of the Center Right are unlikely to listen to critiques coming from the mouth of Fico.

Several tables and charts provide an effective overview of the election.  These are, in a way, massively oversimplified, suggesting, among other things, an undifferentiated spectrum within the center right, when in fact it ranges from strong Catholics to strong agnostics, from doctrinaire free-marketeers to those who are willing to accept a social market hybrid, and from ethnic Hungarians (whom I classify under Center Right for convenience) to ethnic Slovaks with a strong national sense.  It also suggests there is /any/ connection between the ‘other’ presidential candidates from the Communist Party with those of more nationally-oriented forces, with a series of rather idiosyncratic efforts).  In the case of the Center Right, there are enough similarities and historical ties of similarity that the comparison is warranted; in the case of the “others”, the number of such voters is so small as to not have great impact on the overall outcome.

Table 1. Votes and percentages for candidates in the first and second rounds of Slovakia’s 2014 presidential election
Raw votes (rounded to the nearest 1,000)
2nd round vote compared to first round vote
Round Change, 2nd-1st rounds
1st 2nd Narrow (candidate only) Wide (candidate and associated)
Kiska            456,000          1,307,000 +851,000 -15,000
Right            866,000  –  –
Fico            532,000            894,000  +362,000 +316000
Other              46,000
2nd round vote compared to first round vote
Round Change, 2nd-1st rounds
1st 2nd Narrow (candidate only) Wide (candidate and associated)
Kiska 24% 59% 35% -10%
Right 46%  –  –
Fico 28% 41% 13% 10%
Other 2%

Source for all tables and charts: http://prezident2014.statistics.sk/Prezident-dv/download-sk.html, and http://volby.statistics.sk/nrsr/nrsr2012/menu/indexd.jsp@lang=sk.htm

What does Table 1 show us?  Assuming my a priori logic about the existence of a programmatically coherent bloc of Center Right voters (taken as a bloc the largest single group), it appears that the bloc shifted en masse to Kiska, and gave him his second round victory.  Surveys (http://www.sme.sk/c/7137934/kto-su-volici-fica-kisku-a-prochazku-volebne-grafy.html) suggest that Kiska was a viable option for nearly all voters of the Center Right whereas Fico was not, and the number of voters gained by Kiska nicely matches the number of those who supported losing Center Right candidates (differing by a mere 15,000).  Since we do not know who these voters are, however, such evidence is purely circumstantial unless we go deeper.   What we discover is that while appearances may sometimes be deceiving, in this case they are not.

A Collage of Small Pictures:
Little pieces tell the same story

The second table shows a new set of patterns based on correlations between vote share among candidates at the municipal level.  These compare patterns of performance of Kiska and the Right, Fico and the other candidates and do so across the first and second rounds.

Table 2. Correlations between municipal-level votes in various categories
in the first and second rounds of Slovakia’s 2014 presidential election.

Relationship between candidate vote and potentially associated candidates in the first round:

  • No relationship between the Kiska vote and the Right vote
  • No relationship between the Kiska vote and the “Other” vote

Relationship between the combined vote of the candidate and associated candidates in the first round and the votes for the candidate himself in the second round

  • A very strong relationship (.94) between voting for Kiska and the right in the first round and Kiska alone in the second round.
  • An identically strong relationship (.94) between voting for Fico and the “other” candidates in the first round and Fico alone in the second round.

Relationship between candidate vote in the first and second rounds

  • Moderate relationship for Kiska (.41) suggesting that something major affected his geographical appeal (and since his vote total rose, it suggests that it is related to the new voters)
  • Strong relationship for Fico (.94) suggesting that his vote increased across the board without changing geographical patterns

Relationship between candidate vote and gain in the second round

  • No relationship for Kiska (.04)  suggesting that new votes came from areas outside the candidate’s initial base
  • Moderate relationship for Fico (.34) suggesting that the 2nd round efforts tended (at least more than in the case of Kiska) to mobilize voters from the candidate’s base.

Relationship between “related vote” in first round and candidate gain in second round

  • Extremely high for Kiska (.92) suggesting that most new voters came from the base of the right candidates (if not the same exact voters)
  • Moderate for Fico (.30) suggesting that some new voters may have come from the “other” candidates but that these were drowned out by those coming from the candidate’s base.

