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.