From a liberal democracy to a populist democracy: the case of Slovakia

May 27, 2024

In Slovakia, democracy is currently under increasing threat, even more so after an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Robert Fico. Is the democratic system in Slovakia sufficiently resilient and capable of facing the current pressure? What is the opinion of sociologist Michal Vašečka and the former Slovak prime minister and member of the Forum 2000 International Advisory Board, Iveta Radičová?

Michal Vašečka

Sociologist, program director, Bratislava Policy Institute, Slovakia

Iveta Radičová

Sociologist, former prime minister, member of the Forum 2000 International Advisory Board, Slovakia

Michal Vašečka

Sociologist, program director, Bratislava Policy Institute, Slovakia

”Since 2013 Slovakia has been changing into soft autocracy with a speed that is unprecedented. Several key institutions of rule of law have already been captured by enemies of open society whose most important goal in life is to protect themselves. Many would argue that this is a trend that can be seen with a different level of persistence and depth all over Europe and in Slovakia it is just more so. And they would be right – the country is displaying the highest level of anti-Western sentiments within EU countries, it is the most anti-American out of all Central and Eastern European countries, the most pro-Russian, the most pro-Putin, with the highest score in conspiratorial thinking, and an elevated level of distrust in between people and toward democratic institutions. Although Slovakia has proven that it has been deviating from the path typical of many countries nowadays, it has, in fact, been deviating for a long time already. After a truly short time of naive proto democracy at the beginning of the 1990s, a strange mixture of Slovak nationalists and former communists destroyed Czechoslovakia. Independent Slovakia has consequently been born mostly as result of the desire of those who organized an anti-democratic counterrevolution in order to privatize state-owned properties and to create oligarchic structures that would be in charge of the country. They succeeded and Slovakia, right from the beginning, has been established not as a liberal democratic regime, but rather as an oligarchy, plutocracy, and ochlocracy. This is the real birth-certificate of a country that has been flying under the radar of many recently, though it should have been for a long time. Everything that is happening these days is a direct consequence of the way how and by whom independent Slovakia was established in 1993. Therefore, the main challenge for Slovak democrats is not only the question how to defeat Fico´s autocratic government, but most importantly how to reverse a tradition that has been haunting Slovakia since the beginning. In other words, countries are always reproducing on the principles upon which they were established. And Slovakia was born, unlike the Baltic states for instance, as an illiberal and potentially autocratic country right from the outset. Hence, Slovakia just keeps returning to its roots; it is seduced by autocratic Sirens as night butterflies are attracted by a lamp in the night. To break this vicious circle, therefore, Slovakia has to be established again, at least symbolically; it must bring something more positive and virtuous to the table.”

Comment issued on May 13 

Iveta Radičová

Sociologist, former prime minister, member of the Forum 2000 International Advisory Board, Slovakia

”The assassination attempt against Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico on 15 May 2024 is the worst event in modern Slovak history. In a democratic world, something like this is unacceptable. Violence and obscenities are penetrating deeper and deeper into our lives. We are experiencing a period the likes of which we haven't seen since the founding of Slovakia. The polarisation of society and increasing radicalisation are taking on enormous proportions. Every decent person should condemn the attack. It is a terrible act that has shocked everyone who values human life, human rights, freedoms, justice, and democracy. But under no circumstances should it unleash another wave of hatred. That would not help anyone.

