The 2016 elections in Slovakia: a shock

No parliamentary elections in Slovakia have ever caused so much surprise, consternation and dismay as those held on 5 March 2016. The results can be readily characterised as shocking.

Teaser Image Caption
Grigorij Mesežnikov

The party system in shambles

The political party system that emerged in Slovakia during the post-communist transition and which reflected the significant political and socioeconomic changes connected with societal reform and EU integration lies in ashes. Slovakia’s variant of “deconstructing” the party system has turned part of its core into neoplasms with a prevailing anti-establishment posture, an unclear ideological profile, and minimal (as well as rather problematic) experience or no experience whatsoever governing and managing the state. The most alarming fact, however, was the success of a neo-Nazi (and at the same time openly fascist) party that won 8% of the vote. The result is that for the first time since 1990 an entity of this type will be represented in Slovakia’s 150-seat National Council and will receive financial support from the state budget.

Results of the parliamentary elections held on 5 March 2016


Number of votes received

Share of votes

(in %)

Number of mandates in the National Council

















Kotleba – ĽS-NS




Sme rodina Borisa Kollára




















Source: Statistical Office of the Slovak Republic, 2016


Coalition negotiations: Another shock

The start of post-election negotiations on the composition of the next government signalled that building a coalition with a working majority in the parliament would be a difficult challenge. Ultimately, however, the entire process concluded relatively quickly, and a new coalition government has emerged two weeks after the elections, albeit with a shocking composition.

After Smer-SD Chairman Robert Fico received a mandate from the president to form a government, all parties except the nationalist SNS refused to negotiate with him (I exclude Kotleba’s neo-Nazis here, as they were automatically isolated even before assuming their mandates). But Smer-SD and the SNS together do not control enough seats in the parliament to form a governing majority. The other option, however – to constitute a working majority without Smer-SD – would require a coalition of all the remaining parliamentary parties, including the SNS and the Slovak-Hungarian party Most-Híd. And although compared to Kotleba’s neo-Nazis, the SNS, led by polished attorney Andrej Danko, seems almost moderate and acceptable in a coalition with democratic parties, it appeared that a political alliance between the SNS and Most-Híd would be hard to swallow for the leaders of these two quite different entities, as well as for their voters.

After several days of refusing to enter coalition talks, and after the SNS declared that it would not be part of any government without Smer-SD, the leadership of Most-Híd unexpectedly and contrary to previous statements agreed to participate in a government with Smer-SD and the SNS. But even this was insufficient; more mandates were still needed in order to provide such a coalition with a majority. These mandates finally came from the new party Sieť, led by former KDH Deputy Chairman Radoslav Procházka, which announced that it too would enter negotiations with Smer-SD on forming a coalition government.

The negotiations between the four parties proceeded at rocket speed, and over three days an agreement was hammered out on the future coalition’s common programme priorities and on the assignment of cabinet posts.

The participation of Most-Híd and Sieť in this rapidly cobbled-together coalition provoked a storm of indignation among their voters and partners in the centre-right camp. This was followed by accusations of political bribery, coercion and succumbing to pressure from local oligarchs not wishing to lose their privileged access – hitherto ensured by Smer-SD – to lucrative state contracts. Four elected MPs (three from Sieť and one from Most-Híd) as well as one Sieť alternate announced that they would leave their respective parties if the latter joined a coalition with Smer-SD and the SNS. This means that from the outset the new coalition will not have all 85 seats in the National Council but only 81 (or possibly just 80). Moreover, it cannot be excluded that the splits within these parties will deepen if the coalition encounters internal problems (e.g. during the implementation of anti-corruption measures, on which the two centre-right parties insist and which constitute an important component of their political agendas). This could lead to further defections and ultimately to the potential loss of the coalition’s parliamentary majority.

Fascism? Nazism? Extremism?

One of the most hotly debated topics surrounding the elections is the entry into the parliament of Kotleba’s neo-Nazi, fascist cohort. As has already been written about and presented in the media, there is quite an extensive catalogue of reasons for the neo-Nazis’ success: their appeal to hitherto politically inactive voters by means of hyper-populist anti-establishment rhetoric, the phenomenon of protest voting, the radicalisation of certain youth, the inability of established parties to convince certain voters that their proposed solutions to current problems make sense, and last but not least the hysterical, xenophobic, anti-immigrant atmosphere whipped up by Smer-SD Chairman Robert Fico during the campaign.

