Slovakia’s Presidential Election: When Playing the Conservative Card Doesn’t Work

Government Office of the Slovak Republic
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Government Office of the Slovak Republic

It is 25 March 2014, four days before the second round of Slovakia’s presidential election. The country is flooded with black-and-white billboards featuring a quote of civic candidate Andrej Kiska’s affirmative response to a question posed by the daily SME: “Are you for registered partnerships for homosexuals?” The billboards were part of a negative campaign against Kiska. The opposing candidate, Prime Minister Robert Fico, chairman of the Direction-Social Democracy party (Smer-SD), has consistently opposed such partnerships – which he has stressed repeatedly in televised debates.

On this particular day, each of the contenders met with representatives of Alliance for the Family, which is organising a petition to hold a referendum on protecting marriage and the family. Both men reacted similarly, assuring the representatives of Alliance that they would not ignore citizens’ rights to express their views in a referendum, but at the same time reminding them that a referendum can only involve questions which are in accordance with the constitution, and therefore they would be interested in learning the proposed referendum’s specific contents.

Alliance for the Family, an association of several dozen civic organisations and movements, was established at the end of 2013 in reaction to “current threats to the family in Europe and the world”, which it sees in the fact that “at the level of the European Parliament and other institutions as well as in individual EU countries [...] and countries of the world, laws, recommendations and other legislative documents are being pushed through which run counter to the exceptionality of marriage and the family.” According to Alliance for the Family, Slovakia faces such risks as well. For example, it sees a danger in the attempt – albeit unsuccessful – by certain MPs to enact legislation on registered partnerships in 2012; in the establishment of the Committee for the Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersexual Persons at the Government Council for Human Rights, Ethnic Minorities and Gender Equality in 2012; in the fact that the National Strategy for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights currently being prepared by the government is expected also to include the rights of LGBTI persons (2013); and in the proposed ratification of the so-called Istanbul Convention containing “dangerous gender terminology”.

Alliance for the Family wants a referendum because it apparently views as insufficient the recent political agreement between the opposition Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and the governing Smer-SD party to amend the constitution by inserting two sentences: “Marriage is the unique union of one man and one woman. The Slovak Republic broadly protects marriage and fosters its well-being.” According to Alliance for the Family, this step cannot sufficiently confront the “culture of death” which is eroding the tradition of Christian culture and morality. For this, changes are also necessary in education and other areas.

Two new sentences in the constitution as a "historic watershed event"?

By contrast, both of the political parties which “baked” this Christian-Democrat-initiated agreement ahead of the election are presenting it as a historic watershed event – and KDH didn’t even have to push hard to convince Smer-SD to go along. The party bearing the mantle of social democratic values found it easy to adopt the idea of strengthening constitutional protections for the traditional conjugal family. Cleverly, it also proposed another change to the constitution aimed at the judiciary – long neglected by the very same Smer-SD government.

Actually, the opportunity to support KDH came in quite handy for presidential candidate Fico, who in so doing wanted to “score points” among conservative voters. He endeavoured to win their support even before the first round with his “video confession”, in which he unexpectedly talked about his Catholic upbringing. It was left to the media to point out that Fico emphasised his atheism when joining the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and even later on. The return of the “lost son”, who earned the ironic nickname “Comrade Catholic” in public, was appreciated ahead of the election by several Church authorities – e.g. Cardinal Ján Chryzostom Korec, who expressed his support for Fico.

KDH – caught off guard by the very poor electoral showing of its presidential candidate, Pavel Hrušovský – won’t come up empty-handed, however. The constitutional amendment may serve to bandage the wound and at the same time – as several commentators have pointed out – as a key which could open the door to future governmental cooperation between right-wing conservative KDH and left-wing conservative Smer-SD.

In this regard, everything was going quite well ahead of the second round of the presidential election: in the first reading at the National Council, 103 MPs out of 126 MPs present voted for the proposed change to the constitution, representing over two-thirds of all 150 MPs in the body. Only five MPs opposed the change openly; disapproval was expressed mainly by absence or abstention from the vote.

MPs had evidently taken account of the fact, confirmed by a recent public opinion survey commissioned by KDH, that a large majority of the population approve (82%, of which 51% without reservation) of adding these two sentences to the constitution.

Two sentences in the constitution versus a diversity of family forms

At first sight, such massive support seems surprising. After all, in recent decades Slovak society has been experiencing an increasing diversity of forms of family cohabitation, which is in no way a departure from the pan-European trend. Even in Slovakia, despite a drop in abortions, there is a downward trend in birth rates and marriage rates; here, too, the number of children born and raised in unmarried family forms is on the rise.

The fact that most respondents declared their approval of a constitutional amendment emphasising protection of marriage as a union between a man and a woman evidently demonstrates that they do not ascribe great significance to it and do not expect it to have discriminatory consequences for other types of families.

At the same time, however, it is apparent that if citizens had a choice they would prefer specific legislative changes improving families’ social conditions to a constitutional amendment, as such changes would extend beyond the bounds of pro-family populism.