Slovakia has undergone many abrupt political shifts during its short time as an independent country. It has also had a large number of populist, right-wing, and left-wing extremist parties in parliament, including two populist parties that have held sway in government for multiple terms. Vladimír Mečiar, the prime minister from 1990, formed the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS (Hnutie za demokratické Slovensko)), which led the country to independence. HZDS portrayed itself as a pragmatic centrist party but was in fact both populist and authoritarian, with strong power concentrated in Mečiar’s hands. He tightened centralised control and weakened democratic institutions. The consequence of Mečiar’s rule was that Slovakia’s EU entry was delayed, as it lagged behind front-runners Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary in reform policies. The SNS (Slovenská národná strana) party rests on a fascist foundation and has sought to revive the fascist Slovak state of the interwar period. Despite divisions within the party, SNS has persisted for a long time, surviving a split by its former party leader, and has been part of several governments. Economically, the party is right-leaning. It is also strongly Eurosceptic. HZDS gradually lost voter support in the early 2000s. Much of its voter base was taken over by the left-wing populist Direction – Social Democracy (Smer – sociálna demokracia), which was formed in 1999 by Robert Fico, who had left the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL (Strana demokratickej ľavice)) the year before. In 2006, Smer won the election and formed a government together with HZDS and SNS, which once again worsened the country’s international relations and led to a suspension of Smer from the Party of European Socialists (PES). The coalition government lasted for four years. After two years in opposition, Fico returned to power in 2012, now with his own majority. The Smer - SD government lasted until 2020, with a change of prime minister in 2018 (Peter Pellegrini).

Zuzana Čaputová, a liberal democrat, won a direct presidential election in 2019. The fight against corruption was the main issue of the winning party in parliamentary elections in 2020. A conservative (OĽANO, Za ľudí)-liberal (SaS)-populist (Sme Rodina) government was established with a constitutional majority in parliament.

Though corruption has long riddled Slovak institutions, the previous government made a significant effort to address the problem in recent years. Since 2020, dozens of state officials have been arrested and charged with corruption, bribery, and misuse of power. Several of these officials have pled guilty, but many denied the charges against them. A pandemic accompanied by strong polarisation and attacks by anti-vaxxers (particularly on the citizens' initiative Science Helps), the energy crisis, and the war in Ukraine came hand in hand with a chaotic, unstable, aggressive, and offensive political style and culture against political opposition, the media, scientists, the president, and other critical institutions, The government’s conflict-ridden time in power ended with a no-confidence vote in parliament, the installation of a technocratic government appointed by the president, and early elections in 2023.

The political atmosphere in Slovakia has been particularly tense since 2018, when the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, led to one of the largest protests in Slovakia’s modern history and forced Fico to resign.

When he was elected again to his fourth term as prime minister in October 2023, tensions further escalated as his government regularly attacked media and NGOs and displayed openly pro-Russian attitudes. These include draft laws that would significantly lower jail terms for corruption, the introduction of labelling NGOs as “organisations with foreign support,” and strengthening governmental control over the public broadcaster RTVS.

The formation of a government in 2023 by Smer-SD once again led to a suspension from PES and exclusion from the S&D group in the European parliament. When in power, Smer has continued in HZDS’s authoritarian footsteps. The party’s roots in Slovak social democracy, combined with its nationalism, characterise it best as a left-wing populist and national conservative party. It is left-leaning on economic issues, conservative on social issues, and has become Eurosceptic in recent years, with Fico being a close ally of Hungary in Brussels.

Smer exhibits strong authoritarian tendencies, and Fico has, in several ways, tested the boundaries of democracy. Critics of the government have also expressed concerns about threats to press freedom in the country. Furthermore, Fico attacked the Constitutional Court: in 2022. His government pushed through a reform that weakened the judiciary’s ability to prosecute graft, including dismantling an anti-corruption office despite street protests across Slovakia and warnings from Brussels about safeguarding the rule of law (The European Commission has already sent 25 letters to the Slovak government warning about violations of the rule of law). Smer also has troubling Russian connections. When Fico took office as prime minister in October 2023, the government announced that it would immediately suspend military aid to Ukraine. (A citizens' collection called Ammunition For Ukraine - If Not The Government, We Send raised over four million euros. In total, more than 62,000 donors have contributed to this amount. Four million Euros were raised in 14 days.)

Slovakia is a strongly polarized society, and there is a shift from a liberal or constitutional, democracy to a populist, or simply electoral, democracy.

In general, there is a great need to explain that populist strategies are undermining democracies themselves in the longer run. The creeping autocratisation that populists favour in the name of the majority of the “true” people, with restrictions on the freedom of the press and the independence of the courts and NGOs means nothing less than the end of constitutional or liberal democracy and an open society.

