Slovakia’s Illiberal Future?

Wherever your sympathies lie in the current standoff between Poland and the European Commission, don’t bet on Poland and Hungary to remain isolated in their revolt against Europe’s political order. At present, Slovakia, governed by a one-party government led by Robert Fico, is on track to join the ranks of Central Europe’s ‘illiberal democracies.’

Unlike Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, it is not easy to pin down Mr. Fico in ideological terms. A member of Slovakia’s communist party in the 1980s, he founded Smer (meaning “direction,” in Slovak) in 1999 as a social democratic platform, borrowing heavily from Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ rhetoric. For a while, ‘Third Way’ was even a part of the official name of the party.

Yet, several attributes place Mr. Fico into the same category as his right-wing counterparts in Poland and Hungary. First, just like them—and like many anti-immigration groups across Europe and indeed the Western world—Smer has been thriving on the EU’s refugee crisis.

Slovakia holds a parliamentary election in March. So far, the refugee question has completely displaced all other issues from the campaign. But unlike Hungarians or Western Europeans, the vast majority of Slovaks have seen asylum-seekers only on television. A total of four hundred Syrians are currently being housed in the town of Gabčíkovo, in Slovakia’s gesture of goodwill towards Austria, where they are applying for asylum. And after much controversy, 149 Christian refugees from Iraq arrived in the fall of 2015 under the auspices of the Catholic Church.

Last year Mr. Fico’s government rejected the proposal of the European Commission to use quotas in order to divide the burden of the refugee influx among the member states on security grounds. Since then he has been moving firmly in a Trump-esque direction. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, he said that the government was “monitoring each and every Muslim on the territory of Slovakia.” In the last census, around two thousand Slovaks identified themselves as Muslims, most frequently in the country’s capital, Bratislava. “The only way to eliminate risks,” Mr. Fico said recently, was to steer away from “any decision that could lead to the emergence of a compact Muslim community in Slovakia.”

Less than two months to the election, Mr. Fico’s party is enjoying steady support of around 40 percent of Slovak voters. With a lackluster center-right opposition, many expect Smer to replicate its success from four years ago and to form, once again, a one-party government and possibly even to secure a constitutional majority in the parliament.

Economic populism, too, unites Mr. Fico with Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński. Superficially, Slovakia’s economy appears in good shape. It grew at 3 percent in the second half of 2015, the fastest rate of economic growth in all of the Eurozone. Public debt and deficit are under control. Still, the country suffers from double-digit unemployment, with around 26 percent of young people being out of work. Instead of addressing Slovakia’s chronic labor market troubles, Smer has focused much of its policymaking on devising new handouts to its core voters, including free train passes for pensioners and students.

To a large extent, economic growth and low deficits are both results of the continuous inflows of EU structural funds, which are used to narrow disparities between member states. According to Slovakia’s fiscal policy board, the demographic outlook requires far-reaching reforms to prevent a debt crisis within the horizon of the next 15 years.

Such reforms cannot be expected under Mr. Fico’s leadership, which instead turned the public sector into a money making machine for Smer-connected businesses. More than a third of all public procurement tenders have only one bidder (compared to just 12 percent in Germany), no doubt facilitated by not having to share political power in a government coalition. It is hardly a surprise that, according to Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index, 75 percent of Slovaks believe corruption is widespread in their country, both in the government and private sector.

Another term for Smer would carry a political toll as well, entrenching the party’s control over the state apparatus, and possibly media—many outlets of which Mr. Fico actively boycotts, labeling them as ‘antigovernment’. Much like the rise of the Law and Justice Party in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary, a victory for Smer deepens European disunity, with repercussions far beyond the refugee crisis. Mr. Fico has been among the most vocal opponents of the EU’s sanctions against Russia and has little patience for NATO and the United States, having once compared the possibility of setting up allied bases in Slovakia to the military occupation of Czechoslovakia after 1968.

As Mr. Fico surely remembers from his defeat in the presidential election in 2014, his triumph is not pre-ordained. The question is whether enough Slovak voters have that recollection too, or whether they have resigned themselves to the further erosion of their country’s political institutions, prosperity, and ties to the West.

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @daliborrohac.

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