Sunday

14th Aug 2022

Slovakia votes with migrants and corruption in mind

  • Fortess Slovakia: Most of Fico's political opponents want to keep Muslim migrants out. (Photo: Miroslav Petrasko)

Following a campaign marked by anti-immigrant rhetoric and corruption allegations, Slovaks are heading for a parliamentary vote on Saturday (5 March) that will also decide their country's representation at its first ever EU presidency, starting in July.

Although pollsters suggest there is a historically strong group of undecided voters, the current ruling social-democratic Smer party of prime minister Robert Fico is expected to win.

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  • Fico (l) ended his campaign by a visit to the Macedonian-Greek border where Slovak police is helping. (Photo: Slovak PM office)

But after four years of leading a one-party cabinet, Fico will probably have to form a coalition with either the Slovak National Party (SNS) or one of the centre-right parties which has strongly criticised him while in opposition.

During his first mandate as prime minister, from 2006 to 2010, Fico was in a coalition with SNS, then led by the xenophobic Jan Slota. The party's new leader, the less controversial Andrej Danko, could make a new Smer-SNS coalition more acceptable.

Smer and Fico had tried to focus the campaign and pre-election debate exclusively on the migration crisis, with the main slogan on the party's billboards - “We will protect Slovakia” - reminding voters of their government's fight against an EU plan for refugee relocation quotas.

After an initial surge in polls last autumn, the main election theme switched to domestic problems in public sectors, mainly health care and education. In the months and weeks before the vote, teachers went on strike and nurses threatened a mass walkout in a bid for higher pay.

Deja-vu

The government managed to achieve a partial back-down by both groups without major concessions, promising reforms and a tidy-up of the system after the election.

Overall, the government boasts a good state of public finances, which are well on the path to a zero deficit in 2018 and steady economic growth of 3.2 percent of GDP this year. Unemployment is at 10.3 percent, down from 13.2 percent in 2014.

However, several cases of mismanagement or outright corruption allegations in the public health care and education strengthened a sentiment of distrust towards both Smer and the other major “standard” political parties, due to their previous record in government or party financing.

The situation amounts to a deja-vu moment, reminding people of the so-called Gorila scandal in 2011 when business deals between leading politicians and financial group Penta, currently a major player in Slovakia's health care and insurance business, came to light.

A significant part of the population still considers corruption as an “eminent element of politics,” said Olga Gyarfasova, a sociologist and political scientist at Comenius University in Bratislava.

“They do not see how this should or could change, partially due to the fact that even after four years the public still do not know what really happened back then. And also it was overlapped by new scandals,” she said.

On Wednesday (2 March), one day before the pre-election moratorium on campaigning in national media, Fico and his interior minister Robert Kalinak travelled to Macedonia.

At the Gevgelia crossing point between Macedonia and Greece, where Slovak police is helping to manage the border, he vowed to push the EU to stem the migrant flow by sealing the Macedonian border with Greece.

"Greece isn't functioning, we need to stop migrants on another line,” Fico said, echoing the common position of the Visegrad countries - Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic.

"We came here to countries that are on this line to help," he said, referring to Western Balkan countries, which have tightened their borders.

Opposition parties criticised Fico for exploiting the migration crisis in the election campaign, pointing out the small numbers of asylum seekers in Slovakia - 330 people asked for asylum in 2015, just eight were granted it.

But most of the opposition also rejects the EU refugee quotas and backs Greece's suspension from the Schengen passport-free area.

Radoslav Prochazka, whose new centre-right Siet (The Net) party is second in the polls, and who could become Fico's main competitor for the PM post if smaller centre-right parties joined up in a coalition, said Europe had a moral right to protect its borders.

“I am convinced that Greece should be given the benefit of leaving the Schengen and the eurozone because it is a failing state,” he said.

Existing prejudices

The only politician who was voicing a different view and who has called for a stronger expression of EU solidarity is president Andrej Kiska. Many Slovak NGOs involved in humanitarian activities for refugees have backed his lonely voice.

While both president and the outgoing PM stress that Slovakia should try its best to do well at the helm of the EU presidency, Fico maintained that it should not be a reason for Bratislava to “give in to Brussels pressure” and allow in the asylum-seekers, most of whom are Muslims.

The rhetoric is both the driver for similar opinions prevailing among the Slovak public, said Gyarfasova.

“On one hand, it is a matter of cultural isolation of the previous political regime – xenophobia among older and middle-aged people is a defence reaction to the unknown,” she said, referring to Slovakia’s old communist regime.

“But the other key factor is the political discourse: the existing prejudices are reinforced by rhetoric of the leading politicians. And so people feel it is okay to be against the immigrants,” she said.

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