The important counterstrategy to fight back against populists, both on the left and on the right, is to expose the deliberate strategies of polarisation they use to gain power and change the institutional structure of society in an autocratic direction. While apparently attractive to voters in many democracies – partly due to a latent tribal mindset and a media logic enhanced by social media – it is reasonable to think that many supporters of populism are not aware of the deliberate manipulation that lies behind the strategies used by populists, or the negative consequences that follow for society, for democracy, and ultimately for the supporters of the populists themselves. The core idea is to construct a conflict between friends and enemies using a rhetorical style and framing the discourse with an “us-versus-them” logic. The “we” (the people, who are considered to have a unified will, the volonté générale) are – just like the “them” (the elites and others) – deliberately constructed to make the threat deeply existential. The “we” are good, while the “them” are evil and corrupt. Often a crisis or major economic and social changes are used to expose the failures of enemies. The demonisation of opponents, attacks on media and science, and intolerant and ruthless behaviour serve the same purpose. Narratives and emotional arguments demand respect for and recognition of the “people.” Rational arguments are dismissed, and conspiracies are supported. To the left, the populist narratives blame “neoliberalism,” while on the right, the narratives focus on immigration, multiculturalism, and political correctness as the causes of all evil. Both sides use similar populist strategies to deliberately promote the polarisation of politics and society. In many cases, they indirectly strengthen each other in a symbiotic way. (Nils Karlson: Reviving Classical Liberalism Against Populism, 2024)

I argue that it is necessary to defend, develop, and improve liberal institutions and policies in today’s liberal democracies. These institutions need to be secured and given a better defence. The suggested counterstrategies include improving liberal literacy; securing a strong, limited, and decent state; supporting federalism and decentralization; stimulating social mobility; implementing high-quality basic education; strengthening integration; and restoring public discourse.

An important counterstrategy is therefore to explain to policymakers and the public how liberal institutions contribute to prosperity and welfare, as well as to meaning, community, and virtue. It is far from intuitive to most people how the spontaneous orders of liberal societies work. Unfortunately, this liberal illiteracy includes many politicians and academics, even within the field of economics. Constitutional democracy, the rule of law, private property rights, and civil rights, including the freedom of speech, are all public goods. They benefit everyone in the longer run, while there often is a temptation for different interests – also non-populists – to free-ride and seek short-term benefits by limiting freedom or refraining from providing the necessary funding for the agencies that uphold them. If the police, the courts, and other parts of the judicial system do not get the support they need, law and order will deteriorate. The same is true for the freedom of the media and democratic institutions themselves. These are all basic institutional requirements for a market economy, civil society, and an open society in general. If this basic institutional framework is not defended and upheld – as is the case in societies with rent-seeking practices, corruption, company subsidies, over-regulation, bailouts, welfare dependency, crony capitalism, and the like -- prosperity, civility, and the quality of life will deteriorate. And the political scene will be wide open to a populist takeover. But it is not only necessary to uphold liberal institutions; the liberal economy and society with their spontaneous orders must be better explained, be nearer to everyday life, and offer more security in view of the complex uncertainties of contemporary living.

Tensions over political views must be discussed in families; schools must talk to children about how to manage their emotions. Boundaries must be set to stem the overflowing tsunami of hate in social media comments. We need to burst the bubbles that many people voluntarily withdraw into in an effort to push discussions out of their lives. And we must curb the slanderous, irresponsible, hate-fuelled negative political campaigns and character assassination. Because all of this combined has led to a real attempted murder.

Slovak society is traumatised and polarised. The more intransigent the political camps are towards each other, the more likely it is that this attitude will be transferred to their supporters in a dangerous way. In particular, at the beginning of campaigning for European parliamentary elections, this somewhat pastoral warning is indispensable: The more objective the debate, the more moderate the tone; the more moderate the words, the greater the empathy for the opponent's position, the greater the chance that the political debate will remain what it should be – a non-violent contest between the best ideas, with the voter as referee.”

Comment issued on May 19 

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