Slovakia, my home country, made global headlines in March with the election of our next president: Zuzana Čaputová, a liberal lawyer known for her environmental activism. Compared to worrisome developments in neighboring countries like Poland or Hungary, Čaputová appeared as a beacon of hope. She’s pro-European, in favor of same-sex marriage, and won the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize for leading the struggle against a toxic landfill in her hometown of Pezinok. Outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Spiegel wondered whether Čaputová symbolized the beginning of the end for Eastern European populists.
But Europe may receive another, much nastier surprise from Slovakia in the upcoming elections to the European Parliament. The neo-Nazi “Kotleba—People’s Party Our Slovakia” (“Kotleba” being the name of the party’s far-right leader, Marian Kotleba) has alarming strength, and their MP Milan Mazurek is currently second on the Kotleba party’s candidate list for the European elections, poised to win a seat.
Milan Mazurek is pictured above during the “Protest against the Islamization of Europe,” in Bratislava in June 2015. A Saudi family visiting the city for the graduation of their son happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and the attendant neo-Nazis pelted them with stones, glass bottles, and choice language such as Mazurek’s “fuck your Allah!” This was the first but sadly not the last time that the Slovak public encountered Mazurek. A year later he was elected as an MP for the Kotleba party, and became a member of the parliamentary committee for human rights and national minorities, despite the fact that he’s on record claiming that the standard account of the Holocaust is a “fairy tale.” Mazurek is one of the party’s most popular and visible faces, and his recent conviction for racist statements against the Roma minority has likewise done nothing to lessen his standing among Kotleba voters. Quite the opposite, in fact, since he’s now polling well for the party in the EU elections.
The real problem with Mazurek is that he can’t be simply dismissed as a fringe thug. The Kotleba party’s electoral fortunes are on a long-term upward trajectory, which doesn’t seem to have peaked yet. Their first success—Marian Kotleba’s victory of a regional governorship in 2013—could still be downplayed as an expression of the voters’ frustration with the established elites, and Kotleba was indeed defeated four years later. But in the meantime, his party won 8 percent of the votes in the 2016 parliamentary elections, and they are currently polling at almost 14 percent, making them the second-strongest party in Slovak politics.
The situation is even worse with regard to the European elections. All across Europe, these elections are known for lower turnout than national races. But Slovakia is an extreme case of this trend. For the most recent European elections, the turnout in Slovakia was a mere 13 percent, less than a third of the European average. This poor participation naturally favors smaller but highly motivated voter blocs, such as the Kotleba party’s electorate. Even more alarming, their loud and ressentiment-fueled rhetoric, which blames (((nefarious foreign influences))) for all sorts of social ills, has found especially high support among high-schoolers. And if anyone was still wondering what the party’s attitude toward the future of EU is, a video from their recent trip to the “dark side of Brussels” speaks volumes: The party decries the “degeneracy” rampant in Brussels (represented mostly by shots of random people of color on the streets of Brussels and images of “LGBT propaganda”), which awaits you too, dear Slovaks, if you don’t stop it while you still can.
However, this picture of the rise of the Kotleba party wouldn’t be complete without mentioning its effects on the “standard” political parties. When the current governmental coalition was formed in 2016, the then prime minister, Robert Fico, claimed that his government would be “a barrier against extremism.” But what happened has in fact been a rather a steady normalization of Kotleba’s topics and rhetoric. To give two salient examples, Fico himself has vowed that he will not allow an “integral Muslim community” to be formed in Slovakia, and has accused the current president, Andrej Kiska, of planning last year’s anti-government protests with George Soros personally. (The protests were in fact triggered by the murder of the journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová.) And the government hasn’t been shy to use the votes of the Kotleba party whenever it suited them either.
Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, the founding father of Czechoslovakia, insisted that ordinary citizens must display courage and personal responsibility and demand the same especially of their elected representatives. This ethos is indispensable for a democratic state to work as intended. One of Masaryk’s best-known expressions of this ethos is “not to be afraid, not to lie, and not to steal.” The rise of Kotleba, Mazurek, and their likes is the result of the systematic neglect of these fine maxims by the “standard” political elites of post-Communist Slovakia. To paraphrase Masaryk again, Slovakia may have a democracy now, but it still lacks the democrats.
“Legendárne Faily Politikov,” still taken from Youtube video by Politika SK
Charles Stirton via Flickr, “Thomas Garrigue Masaryk“, CC BY-NC-ND.