What Happened To The Slovak Left?

When the results came in after parliamentary elections last September, it became clear that Slovakia would be ruled by an uncompromisingly right-wing government for the first time since the end of World War II.  In fact, just one avowedly leftist party passed the threshold of 5% of the vote needed to enter parliament, when the Slovak Communist Party (KSS) earned 6.3%.  Western investors and empire-builders smiled with joy (they did not jump, because one can only get so excited about such a country that is more often confused with its neighbors than recognized on its own), and Westward-looking educated Slovaks breathed a long sigh of relief.  After forty years of authoritarian rule (with a brief period of democratization in the late 1960s), followed by a decade of moderately anti-Western populism, followed by four years of an unwieldy coalition of neoliberals and social democrats, it appeared that the country would finally embark upon its long-awaited path to market economics, European integration, and membership in NATO, the latter of which had refused to accept the country as long as the populist Movement for Democracy in Slovakia (HZDS), led by Vladimír Meèiar, had any role in the government.  The majority of the population, however, did not know what to expect.


The country’s shift to the right, which the new government has interpreted as a mandate for radical reforms, was for the most part illusory.  Up until the weekend of the elections, polls showed two centrist populist parties in the lead, and most analysts expected that Robert Fico’s Smer, the more pro-Western of the two parties, would be included in the new government.  A massive publicity campaign, reaching its climax in the final hours before the elections, allowed the right to squeak by with just over 42% of the vote.  After several small parties failed to reach 5%, this gave 78 out of 150 seats in parliament to a coalition including the conservative Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), the neoliberal Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), the New Citizen’s Alliance (ANO) led by media mogul Pavol Rusko, and the right-leaning Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK).  There is little indication that the masses, which have no strong love for the West nor a clear idea of what capitalism really looks like, have flocked to the neoliberals’ camp.  And now that the government’s reforms have started to take effect, scrapping the health care system, loosening labor laws, dismanteling networks of public transportation, raising the Value Added Tax while offering tax breaks to the rich, and raising the overall cost of living while wages stagnate and unemployment hovers around 20%, discontent has grown widespread.  Yet when municipal elections were held in early December, the left made few electoral gains, and there are few signs of a general turn to the left.  Why?



Populism. The most obvious impediment to the growth of the left has been the growth of parties that appropriate the left’s rhetoric, without its actions.  About 50% of voters preferred parties that spoke of preserving social welfare programs, supporting the poor against the newly rich, and emphasizing the sovereignty of Slovakia against the encroachments of the West.  Yet Meèiar’s HZDS oversaw the massive (and corrupt) privatization of the Slovak economy, while Smer’s opportunistic Robert Fico repeatedly denies that his party is on the left.  These two parties together earned 33% of the vote, while the parties of the left combined for only about 11%.  They failed to capture a major sector of the population that, in the absence of the populists, would be likely to vote for them.  But the left seems to possess no charismatic leader, and it seems unable to change the focus of politics from rhetoric, where populists excel, to action.  Perhaps worst of all, the moderate left seems to have been duped by the propaganda of the right, which placed the entire focus of the campaign on its effort to keep Meèiar out of power, so that the country would be invited into NATO and the EU.  This gave pro-Europe voters no reason to distinguish between the moderate left and the right, while it gave little reason for the poor to prefer the left over the populists. 


Division. The second obvious problem of the left is nothing unusual, but as always, it is debilitating.  After garnering 15% of the vote in 1998 and joining a coalition government to oust Vladimír Meèiar, the Party of the Democratic Left (SD¼) has seen its organization fall into extreme disarray.  First the relatively unknown Robert Fico left the party to found Smer, and later the party split into two after a disagreement among its leadership.  The Social Democratic Alternative (SDA) was formed, appealing primarily to youth and intellectuals, while the remainder of SD¼ continued to appeal more to the unemployed, the urban proletariat, retired pensioners, and the rural poor.  Once polls began to show that neither party seemed likely to make it to parliament, most voters showed little interest in them, and SDA’s potential supporters, largely Western-looking, voted for the pro-Europe right, while SD¼ lost its supporters to the populists, or to the old-fashioned Communists themselves.