It is precisely in this spirit that some of the criticism of the proposed constitutional changes has appeared. As MP Martin Poliačik (Freedom and Solidarity – SaS) has pointed out, for example, families are threatened by a lack of financial resources, which can be addressed in a variety of ways: “Lifting the ban on receiving parental benefits while working under a short-term work contract, increasing maternity benefits from 55% to 65% of the daily assessment base, extending parental leave from 28 to 34 weeks. That’s a pro-family policy – not two pointless sentences in the constitution… The constitutional definition won’t prevent child abuse or prevent parents from succumbing to alcoholism and destroying their families.” According to Poliačik, “marriage doesn’t need constitutional protection; we need to help unmarried couples and same-sex couples.”

What are supporters of the constitutional amendment after?

Supporters of the constitutional amendment are clear in this regard. According to MP Martin Fronc of KDH, it is not possible to place the traditional family on the same level as same-sex couples, for “if we did that, the human race would die out.” Former Family Minister Viera Tomanová of Smer-SD has also backed the traditional family based on a man and a woman: “Every child should experience a proper model of a normal family; everywhere we look for pairs made up of a man and a woman, even among professional parents.”

It is evident from these statements by defenders of the constitutional amendment – and many more could be recalled – that they ascribe to it a pre-emptive character; its objective is to prevent the position of same-sex couples from being strengthened in Slovakia. It was to this that 28 organisations and 77 personalities reacted at the beginning of March with a letter to MPs calling on them to reject the proposed constitutional change. As Martin Macko, a representative of Initiative Otherness, has stated, “the proposed amendment in no way increases the existing constitutional protection of marriage, family, parenthood and children, which are also protected by international agreements and conventions on human rights. The only real goal of this amendment is to limit access by same-sex couples to the institution of marriage and probably also to any other legal recognition of their relationships.” Thus, the letter’s signatories called upon “MPs of the National Council to ensure that legislation and politicians recognise a diversity of family forms, and to adopt all legislative and administrative measures necessary to ensure that no family is discriminated against for reasons of sexual orientation or the gender identity of persons.”

The fact that this appeal fell upon deaf ears is not particularly surprising. After all, Robert Fico expressed himself rather clearly four years ago: “If I had to make a list of issues ranked by importance with 74 thousand items, a law on registered partnerships wouldn’t make it on the list.” Representatives of Smer-SD reject the objection that such a posture does not reflect a social-democratic orientation, arguing that social democracy in Slovakia has its own specifics. Also for this reason, Smer-SD did not support a renewed effort to pass legislation on registered partnerships in 2012 (although in 2002 this law was unsuccessfully promoted by the Party of the Democratic Left, from which Smer-SD ensued).

Tabooisation of the issue of sexual minorities

The fact that the constitutional amendment will weaken the chances for the enactment of a law on registered partnerships does not bother most of the Slovak public, however. A survey conducted in 2012 shows that less than half (47%) of citizens support such a measure, while 38% oppose it and 15% do not have a clear opinion.

According to Eurobarometer surveys in 2009 and 2012, just under one-third of people in Slovakia consider discrimination due to sexual orientation to be frequent, as compared to almost half of EU-27 residents. Barely one-fifth of the Slovak public believe that gays and lesbians “should openly proclaim their sexual orientation and fight for their rights”. Others believe, by contrast, that “they should be quiet and not demand any of their rights” or take a neutral position.

Tabooisation of minority sexual orientation is also evidenced by the low visibility of people of minority sexual orientation in public. According to a 2012 Eurobarometer survey, just 15% of respondents in Slovakia have such a person among their friends or acquaintances, while the EU-27 average is 41%. Similarly to other countries, the situation is least favourable in the countryside, as well as among older and less-educated people.

What the presidential election reveals about Slovakia

On the night of 29 to 30 March, Slovak society made a statement about itself: it elected Andrej Kiska as its new president. The fact that on this same night people turned their clocks forward is symbolic.

The presidential election dealt Prime Minister Robert Fico an unexpectedly crushing defeat. The appeal to conservative voters by “Comrade Catholic” proved insufficiently effective. Thus, thanks to the presidential election, Slovakia has received two gifts in the spring of 2014 which run counter to one another.

On the one hand, the amendment of the constitution will likely be carried out after the election with the goal of keeping Slovakia among the countries where laws ban discrimination against people of different sexual orientation in access to services and employment, but where such individuals do not – unlike their counterparts in most EU-28 countries – have the statutory option to conclude registered partnerships or to marry.

On the other hand, Slovakia will have a new president who not only has never been a member of the Communist Party, but who is also someone from whom greater respect for the needs of people of different sexual orientation for dignity and human rights can be expected in future. In this context, it is worth pointing out that in the first round of the election there were several candidates who supported or at least did not unequivocally reject the possibility of enacting a law on registered partnerships. This is a significant new development in Slovakia.

It is thus evident that the struggle to realise the vision of Slovakia as a home for everyone – including members of sexual minorities – is not over, and in the wake of the presidential election may enter a new, more hopeful phase.

On June 4th, 2014, Slovak Members of Parliament from SMER (Social-Democrats) and KDH (Christian-Democrats) now adopted the amendment to the Slovak Constitution to define marriage as a 'unique bond between a man and a woman'. Ruling party SMER agreed to the demand of opposition party KDH in exchange of their support for a judicial reform. Of 128 National Council Members present, 102 voted in favor of the measure, 18 voted against, 3 abstained, and 5 did not vote.