So this gives quite direct evidence for what I already strongly suspected (and what other pollsters knew long before I did, http://spectator.sme.sk/articles/view/53464/2/ficos_voters_boosted_turnout.html): that Fico’s new voters in the second round came from newly remobilized supporters in his existing regional support bases while Kiska’s new votes came as a transfer of the already mobilized first round center right voters  (Of course not all of Kiska’s vote came from previous center-right voters: some of those no doubt stayed home and some new voters no doubt turned out, but the overall pattern is remarkably strong and so they appear to have canceled each other out.)

A few graphs can help make this rather concrete (I’ve decided to put the labels in even though they are mostly illegible where the cases bunch up.  It’s ugly but it allows for a look at some of the outliers, mainly the Hungarian cases, but explaining those is a job for another day).

Figure 1. Kiska first round and second round. Vertical cluster suggests that improvements were largely independent of first round performance

Figure 1. Kiska first round and second round. Vertical cluster suggests that improvements were largely independent of first round performance

Figure 2. Center right first round and Kiska second round. Diagonal pattern suggests that Kiska's second round was closely related to first round performance of the center right.

Figure 2. Center right first round and Kiska second round. Diagonal pattern suggests that Kiska’s second round was closely related to first round performance of the center right.

Figure 3. Fico results first round and Fico gain second round.  Diagonal pattern suggests that Fico's second round performance was closely related to his first round performance.

Figure 3. Fico results first round and Fico gain second round.  Diagonal pattern suggests that Fico’s second round performance was closely related to his first round performance.

Figure 4. "Other" first round and Fico gain in second round. Vertical cluster suggests that improvements were largely independent of gains from "Other" candidates.

Figure 4. “Other” first round and Fico gain in second round. Vertical cluster suggests that improvements were largely independent of gains from “Other” candidates.

These snapshots of “obvod” (subdistrict) level voting show a strong correlation between right candidate support in round 1 and Kiska gains in round 2, but they do not show much of a relationship between Kiska’s own results in round 1 and 2 (more of a vertical distribution).  The opposite pattern is apparent for Fico with a very slight contribution from “other” candidates and a strong correlation between his round 1 and 2 results.  Fico drew second round voters where he had already drawn first round voters, but he drew more of them.

A Moving Picture:
Old patterns filtered by new choices

The patterns here draw attention to the ways that this election fits into the broader sweep of Slovakia’s political history.  Looking at the ways in which Fico’s second-round presidential vote followed first round patterns tells us something about the stability of his support (and the lack of influx from other sources).  Looking at the relationship between candidates’ 2014 performance and that of their respective parties in 2012 helps explain why the election was so (unexpectedly) lopsided.  As the graph below shows, the Fico’s results in 2014 almost perfectly followed his party’s results in 2012, but they were lower, much lower.

Table 5. Fico vote share in first and second rounds compared to Smer vote share in 2012. Note that in most obvods even Fico's second round performance falls short of the diagonal line that indicates parity with 2012.

Table 5. Fico vote share in first and second rounds compared to Smer vote share in 2012. Note that in most obvods even Fico’s second round performance falls short of the diagonal line that indicates parity with 2012.

In the first round, Fico received an average of fewer 11,000 votes per sub-region.  In the second round that gap dropped but Fico still turned out 5,000 fewer voters per sub-region than his party had in 2012.  Of course some drop is natural since presidential elections usually have lower turnout levels than parliamentary elections in Slovakia, but it only works if your opponents also have lower turnout levels than in the past.  As the third table shows, the 2014 vote did not work that way.

Table 3. Presidential candidates’ 2014 vote totals as a share of the vote totals of their respective parties in 2012
2014 vote as a share of 2012 vote
First Second
Fico 47% 79%
Right 84%
Kiska 127%

After turning out fewer than half of his 2012 voters in the first round, Fico managed to increase that in the second round to nearly 80% of his 2012 performance, but—and this may be the single most interesting statistical result of the election—the six candidates of the center right had together already achieved a mobilization level above 80% in the first round, not including votes that went to Kiska.  In fact, the candidates from center-right parties attracted nearly as many votes in the first round as Fico did in his much improved performance in the second round.  And when the center-right voters shifted joined with the already significant share of voters who had already opted for Kiska, Fico did not have a chance.

