The town hall in Svidník. Photo by Peter Zelizňák via commons.wikimedia.com, CC0 (public domain)

European Parliament Elections: Land of the Non-Voters

Is there any hope that the forthcoming European elections will bring positive change for Slovakians? In fact, there is.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Slovakia’s EU accession. But in Svidník in northeastern Slovakia only a few people bother.

Svidník is the main city of one of the poorest and least developed regions in the country. Only here in the first round of the recent presidential election the majority of voters had backed Štefan Harabin, a right-wing populist. Harabin, however, didn’t get through to the second round, where two pro-European candidates, Zuzana Čaputová and Maroš Šefčovič, competed. Čaputová, a lawyer and activist with liberal views, ultimately beat opponent Vice President of the European Commission Šefčovič. From middle of June on she’ll be the country’s first female president and with her 45 years of age also the youngest.

The voter turnout at the European elections in Svidník will probably be lower than 15 percent. But not only there but throughout Slovakia, people have long kept away from the ballot boxes. In all the three European Parliament elections, in 2004, 2009 and 2014, Slovakia trailed every other country on turnout with only 17, 20 and 13 percent casting ballots respectively. Even this year’s presidential elections had only about 42 percent turnout in the second round.

Misuse of EU funds

There is no easy answer for that. One factor is that Slovakia is mired in corruption – and EU is to blame too. In theory, EU funds were supposed to reduce regional disparities. As practice showed, though, a system of clientelistic exchange has entrenched itself, with politicians directing funds at businesses that can later prove useful in mobilizing electoral support. In Slovakia, scandals over the misuse of funds are so common, that a new word was made up: “tunelovanie” – tunneling to siphon off taxpayers’ money.

In places like Svidník, EU is seen as a part of the problem not a solution. The whole northeastern region has no railway network, and the largest employer in the city is the hospital. The region has shifted only slightly from 46 to 52 percent in GDP per capita from 2007 to 2016, which is far below all the other regions in the country. Every year, some hundred people leave Svidník to find well-paying jobs elsewhere.

Almost one third of young people is eurosceptic

At first glance, it seems to be a generation divide. The older generations with experience under communism tend to think that economy – which keeps wages and pensions for Slovaks below EU average – was better off before accession. But that young people overwhelmingly support EU, is a myth. According to a 2017 Bertelsmann Stiftung’s survey, almost 30 percent of persons aged 15 to 24 think Slovakia’s membership is a bad thing. Many of those group around the neo-fascist People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS), which sees NATO as a criminal group and wants Slovakia to leave the EU.

Eurosceptics benefit from a storm of domestic factors – an unhealthy political system dominated by elite groups of politicians and murky businessmen, widespread corruption, poor public services, frustration and lack of perspectives – to win hearts of, especially, rural residents. The sad paradox is that all of these misdoings are associated with the most pro-European party in the parliament: the SMER-SD, economically left, socially right, which has been in power for eleven of the past 13 years.

“At the beginning, SMER-SD has raised hopes as a new breed of party: different, untainted by scandals,” Radovan Olejár, a local businessman, who is a former member of SMER-SD, said. “Soon it turned out it’s influenced from behind the scenes by shady businessmen and has no interest in conducting real changes.”

Slovakia made a huge step forward

However alarming the current situation may be, it would be good to take on a wider perspective. After all, Slovakia started from a different point than Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic. In the 1990s, the tight control of powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Mečiar over the economy and public institutions, his obscure contacts with local mafia, and nationalistic rhetoric accounted for and image of Slovakia as “a black hole in the heart of Europe”, in the words of former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Over the next years, the country has changed significantly. It didn’t fail to develop along western lines, as many feared when comparing Slovakia to Ukraine or Serbia. Since it joined the EU in 2004, its economy has generally boomed and living standards have gone up steadily. Today, it’s the only eurozone member among the Visegrad states, and, unlike eurosceptic Hungary or Poland, the majority of its citizens wants to move closer to the “core of the EU.”

Although for people in Svidník it may be a cold comfort, Slovakia, globally, made a huge step forward. This progress is proved by its high score in the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index BTI: the country was given 8.60 and 8.57 (out of 10) points in political and economic transformation respectively.

Progressive forces are on the rise

Slovakia is still riding a wave of activism inspired by massive protests that erupted after the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and the stunning victory of Čaputová in the presidential election. Čaputová has promoted herself as a face of a new generation of leaders. In a recent poll, Progressive Slovakia (PS) and TOGETHER – Civic Democracy, two non-parliamentary parties, which group together this new generation and have backed Čaputová, jumped from 7.5 to 14.4 percent of support and head for the second place in the EU election.

There’s been “high demand for change”, Irena Bihariová, a PS deputy chairwoman, told me. “It can either turn into the rise of anti-elite movements, or, as in our case, a constructive alternative to those who defend the status quo.”

If this trend continues, Slovakia may become a rising force to halt the spread of right-wing populism across Central Europe. Unlike in Hungary or Poland, its pro-European elites are on the rise. Yet, it’s much too early to call Slovakia a liberal and progressive avant-garde in the region. First task for new elites is this: to draw closer rural residents, who feel largely ignored by all the democratic governments, to the mainstream of society – and make EU sexy again all over the country.

Photo: The town hall in Svidník. Photo by Peter Zelizňák via commons.wikimedia.com, public domain: https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.de

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