A Rise of Populism in the Slovak Parliament
Petra Čekmeová [*]
The parliamentary elections in the Slovak Republic, held on 5 March 2016, approved a rising popularity of populist parties in the country. According to the official results eight political parties won seats in the parliament achieving at least 5% of valid votes (see Graph 1). Three of these political parties can be classified as populist (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities, Kotleba - People's Party Our Slovakia and We Are Family – Boris Kollár) and one as non-populist but far-right party (Slovak National Party).
Graph 1: Results of the parliamentary election in Slovakia (%)
These elections brought about important changes in the Slovak political sphere. First, there was a significant decline of traditional parties, while populist parties realized an obvious increase of votes. Perhaps, the biggest shocks were caused by an exclusion of the Christian Democratic Movement from the parliament and an unexpected success of Kotleba´s far-right party. Secondly, newly established parties won seats in the parliament (We Are Family – Boris Kollár and #Net). Thirdly, a high number of parties in the parliament with different policy orientation indicates fragmentation of political opinions among voters of right-wing parties. In this context, it is important to mention that there is no right-wing party that would be a strong counterweight to the leading Direction – SD.
These results were surprising as none of public opinion polls had predicted such outcomes. While the parties such as Direction – Social Democracy, #Net and the Christian Democratic Movement won considerably fewer votes than it had been predicted, Freedom and Solidarity and populist parties surprised by sharply higher shares of valid votes. For instance, the latest results of public opinion polls (provided by POLIS) predicted 38.4 % for Direction – SD, 10.5% for #Net and 6.6% for the CHDM and only 5.2% for Freedom and Solidarity, 2.5% for Kotleba´s party, and 3.6% for Kollár´s party. These differences between expected and real results may reflect, among others, the indecisiveness of Slovak voters “up to the ballot box”.
Theoretically, there can be various factors, both economic and political, behind the increasing popularity of populist parties. Looking at the development of the main macroeconomic aggregates (see Graph 2), it is obvious that the Slovak economy is in better condition than it was at the time of the last elections. While real gross domestic product per capita increased by 1,210 EUR since 2000, unemployment rate decreased by 2.5 p.p. and inflation was held at low or negative rates during the whole electoral period. Moreover, real incomes of households as well as incomes of firms in business sector increased.  Thus, we cannot find any significant evidence that growth in populists was induced by unfavourable economic development.
Graph 2: Development of GDP p.c., Unemployment rate and Inflation in the Slovak Republic (2000-2015)
Source: IMF (2016)
The same conclusion can be made for the relation between regional development and votes in favour of populist parties. There is no systematic tendency to prefer populist parties (measured by the parties´ shares in votes) to standard ones in poorer regions (see Table 1). It means regions with the highest rate of unemployment and low share in the total GDP of the country.
Table 1: : Support of Parliamentary Parties in the Poorest and Richest Slovak Regions
Source: Statistical Office of the Slovak Republic (2016)
Note: Unemployment rate in 2015; the share of the region on total gross domestic product, in constant prices, 2014.
Although the main economic indicators seem to be indecisive, some less visible economic and social factors could play a more substantial role in the increasing support for populist parties as many of them were present in their electoral programs. Among crucial issues were reforms in the healthcare system. The problem lies mainly in its ineffectiveness and low quality of services. Comparing to other EU member states, the share of public expenditure in GDP is the smallest (1.9% in the SR compared to 7.2% in the EU in 2014) according to data the Eurostat data. Regarding the recent years in the SR, the expenditures showed a decreasing trend. On the contrary, the out-of-pocket payments of patients realized an increasing trend in the recent years. Moreover, the issue of one state insurance company has been opened over a long period. It seems that the programmes of populists (reforms in hospitals, emergency and insurance systems, creation of a common insurance company , dealing with corruption in the system (OPIP), making the healthcare free of charge (Kotleba-PPOS), suspending the payments for medicaments (WAF-BK)), met the likes of the electorate.
There is also a question about the impact of the migration crisis which played an important role in elections in other European countries and seemed to become a decisive factor also in Slovakia. Given the fact that neither the Statistical Office of the SR, nor the policy agencies have, so far, published studies on the effect of the anti-migrants campaign on the voters´ decisions, the results are only indicative. It is probable that those campaigns brought votes for the Kotleba – People´s Party Our Slovakia and the Slovak National Party. On the contrary, it seems that the anti-migrant policy of Robert Fico did not help to win more preferences for his party which gained the least votes since 2006.
The final reason taken into account in this short study is related to the functioning of the Slovak political system. Although the official data indicate a decrease in corruption in the Slovak Republic (Corruption Perception index increased from 46 in 2012 to 51 in 2015), the public opinion was negatively influenced by numerous scandals linked with representatives of the main political parties. To mention one of the latest – a purchase of medical apparatus for which the minister of health was removed. The results of the recent elections are likely caused by a loss of confidence in standard political parties and a call for a new political design. Political analysts suggest that the results can be viewed as a fight against standard political parties and mainly against the ruling party, Direction – Social Democracy. This statement can be supported by the campaigns of populist parties. An excellent example is a slogan of the We are Family – Boris Kollár´s party: “I don´t vote politics, I vote Boris” or more radical statements of the Kotleba – People´s Party Our Slovakia (e.g. “We stop public misappropriation” or “We create a better-functioning state”).
Although there were legitimate doubts about the possibility to form a government, early elections will not be held (at least for the present). The leaders of Direction – Social Democracy, the Slovak National party, “Bridge” and #Net announced their agreement to create a government. This formation means that the populist parties rest in opposition. However, the stability of such a government is doubtful regarding the internal tensions between the parties (long-term disputes between the SNP and Most-Híd or #Net´s pre-election claims not to form a government with Direction – SD).
 Note that, in the last elections in 2012, only one populist party got to the parliament (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities with 8.56%).
 According to the latest data of the Statistical Office of the Slovak Republic, the index of real wages increased from 98.8 in 2012 to 103.2 in 2015 and the index of turnovers of industrial firms increased from 106.2 to 108.9, respectively.
 The Slovak Republic was one of few countries in the European Union that voted against the refugee quotas.
 However, nobody was charged on account of these scandals. One possible reason is that the General Prosecutor is proposed by the government and named by the president.
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