The mainstream media are not afraid of characterising Kotleba’s party as “fascist”, “neo-fascist”, “Nazi” or “neo-Nazi”, instead of using the terms “radical” and “extremist” which sound more like obfuscating euphemisms. Kotleba’s party actually combines several aspects of Nazism and fascism: opposition to democracy and freedom, criticism of the “rotten” West, open racism and anti-Semitism, anti-Judaism and Islamophobia, ferocious homophobia, historical revisionism, admiration of Tiso’s wartime clerical-fascist state and approval of its totalitarian practices, denial or even endorsement of the Holocaust, adoration of Nazi leaders by individual candidates, and a cult of violence and brute physical force. For Kotleba and his adherents, NATO is a criminal pact and the EU is a hostile coalition that seeks to subjugate the Slovak people and which Slovakia must leave.

Symptomatic of this orientation is Kotleba’s sympathy towards present-day Russia, and its domestic and foreign policies, as well as admiration for the Putin regime. During the Euromaidan in Kyiv, Kotleba, who at the time was governor of the Banská Bystrica Region, sent a telegram to then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in which he appealed to the embattled Ukrainian leader not to surrender and not to give in to “insurgents” supported by the West in a power grab being perpetrated against Russia and the Slavic nations.

Regarding Kotleba’s party, it seems that most Slovak media and analysts managed to grasp the essence of the problem quite adequately and did not hide behind obfuscating labels. Before the elections, Kotleba’s followers threatened to file defamation suits against any media who dared to call them fascists. Should they now opt to make good on this threat, they will have their work cut out for them, as they will need to file dozens of lawsuits.

“Popular fascism”

How does one characterise ĽS-NS voters? How does one define their political profile? This is where the opinions of analysts and journalists diverge. Some assert that Kotleba’s voters were not sufficiently informed, did not know whom the party represented, allowed themselves to be deceived by popular slogans like “fighting corruption”, or did not see the link between Kotleba’s party and fascism. Basically, they had many reasons for making a bad decision. But it is really the case that these voters did not know whom they were voting for?

Similar justifications were heard also in November 2013, when Kotleba was elected governor of the Banská Bystrica Region, i.e. that it was a kind of temporary deviation from normal voter behaviour caused primarily by the mainstream parties’ failure to convince citizens of their ability to address social problems. That certainly was a factor, but this interpretation does not explain why the so-called protest votes went to the fascists in particular. Nor does it explain why Kotleba’s party received fivefold more votes in 2016 than in the previous parliamentary elections in 2012.

It does not help much to hide behind “objectivising” interpretations of the electoral behaviour of a not entirely insignificant segment of the Slovak electorate, as in Slovakia there are a multitude of factors that contribute to voters increasingly becoming situational fascists and neo-Nazis. This may sound harsh, but what else can one call people who in the conditions of democratic competition with relatively abundant political choice in free elections voluntarily vote for a fascist or neo-Nazi party (regardless of how they perceive themselves in so doing)? Indeed, sociological surveys confirm that people with values conforming to those of fascism are overrepresented among such voters. These range from radical nationalism, racism and xenophobia, to opposition to democracy and freedom, to support for a totalitarian political system and insistence on the idea of a strong leader.

And what are the factors that encourage the formation of similar ideological clusters? Here are a few: the ideological legacy of 1930s domestic fascism and the wartime Slovak state, which succumbed in part to official state policy despite its declared anti-fascist doctrine (consider the widespread adoration for Andrej Hlinka as evidenced by sites, institutions and a high state award bearing his name, as well as a special law on Hlinka’s contributions to Slovakia); elements of revisionism in historical discourse; and deeply rooted anti-Hungarian nationalism and anti-Roma racism. Other important factors include the various alternative “media” disseminating conspiratorial interpretations of history and societal development, open propaganda against liberal democracy, and attacks against the West, which allegedly seeks to subjugate small nations, and in particular the Slavic nations.

We must not shut our eyes to reality; we must recognise the fact that despite more than a quarter century of political and economic transformation a significant portion of Slovak society has a problem with the democratic system, with the universal values of human rights, with understanding the equality of citizens, and with the state’s Western orientation. These are people who could be described as carriers of spontaneous “popular fascism”, although they would surely object to such a designation. Nevertheless, it is precisely these people for whom a vote for Kotleba, the former secondary school teacher and current governor of the Banská Bystrica Region, offered the opportunity to identify politically with this anti-system throwback. The sooner Slovakia’s democratic politicians become aware of this serious challenge and begin to look for solutions, the more effective their strategy will be at preventing the numbers of situational fascists and neo-Nazis in Slovakia from increasing each time elections are held.

The author is a political scientist and president of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO).