Political Right On the Rise in Central Europe

After the election of the conservative Fidesz party in Hungary last month, neighboring Slovakia is also taking a right turn, evicting the imcumbent prime minister in favor of an array of small parties campaigning of a platform of free market capitalism and ethnic harmony.

Since the ascendance of a right-wing coalition in September 2002, Slovakia has pushed through market reforms and prospered spectacularly. Major privatizations, especially in finance, are nearly complete while foreign investment is rising. Slovakia does suffer from a high unemployment rate, currently second in Europe. The country has been a member of the European Union and of NATO since 2004 and adopted the euro in January 2009.

Prime Minister Robert Fico led a broad government of social democrats, nationalists and conservatives since July 2006. Both minority partners lost significantly in April’s parliamentary elections. Fico managed to win rather more votes than four years ago but due to the collapse of his coalition and a surge in support for newcomers, the opposition, headed by christian democrat Iveta Radičová, is expected to form a new government. The sociology professor will become Slovakia’s first female prime minister. Her party won just 28 seats in parliament but should be able to gather 79 out of 150 seats for a new coalition.

Newcomers include Most-Híd (from the Slovak and Hungarian words for “bridge”), formerly rooted in Slovakia’s Hungarian minority but now seeking to cross the ethnic divide as well as Freedom and Solidarity, zealously neoliberal and architect of Slovakia’s flat tax.

The party of Vladimír Mečiar, who, as prime minister, led Slovakia to a disengagement from the Czech Republic and was heavily criticized for his authoritarian tendencies, failed even to pass the 5 percent treshold required to enter parliament. The xenophobic Slovak National Party squeaked in, losing more than half of its seats. Both were Fico’s coalition partners and have apparently disqualified him in the eyes of mainstream voters.

The new coalition faces daunting challenges. One is to rein in public spending. Slovakia’s deficit has risen to 6.8 percent of GDP following an economic contraction of almost 5 percent last year. The other is to repair ties with Hungary which have been damaged in recent years over language disputes and a Slovakian law that strips people of their passports if they take dual Hungarian citizenship. Radičová has signalled that she wants to get rid of this measure and for good reason: Hungary ranks among Slovakia’s foremost trading partners.

Slovakia’s election results echo those of the Czech Republic two weeks prior where perceived corruption on the part of traditional parties swung votes behind newcomers as well, particularly in Prague and among young people. The social democrats lost 18 seats in the republic’s Chamber of Deputies whereas the new, liberal conservative TOP 09 won 41, making it the third-largest party in the country.

TOP 09 is led by the aristocratic former foreign affairs minister Prince Karel Schwarzenberg and champions free markets and European integration. He is set to form a coalition with the slightly more conservative Civic Democratic Party and the other newcomer, Public Affairs, which campaigned on transparency in government and fiscal conservatism.

Public finances are a matter of concern in the Czech Republic as well. The country wants to bring down its deficit to the European maximum of 3 percent by 2013, down from 5.3 percent this year. It will probably be more difficult to effectively put an end to corruption. The old parties maintained dangerously close ties with Czech business for so many years that it might be hard to root out this “cancer,” as Schwarzenberg calls it, within short time.