Slovakia swings left

Slovakia had elections this weekend. They don’t seem to have attracted much attention, but I think they’re worth a quick look.

Short version: a center-right government that was committed to controversial social and economic reforms got thrown out in favor of a left-wing populist.

Now, depending on what corner of the political spectrum you come from, your reaction to this may be, “Aw, shucks” or “At last!” What makes it interesting, I think, is that this is Eastern Europe, where everything is a bit rawer and the safety catches are off. PM Mikulas Dzurinda and his SDKU party, in power for the last eight years, had an economic program that would have made Margaret Thatcher go dizzy and weak in the knees. Privatization, a flat tax, brisk reorganization of social programs… it was quite something.

Especially since Dzurinda came into office after Vladimir Meciar. Remember him? An obnoxious Communist-turned-Nationalist of the Milosevic-Lukashenko sort, but without even the modest redeeming qualities (i.e., intelligence and a grasp of basic economics) of a Lukashenko. Meciar was a buffoon, a demagogue, and an incompetent; whether you like Dzurinda or not, there’s little doubt that he was the best choice available back in ’98.

Anyway. Dzurinda’s policies saw some results. Slovakia got hothouse economic growth and a surge of foreign investment that has turned it, against all expectations, into the automotive manufacturing center of Eastern Europe. But it also saw sharply increased inequality in income and wealth; and while unemployment went down, the jobs created were mostly available to the young, the urban, and those willing and able to pick up stakes. Jobs may be going begging in the capital, but a few hours west, on the Ukrainian border, the unemployment rate is over 25%.

Without getting into a debate over the merits of SDKU’s policies (though that’s very interesting in its own right), it’s clear that the Slovakian electorate has decided to swing left for a while.

Numbers below the fold.

Slovakia’s Parliament has 150 seats; 76 are needed to form a government. Here’s how the votes break down:

SMER, the new plurality party, populist “Social Democrats” under PM-to-be Robert Fico — 50
SDKU, the outgoing center-right technocrats — 31
SNS, a “Christian Nationalist” party, conservative populists — 20
MKP (ethnic Hungarians) — 20
HZDS (Meciar, he’s still around) — 15
Christian Democrats — 14

As in most parliamentary democracies, the biggest party gets first crack at forming a government. Slovakia’s President is expected to hand the ball to Fico today.

Broadly speaking, there are three possibilities.

(1) SMER plus two small parties. Which two gets complicated, and will have a nontrivial impact on the shape of the government. SNS doesn’t much like SMER, and Meciar is still a bit of a pariah. Best guess is SMER + Hungarians + somebody. (The Hungarians in Slovakia, like the Hungarians in Romania, have shown an interesting flexibility; they’ll join with anyone to form a majority, as long as their needs are addressed.)

(2) A “grand coalition” of SMER and SDKU. Unlikely.

(3) The Return of Meciar. Okay, not really. But a small-party coalition of SDKU, the Hungarians, the Christian Democrats, and Meciar’s HZDS would hold 80 votes. This is also unlikely IMO, but not quite impossible.

BTW, while SMER is certainly a left-wing party, and SDKU tipped to the right, these may not be the most useful ways to view them. “Populist” vs. “Technocrat” may be more illuminating. SDKU was always about elitism and competence, The Best And The Brightest. SMER, in deliberate contrast, markets itself as the party of the Common Man. This is a division that’s common across the region, and is at about a 45% angle to the left-right split. There are left-wing technocrats — Romania’s SDP under Nastase, for instance — and right-wing populists, too.

Trying to put my own biases aside, I’ll note that populism in this part of the world can sometimes take a nasty turn, especially with regard to ethnic and religious minorities. This is not a problem in countries that are relatively homogeneous (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic), but it’s a real concern in places like Slovakia and Romania.

And that’s all I have to say about Slovakia today.

15 thoughts on “Slovakia swings left

  1. What makes you think the existing government can make a better offer to the small parties?

  2. Of the four small parties, three would probably be a bit more comfortable in a SDKU government than yoked with SMER.

    I suspect the key variable here will be whether SMER is willing to make an acceptable offer to the Hungarians. That should be a no-brainer — the Hungarians are ready to do business, and their demands are not likely to be unreasonable — but there’s an ethnocentric element in SMER that could make it tricky.

    But as I said, I think a small-party coalition is the least likely outcome.

    Doug M.

  3. Here in Canada we are on the cusp of handing a right-wing neoconservative government a majority mandate. The centrist Liberals are leaderless and beset by previous scandal and the left-leaning New Democrats do not pose any threat other than in a handful of urban ridings. Will Canadians go down this well trodden path that Europe appears to be realizing was a mistake? Personally, I think we will not, but only time will tell.

