February’s 2020 parliamentary election in Slovakia was a triumph of cautious optimism over populism, but the real work is yet to begin.
“It was the death of Jan Kusiak and Martina Kusnirova that woke up Slovakia,” a jubilant Igor Matovič declared to his supporters as the results of the country’s 2020 parliamentary election poured in at the end of February. “The world does not have to be ashamed of Slovakia anymore!”
The victorious leader of the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OľaNO) party was swept to victory on a wave of popular anger over entrenched corruption and official impunity. But, unlike other parties that have exploited popular resentment throughout Europe, OľaNO does not offer nativism. Instead, it has promised to clean up Slovakia’s power structures to benefit the whole society, including the large Hungarian minority and the historically downtrodden Roma.
While it is mildly socially and economically conservative with a populist tinge, the party’s leader is a strong supporter of the European Union and NATO and a defender of the role of these institutions in upholding the rule of law. They might be called ‘One Nation Tories’ if the illiberal actions of the British Conservatives had not robbed the term of all meaning.
Meanwhile, the vote share of the far-right and the pro-Russian People’s Party collapsed – a result that gives cautious optimism to those worried that Slovakia would follow the lead of the governments of neighbouring Hungary and Poland down an xenophobic and anti-European path.
In January 2018, Slovakia was shocked when Jan Kusiak, a 27-year-old investigative journalist, and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova, were brutally murdered in a shooting by a hired thug in their country house. Kusiak had been investigating fraud involving EU subsidies that had been diverted, allegedly for the benefit of the ruthless Italian mafia outfit ‘Ndrangheta.
Kusiak had implicated Anton Kucner, a businessman with close connections to the ruling SMER-SD, the populist and nominally social democratic party that had dominated Slovakia’s politics for more than a decade. Kucner is now on trial for allegedly ordering the killings.
In the days following the murders, a community initiative called Za Slusne Slovensko (For A Decent Slovakia) organised a wave of protests across the country that turned out to be the largest in the country’s democratic history. They forced Prime Minister Robert Fico’s resignation, although his party held on to power. Observers have said that Fico actually remained in power behind the scenes.
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“We couldn’t believe it happened here, in a country that is supposed to be a democracy and a member of the EU,” recalls Michaela Mrvova, a 25-year-old tour guide who joined the demonstrations in the capital of Bratislava. “We were in the middle of a huge crowd of people. As in 1989, when the Velvet Revolution brought down the Communist regime, we shook our keys in the air. We wanted to remind the authorities the power of a peaceful protest to bring about change.”
Shaking the keys, she explained, was a metaphor for the doors that Slovakians intended to open and walk through to bring about a more just society.
A week before the 2020 parliamentary election, on the anniversary of the deaths of Kusiak and Kusnirova, Za Slusne Slovensko gathered 8,000 people in Slovakia’s Freedom Square to honour them and demand justice.
“We want to commemorate what Jan and Martina meant for Slovak society,” the group’s spokeswoman Eva Lavrikova told Al Jazeera. “It was not a tragedy for them only, but for all of us. It showed that things were much worse than we ever thought.”
Hope and Reality
Igor Matovič and his party now have a long road ahead of them.
Milan, a software engineer living in Bratislava, told Byline Times that the most educated, cosmopolitan Slovaks were “mostly happy with the results”, but that there was sadness that the most progressive party had narrowly missed the threshold for seats in Parliament. “They only needed about 2,000 more votes to get,” he said. “I hope this shows all those who couldn’t be bothered to vote, how important it really is.”
Instead, with a little more than a quarter of the vote, OľaNO will be forced to enter into a coalition with the mildly Eurosceptic For Family Party in order to form a government. Not all Slovaks are convinced it will succeed.
Eve, a psychology undergraduate from the east of the country and one of the few young people to vote for the People’s Party, is pessimistic about the future. “SMER has just been replaced by people who are not actually different,” she said. “They are just popular with the media. There is no justice in politics in this country. Politicians are doing nothing to help the elderly whose pensions are not enough, or the young people struggling with rent.”
On the edge of the main square in Bratislava, there is a bronze statue of Hans Christen Andersen, the author of fairy tales who fell in love with Bratislava while travelling through the city.
“There used to be a statue of his famous ‘ugly duckling’ in front of him,” Milan said. “We would rub him for good luck when he passed. Then the impossible happened and what we hoped for came true. It turned into a beautiful swan and flew away.”
“Oh I’m kidding of course,” he added. “Some a**hole just stole it.”
An allegory for the danger of hope in politics and the mismatch between expectations and reality?