Voters want Slovakia’s incoming government to end corruption. That will be tough

Igor Matovic, leader of anti-graft political movement Ordinary People and Independent Personalities, and Slovak President Zuzana Caputova arrive Monday for informal talks after the country's parliamentary election at the presidential palace in Bratislava. (Vladimir Simicek/Afp Via Getty Images)
Igor Matovic, leader of anti-graft political movement Ordinary People and Independent Personalities, and Slovak President Zuzana Caputova arrive Monday for informal talks after the country's parliamentary election at the presidential palace in Bratislava. (Vladimir Simicek/Afp Via Getty Images)

It’s still hurricane season in European party politics, with plenty of unpredictable results. In Slovakia, the winds blew hard Saturday — the governing parties took a big hit, with two smaller partners losing their representation in parliament entirely and Slovakia’s once-dominant Smer-Social Democracy party suffering major losses.

The clear winner was anti-corruption — not the radical right

Much of the international coverage prior to the election focused on assertions of widespread support for Marian Kotleba’s neo-fascist party. But Kotleba’s Our Slovakia party mustered just 8 percent of the vote. A decline in overall voting for nationalist parties and splintering of the nationalist vote meant Slovakia’s other two prominent nationalist parties failed to win any seats at all.

So who won? The clear winner of the election, Igor Matovic’s Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO), garnered 25 percent of the vote with a promise to clean up politics. Matovic capitalized on the widespread discontent and disgust with governance in the country.

The murders of a journalist and his fiancée in 2018 and the subsequent investigations, in particular, exposed close links between shady businessmen, judges and politicians. Exit polls revealed that anti-corruption was the key issue for nearly a third of voters.

Smer ran a lackluster campaign

Smer, which means “direction” in Slovak, was implicated in many of these scandals. A few months before the election, the party rebranded itself as “New Smer” and promised a “responsible change” under Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini.

But the party’s campaign lacked the effort and energy of its past triumphs, and failed to deliver on its message. There were no pre-planned rallies and little effort to reach out to voters. Even a last-ditch attempt to boost benefits to pensioners and children did not reverse its fortunes.

Voters want Slovakia’s incoming government to end corruption. That will be tough
Data: Slovak Statistical Office. Figure by Kevin Deegan-Krause.

Matovic, in contrast, ran a skillful campaign. He focused his energy and money on the last weeks before polling day to attack Smer and push hard on the anti-corruption and governance message. Matovic traveled to Cannes in January to publicize the wealth of the former Smer finance minister — and put signs on the fence surrounding his villa stating, “Property of the Slovak Republic.” And Matovic lit candles outside the government’s office to represent the preventable deaths occurring within the Slovak health-care system.

Crucially, OLaNO projected itself as the party that could defeat Smer. That pitch may help explain in part why there appears to have been a massive shift in support to OLaNO in the last week of the campaign, and away from other anti-Smer, anti-corruption parties.

The mechanics of the electoral system played a key role

As a way of attracting more support, Matovic struck deals with smaller parties and individuals to allow them to run on his party’s list.

But the electoral threshold rules resulted in over 28 percent of Slovak voters casting their ballots for parties that won’t be represented in parliament — the largest share in Slovakia’s democratic history.

Here’s why. To win parliamentary representation single parties need to win 5 percent of the vote, but electoral coalitions of two or three parties must win 7 percent. Three parties that recently held seats in parliament and two significant new parties failed to pass the 5 percent threshold. And a coalition between two new liberal parties — Progressive Slovakia and Together — failed to cross the 7 percent coalition threshold by a margin of just 0.04 percentage points, fewer than 1,000 votes.

Slovakia’s new parliament will also be less representative of the country as a whole. Although ethnic Hungarians amount to around 8 percent of the population, for the first time there will be no “Hungarian” party in parliament. One of the “Hungarian” parties, Bridge, was punished for its participation in the Pellegrini government, and ended up with just over 2 percent of the vote. And attempts to forge a common party list between Bridge and the other main Hungarian party fell apart in acrimonious disagreement in the fall.

What will the new coalition look like?

Slovakia’s new government will likely include four parties: Matovic’s OLaNO, We Are Family, Freedom and Solidarity and For the People. Between them they would have 95 of 150 seats in parliament, enough for a constitutional majority.

This would allow the government to pass a comprehensive reform of the justice system that Matovic has promised. Fulfilling that promise may help keep the coalition together, as will the parties’ commitment to social conservative values and their broadly center/center-right ideological stances.

But some analysts point out the new coalition could be as messy and conflicted as the last non-Smer led coalition government, which collapsed just 16 months after it was formed in 2010.

The expected coalition faces challenges not just between the parties, but inside those parties. In particular, Matovic’s OLaNO has a loose structure with a history of departures from its parliament group during its two terms in opposition. It’s unclear how the party will maintain cohesion, especially given the greater demands of government.

Furthermore, the other three likely coalition partners are just as young and not much better positioned. None of them has a widespread organizational base, and not one of them — indeed not a single party in Slovakia’s next parliament — has ever gone through a leadership change. If a party leader becomes tarnished by scandal in the new government this would leave his party vulnerable to a rapid drop in support.

All of those four parties are relatively young, and the oldest was formed just a decade ago. Their organization and appeals are leader-focused with anti-corruption and good governance pitch to voters at the heart. As our forthcoming book, “The New Party Challenge,” suggests such recipes might deliver short-term success, but they rarely provide for long-term endurance.

Pitching an anti-corruption appeal while part of the opposition in parliament is the easy part. Delivering it in practice is much more of a challenge for the new government. The elections ensure that Slovakia will change direction, but how far the country will be able to continue down its new path remains unclear.

Kevin Deegan-Krause is associate professor of political science at Wayne State University. Tim Haughton is associate professor of European politics at the University of Birmingham. Marek Rybar is associate professor of political science at Masaryk University.

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