Even without Kiska in the race, Fico faced big challenges—bigger than I saw at the time.  In running for president, Fico needed to outperform his own party’s parliamentary support level by something over 5% (since Smer had only managed 44.4% in the previous election), and the degree of necessary outperformance increased with every drop in Smer’s support.  By early 2014, the Smer’s preference levels had dropped to the high 30%’s , requiring Fico to outperform his party by at least 12 percentage points.  In the second round, Fico probably did outperform his party, but if we use the latest FOCUS polling numbers (http://www.focus-research.sk/files/168_Preferencie%20politickych%20stran_jan-feb_2014.pdf) that outperformance was probably in the neighborhood of 3% rather than 12%.

Of course elections are not about the level of preference alone but about comparative preferences.  The right seems to have managed its high first-round mobilization not through skillful campaigning or inspiring candidates but through a wide degree of choice (each slightly different flavor bringing out a slightly different group of voters) and a common enemy (the prospect of Fico and his party occupying every major political institution).  Had a center-right candidate gotten into the second, however, Smer could have benefitted from some of the same logic in the second round: the right could no longer provide such a high degree of choice and Smer voters would also have had a common enemy (the prospect of, say, Prochazka, occupying the presidency).  This might have increased the Smer turnout above 80% and also limited the gains the center right could make in the second round, and at least produced a close election.

Instead, it would appear, the presence of Kiska in the second round gave the center right the best of both worlds: it preserved the first round center-right mobilization by offering a (marginally) acceptable candidate who could promise to stop Fico, and who could also attract voters for whom center right candidates were also anathema.  At the same time, Kiska presented Smer with significant problems since, for all the claims about scientology, usury and inexperience, he was apparently not frightening enough to push Smer voters and sympathizers to the polls.

Previews of Coming Attractors?
What this election might tell us about the next one(s)

Let me finish with some half-baked speculation that deserves to be looked at with a very critical eye.  For all its infighting and its poor choices—of which there are many examples—Slovakia’s center right has managed to remain a player because it has managed to retain the allegiance of the Hungarian minority and has managed to accommodate the emergence of multiple, sequential new players (SOP, ANO, SaS, OLaNO, and now Kiska) who provide outlets for dissatisfied voters whereas with the exception of the period between about 1999 and 2003, the opposite side of the political spectrum has been dominated by a single party that tries (successfully in the case of Smer, ultimately less successfully in the case of HZDS) to present itself as an unstoppable force and to prevent the emergence of rival players.  The result on the right has been a surprising degree of success (1998, 2002, 2010, now Kiska in 2014) usually followed by paralysis among the multiple players whose presence in the electoral market allowed the victory in the first place.  The result on the left has been political forces that win big pluralities but often lack sufficient allies to create a majority.

Toward this end, Fico’s poor performance in the 2014 presidential election may hold a certain perverse hope for Slovakia’s left.  If the result of this election is to produce cracks in that party or even just to open a space in the minds of some voters (and, especially, some funders), then we might see an end to Fico’s skillful institutional monopolization of political space.  If Fico and his party cannot preserve their one-party parliamentary majority, then the emergence of new parties on the center left might be able to sop up some of the dissatisfied voters who seem to have decided that Fico is just the same as all the others.  Kiska, a candidate not unfriendly toward the center right picked up those pivotal floating voters in this presidential election.  New center right parties such as Prochazka’s and NoVa will try to pick them up in the next parliamentary election but with varying degrees of success.  Fico can hope that the center right continues its intra-familial feuds and ends up with a bunch of parties just below the threshold (not necessarily a bad bet given the past track record of the right), but by relinquishing a little control on the left and allowing a new party somewhere on that side of the spectrum might actually help him remain prime minister.  (As to whether that’s what Fico actually wants, I’ve decided to stop speculating on matters that exist only in the heads of distant leaders.)

