Migration, elections and extremism: the case of Slovak politics

Migrants at Eastern Railway Station - Keleti, 2015.09.04
Teaser Image Caption
Migrants at the Eastern railway station in Budapest (September 2015)

During the March 2016 Slovak parliamentary election campaign even moderate parties adopted anti-immigrant language in the hope of capturing some of the far right vote. The strategy backfired as far-right politicians took their place in parliament for the first time since the fall of the communist regime.

Migration was one of the most debated issues in the run up to the recent Slovak elections (March 2016) and it considerably influenced the results. This might seem rather strange as Slovakia, a country of relatively small numbers of foreign migrants (only one percent which is one of the lowest rates in the EU), has not been affected by the recent waves of migration from the Middle East and North Africa. It would appear that Slovakia is not regarded as a desirable destination country for those seeking safety or a better life. Nevertheless, many mainstream Slovak politicians made migration the core of their election strategy. As a result, Our Slovakia, a far-right extremist neo-Nazi party won seats in the Slovak parliament. The more xenophobic elements of the electorate considered them a more authentic defender of Slovakian values than parties with moderate profiles that had opportunistically employed anti-migration rhetoric in their election campaigns.

Before 2015, the issue of foreign migration was marginal in Central Europe, both in terms of public interest and its impact on the political and ideological preferences of local populations. Since the summer of 2015, however, migration has been the focus of a sharp political struggle that has affected relations between the Central Europe countries, the EU institutions and Western European states.

Visegrad 4 go against EU

Today the so-called Visegrad V4 Group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) behaves as the toughest opponent of the EU proposal to redistribute the burden of refugees from those countries currently taking the strain (e.g. Greece and Italy) by refusing to accept any refugees. In September 2015, the Slovak government, along with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania, voted at the European Council against mandatory quotas for the redistribution of 120,000 immigrants, even though Slovakia was only required to take in 802 persons under the emergency relocation scheme. The V4 also rejected the European Commission’s proposal for Member States to provide financial support in the form of a fixed sum for each migrant rather than have them stay in their territory. In December 2015, the Slovakian and Hungarian governments filed a lawsuit at the European Court of Justice against the EU for this decision.

Xenophobia used by centre parties for short term political gains 

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, a self-proclaimed social democratic, has taken a most radical anti-migration stance. At the election rallies of his party Smer-SD (Direction–Social Democrats) he warned that thousands of terrorists were arriving in Europe hidden among the migrants. He emphasized to supporters that nobody from outside could dictate that Slovakia should take in “tens of thousands of migrants” (a figure not substantiated by the EU). He claimed he would not want to have “close knit Muslim communities” in Slovakia, as they could not be properly integrated into Slovak society on the grounds that they were too different.

Government officials declared that the most that would be possible would be for Slovakia to take in a small number of Christian migrants. Even this modest declaration met with negative reactions from Fico’s own native village of Hrušovany, where residents protested against the settlement of 10 members of a group of 150 Iraqi Assyrian Christians brought to Slovakia by a Christian charity organization. This reaction is hardly surprising when one considers, why would the compatriots of Robert Fico be more tolerant and open to foreigners than he is?

Unintended consequences - far right forces make it into parliament

It is therefore not surprising that the wave of anti-immigration hysteria stirred up during the March 2016 parliamentary election campaign has led to a strengthening of far-right forces that have, for the first time since the fall of the communist regime, won representation in the legislative assembly. They took 8 per cent of the vote, three times more than the polls predicted. This hysteria, however, did nothing to help Fico’s party, Smer-SD, as they only managed 28 per cent of the votes against the 44 per cent gained in the previous 2012 election.

After the election the anti-migration rhetoric has eased, but the new government has not withdrawn its December 2015 lawsuit against the European Commission for its decision to distribute 120,000 immigrants among the EU member states.

Unfortunately the xenophobia genie, cynically let out of the bottle for the purposes of stoking pre-election hysteria, cannot be put back in. When Slovak extremists were only gaining 1,6 per cent of the vote they were considered marginal and therefore not dangerous. As a result their racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma excesses were tolerated or even de facto pardoned by the state. Today they sit in parliament, presenting their malignant views as an established political force. The tragedy is that the direct and indirect co-creators of the atmosphere that has strengthened the extremists have been the moderate political forces unsuccessfully using latent xenophobia for their own short-term political ends.

The virus of extremism is dangerous and disruptive, especially in democratic societies that allow free speech. It is especially dangerous when the political mainstream adopts its language in the hope of gaining electoral advantage. The case of these Slovak parliamentary elections serves as a warning not only for Slovakia but also for Europe.

This article is part of our dossier "Crossing borders – refugee and asylum policy in Europe".