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Divided They Remain

On the eve of a historic presidential election, Slovakia remains polarized despite the apparent popularity of the expected winner.

by Martin Ehl 27 March 2019

An eternal flame burns and fresh flowers are laid in the middle of the museum-memorial of the Slovak National Uprising in Banska Bystrica. This town in central Slovakia was the center of the Slovak uprising, the fulcrum that changed the history of a Nazi puppet state into the story of a nation that fought Nazi Germany and emerged from the war on the winning side.

 

As Slovakia seems set to elect its first female president – liberal lawyer Zuzana Caputova – in the second round of elections on 30 March, there looms a renewed battle for the future of the country, and Banska Bystrica is again right in the middle of it.

 

Here in central Slovakia, the neo-Nazi party of Marian Kotleba is particularly strong. In 2013, Kotleba was elected governor of the region for four years. His victory was, to a great extent, a protest by local voters against the corrupt politicians of all traditional parties. At the same time, however, those voters were well aware of Kotleba's fascist beliefs and actions. He was not hiding anything.

 

Kotleba was defeated in 2017 by a broad coalition of democratic forces, which secured victory in the popular vote for the governorship, won by local businessman Jan Lunter. But visibility brought Kotleba wider attention and funds, which helped to get his party into the national parliament. According to the polls, Kotleba’s party is now the third strongest in the country, with around 11 percent support. This is in line with his own performance as a presidential candidate – 10.39 percent in the first-round election on 16 March.

 

Kotleba is campaigning for the European Parliament elections in May this year, but there are Slovak elections next year, too.

 

“He can easily get around 15 percent next year,” says Michal Vasecka, a sociologist who specializes in extremism in Slovak society. “He works very efficiently, especially with young people who are just approaching the voting age of 18. Among those aged between 15 and 18, his popularity could be around 30 percent.”

 

Caputova's predicted election as president might be celebrated as a success for liberal and pro-European forces. But it might also be interpreted as a step toward further polarization of Slovak society, which is already quite divided, with pro-Europeans and democrats – of liberal and conservative stripe – on one side, and on the other side what political analysts in Slovakia call “anti-establishment” voters, who are anti-European, nationalist, pro-Russian, and authoritarian-oriented. The latter camp polled around 25 percent in the first round of the presidential election – represented not only by Kotleba but also by the Supreme Court judge and controversial former minister of justice, Stefan Harabin, who ended up in third place after Caputova and Maros Sefcovic.

 

Sefcovic is a diplomat and Slovakia's European commissioner, nominated by the governing party Smer-Social Democracy, whose numerous corruption scandals have themselves contributed significantly to the rise of extremism.

 

Yet there is nothing new about this polarization.

 

During the recent 80th anniversary of the wartime state of Slovakia – created out of Czechoslovakia after Nazi Germany occupied the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939 – discussion centered on the history of support for heavy-handed government by a certain part of Slovak society.

 

At that time, the new state was the fulfillment of a dream for many Slovaks. Later, in 1993, many welcomed Slovakia's renewed independence; and in recent decades, there has been an increasingly vigorous and polarized conflict between the narratives of a nationalistic, pro-Nazi state, and that of an anti-Nazi, freedom-loving country.

 

For example, in the village of Pohorela, about an hour's drive into the mountains from Banska Bystrica, Caputova came in fourth in the first round of the presidential election. The winner in this village was Sefcovic, the former communist – representing one narrative – while Harabin and Kotleba came second and third – representing another narrative. On Pohorela's official Facebook page, inhabitants held a spirited discussion about the fate of the country, and one villager said openly that if the wartime Slovak state had survived, it would now be one of the most developed in the world. Meanwhile, another villager defended the country's postwar development under communist party rule.

 

Urban Slovak liberals might be preparing a big celebration for a presidential win by “their” candidate, but people in the remoter regions, living amid different historical narratives, might feel differently. For them, the last three decades have not been a story of success and development, but one of lost opportunities, worse living conditions, and a harsher social environment, one characterized by poverty and social polarization. Here, openness to strong leadership goes hand-in-hand with disillusionment with post-1989 elites, which they see as mostly corrupt and unable to deliver.

 

Everyone is looking for a fresh alternative – and while Caputova represents an optimistic future and an open society, Kotleba brings to light another story, overshadowed by history and fear of the unknown.

Martin Ehl
 is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny, a Czech business daily.
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