Slovakia Presidential Elections: Morning-After Thoughts on Results

A few quick supplementary thoughts:

  • What can we expect in the second round?  I’ll try to avoid speculating on the nature of the campaigning except to say that I suspect all gloves are off.  What I am more interested in is the nature of the shifts in voters between this round and the next. 
    • If we assume that both Fico and Kiska votes who turned out yesterday will turn out again, that gives us 530k votes for Fico and 455k votes for Kiska, a difference of 75k votes. 
    • But of course we have to look at other voters.  Some of those are voters who did not vote in the first round.  Between the first round and the second round in the 2009 election, turnout rose from 1890k to 2240k, an increase of 350k I would guess that we could assume a similar increase this time.  

      Turnout for various elections in Slovakia, 1990 to the present. Note that turnout in every election category has stabilized since 2005. In the 2009 presidential election, first round turnout was just over 43% and second round turnout was 55%. In the 2014 presidential election, first round turnout was also just over 43%

    • We also have to look at what happens to those who participated in the election but voted for candidates other than Fico and Kiska now have the option to vote for the candidate closest to them or to stay home. 

      • The voters for candidates who were in clear opposition to Fico (and who more or less agreed to encourage their voters to support the not-Fico candidate) actually total about 850k, divided among 400k (Prochazka, formerly KDH) + 240k (Knazko, formerly DU, SDKU) + 100k (Bardos, SMK) + 60k (Hrusovsky, KDH, a surprisingly small share perhaps showing the strains within KDH between old and new guards), + 40k (Mezenska, OLaNO) + 10k (Carnogursky, formerly KDH, a not surprising but rather humiliating total).

      •  The voters for candidates with more pro-Fico or overall less readable voter profiles total about 45k: 12k (Jurista, KSS), 10k (Fischer, formerly HZDS, but also ZZ), 9k (Behyl, apparently formerly Smer), 8k (Melnik, formerly HZDS), 5k (Simko, unclear to me but formerly supported Gasparovic), 3k (Martincko, unclear). 

  • What can we say from these numbers?  Let us make some unrealistic but clarifying assumptions

    • that 1/2 of voters for losing candidates will simply stay home because they no longer care about the outcome if their candidate isn’t in the race,

    • that about 1 in 1o voters of losing candidates will shift across the aisle from an anti-Fico candidate to Fico and from a non-right candidate to Kiska.  This seems odd but in my experience about 1/10 voters do things that seem odd to the outsider but for which they have their own idiosyncratic reasons.

  • This yields the following results:

    • For Fico, 40k from right wing candidates, and 18k from non-right wing candidates;

    • for Kiska, 5k from non-right wing candidates, and 160k from right-wing candidates. 

    • That yields a new balance of 588k for Fico (530k+40k+18k) and 620 for Kiska (455k+160k+5k). 

  • But that depends heavily on the assumptions above.  If, by contrast, only 1/4 of losing candidate voters stay home, the balance is more in Kiska’s favor:

    • 597k for Fico against 700k for Fico. 

  • Of course this does not factor in the new voters who will come into the electorate in a second round.  Between the first and second round in 2009, the vote total rose from 1890k to 2240k.  Assuming a similar increase and given the kinds of dropoff discussed above, this means an influx of about 1 million voters who did not vote the first round.  What can we say about these?

    • If Fico wins those in the same ratio that votes were distributed between him and Kiska (about 7:6 or 1.16:1.00) then he could expect about 80k more than Fico among the new voters, which is enough to beat Kiska if right wing voters stay home at the 1/2 ratio, but not if they stay home only at the 1/4 ratio.  

    • If Fico wins votes only in the same ratio that votes were distributed between him and Kiska plus the right, (about 2:3 or 0.66:1.00, then Fico loses the second round no matter what.   

  • It doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out that the key to the next round will be Fico’s ability to demobilize the right-wing voters who voted in the first round and to prevent any non-voters on the right from turning out in favor of Kiska.  If he does that absolutely perfectly, he can win without any additional turnout on his side, but perfection is unlikely, so he is also going to have to fire up the Smer turnout machine.  For every potential right-wing voter he can’t demobilize (and that number probably ranges from 400k to maybe 800k, he is going to increase his own turnout by the same amount).  This is a party that has pulled in 1.1 million before, and probably had a lot of complacent voters in this last round, so an addition of 400-600k isn’t impossible, but it is going to take a lot more work.  The challenge for Kiska is now going to be getting the full /and active/ support of the right, not only their tacit recommendation but the efforts of their own (rather less effective) turnout machines.  If the right can provide even a modicum of unambiguous support, then they have a decent chance of winning a mid-term political victory and a creating counterweight to what they see as an over-reaching left-wing majority government.

  • Why Slovakia has Never Had A Centre-Right President.   This doesn’t even require morning-after “thought.”  Why? Because they rarely get to the second round.   Because–as with nearly everything else on Slovakia’s centre-right–they can’t agree who should get to campaign.  In a very practical sense (and here I discard any attempt at theorizing), Slovakia has a rough balance between two camps, (earlier it was democratic-cosmopolitan against more authoriarian-national, now it is economic left versus economic right with some residual feelings that the former is authoritarian-national and the later is democratic-cosmopolitian).  In each case  the former has often been better at organizing around a single individual: Meciar in the first case, Fico in the second (which is not to say that these two represent the same values or the same camp).  At times the right has managed to do the same in more of a “first-among-equals” model (Dzurinda in 1998, Radicova in 2009 and 2010), though these came almost by accident, and only when the powers that be were willing to compromise on a second-tier but electorally gifted common candidate.  The success of the right has also depended on the emergence of a third-force willing to work with the established right parties but able to attract votes from those who were disillusioned with both sides: Schuster in 1998, Rusko in 2002, Sulik in 2010 (this also happened with Matovic in 2012 but it still wasn’t enough).  These additional draws helped the established parties of the right in each case to form a majority in parliament even when the opposing force was numerically stronger, sometimes by a large margin.  It is fascinating to me the degree to which the strengths and weaknesses of both sides are so linked together.  The left has, at the moment, a large and fairly coherent party, but its organizational near-monopoly leaves fewer opportunities for attracting  those who are sympathetic to the side but do not like those who are actually in charge of it.  We may see that in this presidential election where Fico’s reservoir of active supporters of losing candidates is significantly smaller than Kiska’s.  The right, has, at the moment, a very wide spectrum of offerings that attract people of many different stripes and that probably helps them attract a few extra voters (though again it was insufficient in 2012 in the wake of gorilla scandal), but a poor track record of coordinating those multiple streams into a single voice (hence the coalition disarray in 2011, and the inability to avoid multiple candidates in 2004 and 2013).  It will be interesting to see if a loss by Fico (or even a tiny-margin victory) will produce some move toward a new force that can attract those disillusioned but left-leaning voters, either from within Smer or from without.  As for the right, perhaps this most recent example will bring some move toward consolidation, but that’s hard to envision as long as every single ambitious person on the right believes that /he/ is the only one who can accomplish the task.

Slovakia Presidential Election: Results

I don’t have a live stream from Slovak channels where I am so I’m obviously saying what others have said already: Fico and Kiska.  

What I didn’t expect was the general strength of the others and the general weakness of Fico.  It’s going to be a very interesting two weeks because Kiska and Fico are separated by 4%, and together the candidates of anti-Fico parties (Prochazka, Hrusovsky, Knazko, Carnogursky, Bardos and Mezenska) have 45%.    

It won’t be quite that simple since voters of some of the anti-Fico candidates above will stay home, and Fico will turnout more voters next time.  But the range of additional turnout may not be that great: this time the turnout was almost identical to last time (around 43.6%) and in last times competitive second round it only rose by 12 percentage points.  Of course some of the voters who support the current non-Fico losing candiates will stay home, but with these results the anti-Fico forces might also smell blood and turn out to humilate their opponent.    It’s not at all impossible for Fico, but this is going to be much harder, I think, than many expected.

The next two weeks will see a very big test of the Fico turnout machine and media machine.  It’s going to be a race between Smer-turnout and Smer-negative ads against Kiska on the one side and Kiska’s soft support plus the existing parties on the other.  The question for the former will be “can we get out enough of our loyalists and sufficiently tarnish our opponents.  The question for the latter will be “do we dislike Fico enough to work for Kiska?” on the other side.  Given the likely strength of the former and weakness of the latter, Kiska would /need/ to have a head start to have a fighting chance.  With these results, he does.

