Slovakia’s election: Populism for the rule of law?

Elections in Slovakia have long given analysts a challenge: how to define or categorise the political orientation of increasingly numerous, powerful yet atypical parties.

It now seems legitimate however to talk about some sort of anti-corruption populism; the two strongest parties in the future ruling coalition could well be labeled this way.

The name of the party that won last week’s election is eloquent: Ordinary People and Independent Personalities, led by Igor Matovič (pictured above).

They were polling at little more than six per cent in the months before the election, being viewed as one of the parties that might fail to cross the five per cent threshold to enter parliament. They then launched a forceful media campaign revealing the personal fortunes of politicians in power, and an online national consultation.

From then on, everyone was talking about them, completely realigning the election campaign’s course: even other parties were forced to react. Their popularity shot from up from six per cent to 25 per cent within a few weeks.

Even though opinion polls picked up this increase in popularity, the actual results were groundbreaking. The scale of the victory meant that  several opposition parties failed to make it into parliament as their voters flocked to Ordinary People, seeing the party as a chance to defeat the leftist populists of former prime minister Robert Fico.

Slovak experts called this a snowball effect, a phenomenon not seen in Slovakia before.

Among other things, the traditionally weak ideological codes within Slovak political thinking made this effect possible: votes do not hesitate to change between parties with different ideological backgrounds. In the 2020 election, this effect led to the loss of the Liberals and the Christian Democrats: opposition voters who had previously supported them switched in large numbers to the Ordinary People at the last minute.

Is this new phenomenon in Slovak politics good, or not?

It is too difficult a question to answer simply, firstly because we do not really know what kind of government will now be formed, and because there are opposing political tendencies connected and intertwined within single political parties. The victorious parties have simultaneously been pulling on strong populist strings, and have for years advocated a vehemently anti-corruption stance that is likely to have shifted attitudes towards zero tolerance for corruption across the Slovakian society.

To illustrate all this, here are the crucial 11 points of Ordinary People’s public consultation:

(1) Do you agree with the introduction of material accountability of politicians?
(2) Do you agree that people who prove that someone has given or accepted a bribe should receive 50 per cent of the amount in question?
(3) Do you agree that health insurance providers should allow people to sign up for any doctor conveniently and free of charge through a phone number or website?
(4) Do you agree that health insurance providers should be obliged to ensure surgery for patients diagnosed with a suspected cancer within 14 days from the day when an oncologist confirms the need for surgery? In case of failing it, the insurer has to reimburse the cost of operation in another EU country.
(5) Do you agree that the state should grant a maternity allowance of 200 euros to all employed mothers and female students from the fourth month of pregnancy?
(6) Do you agree with providing free public transport for children, students, pensioners and the physically disabled?
(7) Do you agree that children from vulnerable social backgrounds (from uneducated, drug dependent or criminal parents) should be obliged to attend kindergarten?
(8) Do you agree that businesses should pay invoices in the order in which they are received, that discretionary non-payment of invoices shall be a criminal offense, and that accepting invoices shall be equal to recognition of a debt?
(9) Do you agree that changes in business laws should always be effective from January 1 of each year?
(10) Do you agree that those participating in parliamentary elections should receive a 10 per cent discount on all state fees?
(11) Do you agree that electronic voting should be introduced in elections – in addition to the traditional method – so that all citizens of the Slovak Republic would be free to vote, regardless of where in the world they are?

Having read these 11 points, everyone can decide whether or not they are the embodiment of populism. In any case, it seems worth quoting here some strands of political science that attempts to distinguish between economy-oriented populism and populism pursuing identity politics.

Firstly, economy-oriented populism calls for a fight against income inequality. This populism is traditionally left-wing, but in the case of Ordinary People it appears in a Christian guise, complete with anti-corruption, anti-mafia or anti-over enrichment instead of a class-war narrative. It is worth noting that half of Ordinary People’s MPs are members of a Christian-conservative formation within the party, while the other half are civil activists: former anti-corruption officials, athletes, artists, environmentalists.

Secondly, identity-oriented populism (called tribalists by thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama) is eager to build a combative, faithful voting base around an identity issue, alluding a kind of tribal unity.

From this point of view, Slovakia’s elections can be regarded as a kind of victory of anti-corruption populism over Christian Democrats, liberals, and neo-fascists who practice a more traditional tribal mentality and overtly interpret part of the population as alien, adversary or simply the enemy.

Photo: MTI/Hungarian Public Press Service

About the author

István Kollai

István Kollai

István Kollai is an assistant professor of the Institute of World Economy at the Corvinus University of Budapest, and the former director of the Hungarian Institute of Bratislava.

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