Stigma and difference. One may be inclined to attribute the failure of the left to the stigma associated with years of supposedly leftist rule.  The bad reputation of leftism, however, seems to be of much more relevance to urban intellectuals than to most of the population, which recalls the days of “socialism” with increasing fondness.  The most important effect of the stigma may be that leftist leaders themselves, more than their potential voters, are afraid of sounding too radical, so as not to appear unsavory in the eyes of their mostly right-leaning associates in the educated urban elite.  The effect is that, with the exception of the Communist Party, the left has done little to differentiate itself from the right.  And although SD¼ spent most of its tenure in the government thwarting the plans of the Christian Democrats, the fact that it participated in the government at all probably confused voters, and it gave the right the opportunity to blame all its failures on them.


Oldness. As the most successful leftist party in current elections, the Communist Party deserves attention.  Unfortunately, its greatest asset may also be its greatest limitation.  Widespread support among the elderly appears to be the key to the Communists’ short-term success, as well as the guarantee of its long-term failure.  The obvious problem is worth stating clearly: in a few decades the party will see almost its entire current base of support pass away.  The party has made few attempts to appeal to younger voters, while middle-aged voters, who will be old when the party’s current supporters stop voting, give little indication that they will view the world the way their parents do.


The elderly population, especially in villages and small towns, has relatively little interest in the potential benefits of European integration and economic liberalization.  For good reason, they care much more about their pensions and the cost of simple living than about new career options and travel to the West.  For the most part, the elderly look back on the old days of “socialism” as a time when people were humble, goods were cheap, work was easy, and jobs, vacations, and social welfare were plentiful.  If money was sometimes scarce, commodities and greed were too.  The Communist Party won many of its votes because it identified itself with the old regime, campaigning with the slogan, “Vote for those under whom you lived better.”  No other party presented a coherent alternative to the current state of affairs. 


At a time when in most of the Western world leftists are busy (in practice if not in theory) trying to win the tolerant urban middle classes to their cause, the Slovak left has the potential support of a sector of the population the most Western leftists consider out of reach.  If they could only combine the left-leaning sentiments of the old with a new revolutionary movement among the youth, they might be in a good position indeed.  But the old supporters of socialism are not revolutionary, nor are most of the young and discontent.  If given the simple choice between living under democratic socialism or liberal capitalism, it is possible that about half the country would choose the former.  In a poll taken several years ago, 25% of those polled were “for” socialism, while 41% were against.  Meanwhile, only about 17% thought that privatization brought more good than bad, while 23% thought the opposite, and 54% were dissatisfied the political system established after the Velvet Revolution.  But given the fact that the civilized world is pushing them to the right, and that nearly every educated person in Slovakia agrees that, like it or not, capitalism is here to stay, few of these quiet leftists are willing to commence heroic struggle.



It seems clear that the leaders of the left could change the situation, if they spoke out in the name of the people, against the oppression of the rich and the West, if they were not afraid of stating clearly what they stand for and against, and if, above all, they formed organizations (and not only political parties) that were neither apologetically reformist nor, like the Communist Party, unapologetically bureaucratist—if they called instead for control of culture, society, and the economy by the people.  The conditions for resistance and change, if not perfect, are in place.


One final note: Why should international leftists pay attention to a country where, to most appearances, nothing interesting is happening?  A partial answer is that they are in a position to help change the situation.  For better or for worse, the opinions of the world and of the West are influential, and if even a small trickle of non-Slovak leftism made its way into the local press, the effect could be considerable.  Above all it would provide a source of arguments that do not come from the propaganda posters of the old regime, and it could help combat the view that “Communist” is only a synonym for “corrupt bureaucrat.”  But just as importantly, leftists of the world could learn something from looking once again at Eastern Europe, which they seem to have largely ignored since the so-called “fall of Communism.”  On the one hand, the emerging market economy provides a stark example of capitalism at its most rapacious.  At the same time, we can learn both from the failures of the Slovak left and from its advantages.  While we urge Slovak activists to build a new movement among the educated youth, we might urge Western activists to devote more effort to the the old, conservative, and poor, who in the end might have more reason than anyone else to support our cause.




Joseph Grim Feinberg is currently a Fulbright fellow in Slovakia, conducting research on the history of the Ruthenian-Ukrainian population in the eastern part of the country.

Leave a comment