Slovakia Presidential Election: The Fico Connundrum

Last week Jon Stewart got in trouble for mocking media commentators who might say things like “Slovakia’s president is a cow”.  This week, we have the news that its next president might be the current prime minister.  For those who know Slovakia’s constitutional system, this is perhaps even /less/ likely: why would why a politician at the top of his game–at the top of the game in the region–choose an ostensibly ceremonial presidency over his current position as prime-minister and party leader in a strong majority government.  Yet people close to Fico have for years been saying that he’d rather be president, so many of them, in fact, that it was hard to doubt the rumors had something behind them even while it was hard to imagine that Fico would actually do it.  As a result, however, I’ve been thinking about this for awhile and have a few thoughts below about why Fico might do this and why we should care (ranked to some degree in order of ascending probability).

I. For Fico other concerns trump power (possible, though surprising).  There are at least two reasons Fico might be willing to sacrifice power by moving to the presidency

A. Blackmail (probability unclear, but I certainly hope not).  There are persistent but ill-supported rumors that some “they” (primarily corporate interests) have information that could destroy Fico’s career and that they use this leverage in ways that he feels are overly limiting and may make him willing to take a less powerful position just to escape the sword of Damocles.  I am not a fan of conspiracy theories but that may only be because the kind of work I do depends on more or less transparent political systems and this would suggest that Slovakia is not in that category.

B. Health issues (possible, oft repeated).  There are occasional rumors of panic attacks and during his first term Fico certainly was not a model of health (and had the kinds of health problems that often indicate incredibly high stress levels).  This term has seemed, at least from my distant view, to be a healther one for him.  During the previous term there were consistent claims that “Fico doesn’t like the day-to-day fighting of politics (even if he is good at it), and that the presidency offered him a position of relative ease that he would be willing to accept at the expense of his ability to shape Slovakia’s destiny.

II. Fico does not believe this entails a loss of power (entirely possible).  There are several possible reasons for this.

A.  (Rather unlikely) He plans to change the current formal institutions to increase the power of the presidency: Fico’s party does not have a constitutional majority, and so this seems unlikely at the moment, and if this has a negative effect on Fico’s party, then it may be unlikely for the forseeable future, but it is at least theoretically possible

B. (Somewhat more likely) He plans to use the current formal institutions in ways that increase the power of the presidency.  Fico may believe that he can play a central role even if he is no longer prime minister.  As Milos Zeman has demonstrated most recently in the Czech Republic, presidents can be powerful even in systems where they are formally weak.  There are at least two possible paths to this:

  1. (Relatively unlikely but possible) Fico is willing to accept the decline of his party or even its splintering (some say because he sees it as inevitable, though I find this doubtful) and knows that the president becomes more important in a more chaotic party environment.  This would mean sacrificing what has been Fico’s most remarkable accomplishment: creation of a party that has had less defection than any major party in Slovakia’s history, even as it has become the biggest party in Slovakia’s history.  That’s not something that goes into the record books but for those in the know, it’s the World Cup of politics.
  2. (Relatively more likely) Fico thinks he can retain control of his party even as president.  There is no precedent for this in Slovakia but there are limited precedents in other countries.  It would be a bit of a challenge but Fico may be able to do it where others could not.  It would become a job change rather than a fundamental disruption to the system.  The maintenance of power could be enhanced by the odd little provision of Slovakia’s constitution that gives Slovakia’s president, “the right to be present at meetings of the Government of the Slovak Republic, to chair them, and to demand reports from the Government or its members.” (Art. 102r)  

It’s also possible that there is some combination of these or others that I am not imagining.  If Fico imagines the presidency to be a slightly easier job without a huge decrease in power, then his choice is less inexplicable.  Of course he may be wrong on both counts, especially the latter.

III. Finally, what follow-on questions does this raise:

  1. Can Fico win.  Yes.  It is hard to see him losing to the current crop of candidates, though these things are always potentially surprising.
  2. What happens to Smer?  This is /the/ question.  If II.B.2. above is correct then maybe not much, but he will need to impose a new model in which even as president he can still act as the decisive voice among factions within Smer.  He will need a kind of Medvedev-like servility from his successors in party and government.  Perhaps that’s the case.