  4. Jobs may be going begging in the capital, but a few hours west, on the Ukrainian border

    A few hours east, surely? A few hours west of Bratislava and you’re in Switzerland …

  5. Actually Slovakia did not “swing left”, the “left” the national socialists of all stripes did receive about the same amount of votes as back in 2002, only at that time these forces were beset by internal struggles and thus many parties failed to appear in the parliament (Nationalists, two left-wing parties that later dissolved in SMER) allowing for a center-right coalition. (Also worth noting SDKU-DS did receive more percentage points of votes than in 2002)

    I must allways laugh when these necessary steps without which the country would in all probablity go bankrupt are described as radical and “neo-liberal”.

    “…this well trodden path that Europe appears to be realizing was a mistake?”

    Steve, dont be silly. A road toward greater freedom and personal responsibility is hardly a mistake. And just becuase something gets voted for or against doesnt make it more or less truthful.

  6. 45 minutes west of Bratislava and you are in Vienna. When I was last there, they were at pains to stress that they live in “Central Europe”, not “Eastern Europe” as the original article suggests.

  7. @Yusuf, you’re right, my bad.

    @Lemuel, it’s not only about percentage of votes. The voter turnout dropped sharply this time too. I’m not sure what this means — where SDKU supporters disheartened? Or was everybody just not that interested? But anyway, when voters of the left (or right) unite instead of splitting their vote, I think it’s fair to say that’s a swing.

    @Keith, I don’t doubt they were at pains to stress it. The Croats, Hungarians and Romanians say exactly the same thing. Nobody wants to be in Eastern Europe.

    Doug M.

  8. No, I have actually heard of David Frum. He became a US citizen in 2002, after having spent 20 years in the US. I guess I was being way too glib for my own good.

    The broader point that I was trying to make (that didn’t come across at all) is that I always find it funny when other countries think their conservatives are too conservative. I seriously doubt that Stephen Harper, and his people will become the neocons that the US has. I worked in Geneva during the spring and met a woman there who was born and raised in Quebec, and she was terrified of a Harper-led government.

    This always makes me laugh, because the mainstream “conservative” movements in Canada, Mexico, and Western Europe would be center or left of center in the US. Its just that there always seem to be this hyperbole that a conservative party is the worse thing in the world, but they don’t realize that these “conservatives” would be moderate liberals in the US.

    It just cracks me up every time, when they think they got it bad.

  9. Doug, well yes the turnout was lower, and yes some voters (not only SDKU voters, but voters in general) were disheartened, but mostly indeed not interested enough to participate. These were the very first Slovak elections without any major theme: the 1998 elections were about Meciar and democracy, the 2002 were about continuity of the reform process and the EU and NATO membership. The 2006 elections could once again be interpreted as being “about the reforms”, but there was no such sharp polarisation as we were used to see before. It was not a life and death struggle. And under no stretch of imagination can the results be interpreted solely as a “rejection of reforms”.

    Swing, as I understand it, constitues a change of heart on the part of the voters, but I really dont think that those who supported the Right in past elections moved to the Left. Of course I could be wrong, but if it were so, than SMER (which gained votes mainly from Meciar) would have even stronger showing.

  10. Will, I agree about Canadian conservatives. Well, okay, I agree about 90%. I know people from Alberta who would take mainstream US Republicans in a heartbeat. Klein strikes me as someone who could fit into a “big tent” American Republican Party.

    But outside southern Alberta and certain retrograde enclaves in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, you’re right that US style conservatives are few and far between.

  11. Doug, I assume that the Christian Democrats of Slovakia are part of the mainstream of western European Christian Democracy, i.e. more like the CDU/CSU, the old French CDF or the reformed CDs of Italy, instead of more like these creepy reactionaries you see popping up in places like Poland or the like. In other words, that they aren’t a slightly more presentable version of the SNS.

    If so, what are the possibilities of a SDKU+Hungarians+Christian Democrats, and then getting one or two members to flip? Or is party discipline that strong in Slovakian parliamentarianism?

  12. Meciar was a great prime minister. Remember when Czechoslovakia broke up, they said that Slovakia had no chance. Who would have guessed that Slovakia’s economic growth would be the highest in Central Europe through the mid-1990s! (Some claim that Poland did a little better, but Slovakia certainly outpaced the Czechs) The Slovakian crown even overtook the Czech one. This was completely unexpected. Still, Slovakia was branded “the black hole” by Madeleine Albright.

    I see the irrational hatred for Meciar and his great rule include comparing him with other good leaders; Milosevic and Lukashenko. These are others who decided that fire sales of national assets to foreigners was not a good idea and so their countries became “black holes” as a result.

    The reason why Meciar has lost ground is twofold; one, the boycott organised by the US and EU since the 1998 elections and the rise of Fico who poached Meciar’s voters frustrated by the obvious boycott policy and his yielding on matters like NATO membership under the pressure, trying desperately to no longer be shunned. Politicians could argue that they had to shun Meciar as a condition for joining the EU. Now that Slovakia is in the EU, that threat can no longer be made and Meciar’s party can once again take its place as a ruling party.

    I congratulate Fico for finally allowing a representative government to take its place in Bratislava, a government that is not cobbled together by interfering foreigners. Slovakia can again be an example to the world as it was under Meciar.

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