Posted on 10. March 2016
Last weekend’s elections in Slovakia would perhaps not have meant so much, had they not happened amid the rising illiberal wave in Central Europe, or more particularly, in the troubled Visegrad region. In the context of a backlash against liberal democracy and (perhaps) threatening to undo the progress achieved by years of European integration.
SMER, or Direction-Social Democracy, which is the biggest political party in Slovakia and has been in charge of a single-party government since 2012, is also openly heading in this direction. The problem of radical views penetrating the mainstream – and the electorate consequently getting used to radicalised rhetoric – is pushing the lines of what is acceptable in a democratic society. One of the (perhaps unintended) consequences of the radicalisation of the mainstream public debate is the rise of even more extreme right-wing ideas into national politics. The neo-Nazi group People’s Party – Our Slovakia scored high at the ballots, getting 8% of the votes, and was especially popular among those voting for the first time. No comment needed. The Slovak National Party, the traditional representatives of xenophobia in Slovak political history, returned to the political mainstage (8,6%). SMER won the elections again, despite losing a majority in parliament. All of this brings us to the main issue in the campaign that culminated in last weekend’s elections.
Refugee crisis as the main issue of the campaign – in a country that granted asylum to just eight people last year
The main issue of the campaign was the refugee crisis, which is not that surprising given the scope of the crisis across Europe, with most countries being unprepared to deal with a phenomena of this size. But … last year only 350 people applied for asylum in Slovakia and only eight of them were granted asylum! Together with the (heavily resisted) EU reallocation scheme, the amount would still be less than a thousand people. Yet, looking at the election campaign, it seemed that the influx of refugees is the country’s most pressing issue. The anti-immigration rhetoric turned out to be an endless source of cheap political capital. Many parties, from right to left, are trying to profit from picturing a savage enemy endangering the society and culture of a small Central-European country.
The fear of refugees and economic migrants (or anyone else who is “the other”) is a widespread phenomenon in the Visegrad region; from the infamous approach of Orban’s government in Hungary to the massive anti-immigrant movement in Poland. Societies here are relatively homogenous – ethnically and culturally. Central Europe has gone through extreme ethnic cleansing during WWII, followed by four decades of a closed off regime. In the transitional years following independence, they experienced more emigration than immigration. Therefore the current debates on the influx of refugees are fundamentally different in this region: diversity, multiculturalism and integration remain terra incognita for a major part of the Visegrad region’s population. Such terrain is very prone to instigate fear.
Nowadays hatred is used for short-term political gain, but the impact on public opinion might take generations to repair. The rhetoric of fear and hatred has taken off with particular ease in Slovakia. SMER started to champion statements that label refugees and immigrants as a threat to Slovak culture, values and security. It did not take long for other big parties to adopt similar rhetoric into their speech. Some new parties, relatively insignificant before, used this as an opportunity to reach out to voters by taking the already radical rhetoric to further extremes.
Xenophobic statements and the proliferation of fear of an ‘invasion of refugees’ found fertile ground in a country whose self-definition is based on the principle of a mono-ethnic nation. A nation that derives belonging from jus sanguinis (the bloodline) in contrast to the many modern nations based on political belonging, finds it hard to welcome “others”. And our politicians have found ways to ignite fear by “othering the other”, dehumanising or demonising the refugees as a threat to “our” security and “our” values.
Creating a threat from outside to avoid discussion on real societal problems?
So why did most parties feel the urge to make the refugees the core issue of the elections? A common enemy unites better that common aims, someone wise once said. In this case nothing can mobilise/unite voters more than an imaginary common enemy from outside. Playing on emotions has always been a source of additional votes.
There might be a secondary reason: focusing on this ‘enemy’ shifts attention away from the mess in domestic politics. The government of SMER has been heavily involved in a number of outrageous corruption scandals, including in the fields of healthcare and education, which happen to be the two sectors with a persistent lack of resources and in desperate need of systemic reforms. Several regional hospitals operate in emergency mode or with army support due to collective resignation of medical personnel. Especially nurses resigned in protest to the deteriorating conditions of the health sector. Primary and secondary schools across the country have been closed or semi-functioning due to the ongoing strike of teachers. The ongoing protests point out the failures of the outgoing government, which the ruling party might not want to discuss too much. And while both sectors are in desperate need of reform, the SMER lacks vision, experts and the political will to make any serious effort.
In this situation, dominating the public debate with the topic of a common enemy from outside is a brilliant strategy to divert attention. Creating irrational fear and appealing to the most basic emotions of the voter can distract from the eroded domestic field. The refugee issue turned into quick political capital for populist parties – and the rhetoric used in the discussions radicalised in the run-up to the elections. Perhaps it brought some extra votes to the parties engaging in this game. It was certainly not worth the impact on the public debate, where radicalised discussions instigating hatred and fear now seem to have become the new normal. This might take generations to repair.
PS: Initially I started a more conventional piece on the election results, parties and citizen’s choice, but… Sometimes we should look at it the other way around and ask how the elections (or their campaign) affected its participants: both parties and the electorate. Had it not been in the year ahead of elections, the Slovak political scene might have spared us their pathetic competition in reaching out to the worst in voters.