Whatever the case, Slovakia continues to fail to be boring.

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): http://komentare.sme.sk/c/6311867/o-zaujmoch-smeru-sa-dozvieme-az-v-najblizsich-rokoch.html

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: http://spectator.sme.sk/articles/view/45744/2/no_easy_read_on_what_fico_wants.html


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 (http://bit.ly/yDQg55).

 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.”)

http://www.heraldica.org/topics/national/czech.htm and http://www.thedaily.sk/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/obycajni-ludia-znak.jpg

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.

Just in time for Christmas

Slovakia’s first winter election creates all sorts of new possibilities. Several weeks ago the Slovak National Party tested the limits with a new billboard guaranteed to raise eyebrows:

The most surprising thing about this, however, is not its characterization of the EU stabilization (benefiting Greece, and Spain and Portugal and Italy) as the work of the devil.  That’s pretty normal for Slovakia’s politics (and particularly so for SNS).

Equally unsurprising, but rather more unsettling, is the depiction of a Santa wearing a political armband, and not just any red armband, but one that includes an eagle clutching a round symbol with clear straight lines set against a deep red background.

Slightly more surprising is the demon’s choice to wear fashion with designer labels not only by the current government parties SDKU, KDH and Most-Hid, but also SNS’s recent (and, from its perspective only potential future) coalition partner, Smer.  Of course Smer joined with the others in supporting the Euro stabilization, but this may be a sign that SNS will (like SaS on the other side) make strong use of the Euro question in its campaign.  The question is whether in trying to pull voters back from Smer, it also pushes Smer to the other side, though this may not be that big a risk since Smer has shown itself inclined to pick the weakest coalition partner, and it is hard to imagine that not being SNS (assuming it crosses the 5% threshold).

But the surprises don’t end there.  I had a nagging feeling about this that was confirmed by Martin Votruba of the University of Pittsburgh.  Martin writes:

The telling thing … is that SNS [despite its nativist approach] is dragging in an alienimage for Christmas, [using the traditional American icon of Santa Claus instead of the] traditional depiction of Jezisko (Baby Jesus) who brings presents.

[Furthermore,] images like the one on the SNS billboard were first imported from the Soviet Union as Dedo Mraz (Grandfather Frost) to replace Jezisko and imposed on people, with no success except in public St. Nicholas and Christmas events, and now by advertisers as Santa.

Many don’t care, of course, but there’s been a good deal of internet comments in the past on advertising that uses Santa Claus, in which people ridiculed ad statements like “Santa Claus will bring you…” [and noted that] that the manufacturers/advertisers clearly don’t have a clue that presents in Slovakia are brought by Jezisko.

This “alien” image brought in to represent the Slovak National Party is very much like when HZDS in its nationalist fervor put up billboards in the 1990s with images of “Slovakia” where the pastoral landscape in front of the the highly symbolic Tatras mountains turned out to be a stock picture of the Swiss countryside.

I am personally glad to see this usage by SNS as it helps to reinforce a point raised by a colleague of mine during Detroit’s Noel Night celebration as we passed an “Occupy Detroit” activist dressed in a Santa suit.  He noted the interesting juxtaposition between Santa’s apparently left-wing socio-economic ideology (giving stuff away for free) and his rather right-wing cultural predispositions: demanding to know who is naughty or nice, engaging in surveillance about whether children are awake or asleep.  This insight actually helps me solve a teaching problem that has been troubling me for a long time.  When I teach American politics (or indeed the politics of almost any country), I try to point out that political competition may be multi-dimensional, and that in many countries there is a disconnect between the economic and the cultural.  I often have students take online tests like, The Political Compass or Idealog which print out their results on 2-dimensional charts like this one.

One of the problems with this, however, is that of the empty quadrant: America’s two major political parties occupy the lower left and upper right, and students can see that the Libertarian party occupies the lower left, but who’s the opposite of the libertarian?  Who in the United States believes in widespread distribution of selective benefits while at the same time demanding strict adherence to cultural norms?  Pat Buchanan?  Maybe, sometimes.  The real answer, clearly, is Santa.

Postscript.  Santa’s hot these days.  If you don’t like the SNS ad or my own infographic, try this one.