Slovak politicians battle apathy ahead of EU vote
Slovaks might once again become the EU's least interested voters when it comes to the European elections.
Although some political parties are set to spice up their campaign with criticism of the European Union, something unseen in 2009 and 2004, Slovak voters are likely to channel their energy into an earlier race for the country's presidential seat.
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The presidential contest is already highly divisive and marked by far-right views which have recently surfaced at the regional level.
"The European elections are seen as second-class elections in major political parties," says political analyst and EU expert Radovan Geist.
The national vote simply outweighs its European twin on all fronts - be it the list of candidates or the amount of time, energy and money invested in the campaign.
But there is something else too, according to Geist.
"In Slovakia, the process of European integration is not perceived as something driven by voters' interests or preferences." He links the phenomenon to complex relations between national and European institutions and the unclear distinction between the "ruling government" and the "opposition" at EU level.
The central European country, which joined the EU 10 years ago, saw the lowest turnout twice in a row. Only 19.6 percent of Slovaks voted in the 2009 European elections and 16.9 percent in 2004. The latter was the lowest ever score in the bloc's history.
EU-related themes rarely occupy the domestic political arena, according to academic and analyst Eduard Chmelar.
During previous EU elections "there was no significant political conflict that would have helped form people's interests," he notes.
But this time round could be different.
Some politicians are hoping to campaign on a eurosceptic ticket.
A new Eurosceptic flavor
"Deep reform of the EU's institutions" is advocated by the liberal Freedom and Solidarity Party (SaS), which played a significant role in the collapse of the government of the then prime minister Iveta Radicova in 2011.
At the time, the junior ruling party remained steadfastly opposed to raising the Slovak contribution to the eurozone’s temporary bail-out fund (EFSF). It also wanted Slovakia to stay out of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM).
SaS' Richard Sulik is the first party leader in Slovakia to be interested in an MEP seat, although the party is now struggling to reach the threshold needed to enter the national parliament.
Similarly, a newly-formed centre-right party, Nova, has put two of its vice-chairmen forward as top candidates and is set to campaign against "efforts to move the EU towards a political federation.”
"The entry of eurosceptic parties into the political arena is a positive development," says Chmelar, underlining the importance of "a significant political conflict" not only to shape peoples' preferences, but also to strengthen European democracy.
But voters should "carefully scrutinise" what the political parties are offering, he notes.
The majority of parties have yet to announce their list of candidates and programmes for the 24 May vote, but they are unlikely to surprise with unexpected frontrunners or themes.
The Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) is primarily betting on its experienced MEPs Anna Zaborska, the former chair of the European Parliament’s gender equality committee, and Miroslav Mikolasik.
Meanwhile, Peter Stastny - a former NHL ice hockey player who represents the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union-Democratic Party (SDKU-DS), which brought Slovakia into the EU - is said to be finishing his career in Brussels.
In the shadow of a divisive presidential campaign
During the coming weeks, Slovakia will be busy watching the competition for the country's presidential seat, marked by the first-ever participation of an incumbent Prime Minister.
The first vote will be held in mid-March and is likely to be followed by a run-off between the two most successful candidates. Prime Minister Robert Fico, the leader of social democrats (Smer-SD), is set to be one of them.
According to the latest poll by the Polis Slovakia Agency, published on 4 February, Fico would win the first round of elections with over 40 percent of votes, followed by entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrej Kiska, who would gather around 15 percent.
A Fico victory would enable the Smer-SD party, which already enjoys an absolute majority in the parliament, to occupy all the top positions in the country.
To prevent this happening, the fragmented centre-right, which failed to put forward a common candidate, would have to unite behind Fico's challenger and succeed in mobilizing enough voters.
In any case, the entire presidential campaign is set to be divisive, with the economy, corruption, law enforcement and overall political culture among the likely themes.
Signs of rising extremism
The general political discourse has also been influenced by the success of a far-right politician in the local elections.
Marian Kotleba, who now leads the administration in the central region of Banska Bystrica, used strong anti-Roma rhetoric and capitalised on growing general distrust in traditional political representation.
In the light of the far-right politician's election - unprecedented in Slovakia's modern history - how mainstream politicians deal with themes hijacked by extremists and with extremism more broadly is seen as crucial.
The ruling party has faced criticism over two cases - a controversial police raid on a Roma settlement in Moldava nad Bodvou, and the police and a regional prosecutor's allegedly foot-dragging response to repeated violence by neo-Nazis in the town of Nitra.
Analyst Radovan Geist does not expect Kotleba’s electoral success to have a significant "spill-over effect" on the European elections.
"He and the movement he represents have strongly eurosceptic views rooted in their extremely chauvinist and conservative ideology, but the EU is not their main target," says Geist.
It may only be a matter of time before this changes.
Kotleba recently said the regions he governs should have "greater independence" from the EU, although stopped short of decoding the eye-catching phrase.
The real problem comes when mainstream politicians chase supporters of the extreme right by focusing on similar themes, be it the Roma minority, immigration, Islam or the EU.
According to Chmelar, anti-EU campaigning cannot be stopped but could be diluted.
"If the European idea is to be preserved, we must address the EU's democratic deficit before we take another step towards a more centralised vision," he says.
One way is to beat the poor turnout that undermines the European Parliament's claim to democratic legitimacy.
The EU assembly’s Information Office in Bratislava has taken on the challenge.
It is organising a "go-to-vote phase" between March and May, with outdoor events marking the 10th anniversary of Slovakia's accession to the EU hoped to gain voter interest and awareness.
"We are working with all important stakeholders who can further encourage their respective communities to participate in the elections," says the head of the office, Robert Hajsel.
Slovak voters will elect 13 MEPs to the 751-strong European Parliament on 24 May.