Last polls missed the voters’ sentiment

THE DIFFERENCE between Smer’s final vote-count in the general election and the exit polls on election day suggests a need for polling organisations to rethink their polling procedures and especially their exit-polling methods, said Kevin Deegan-Krause, a political scientist from Wayne State University in the US, who has been following political developments in Slovakia for a long time. Deegan-Krause, who closely observed Slovakia’s elections from across the Atlantic, listed HZDS dropping below the 5-percent parliament threshold as one of the most remarkable moments of the election.

THE DIFFERENCE between Smer’s final vote-count in the general election and the exit polls on election day suggests a need for polling organisations to rethink their polling procedures and especially their exit-polling methods, said Kevin Deegan-Krause, a political scientist from Wayne State University in the US, who has been following political developments in Slovakia for a long time. Deegan-Krause, who closely observed Slovakia’s elections from across the Atlantic, listed HZDS dropping below the 5-percent parliament threshold as one of the most remarkable moments of the election.

The Slovak Spectator: What was most surprising for you in the election results? Was there anything completely unexpected?

Kevin Deegan-Krause (KDK): I did not expect how inaccurate the final week of polling numbers would be and I was especially surprised by the difference between the exit polls and the final results: 6-7 percent difference between those polls and the reality for Smer is quite shocking. Even though exit polls are usually not particularly good at predicting final results, for both the Focus and MVK polling agencies to be so far off and in the same direction suggests a need to rethink polling and especially exit-polling methods, something that has occurred in a variety of countries, including my own. Fortunately, this particular surprise had little consequence except for those prone to extremes of euphoria or melancholy and by 02:00 [on Sunday] we could more or less predict the actual composition of the next coalition.

Beyond the election results themselves, the final days of the campaign produced some remarkable moments: HZDS giving out flour as an election enticement; Fico so concerned about a minor competitor as to brandish a “Don't vote SDĽ” sticker; the moment at 00:42 on election night when the updated election returns put HZDS below 5 percent for the first time ever in its history; and my sudden realisation around 02:00 that Slovakia would have its first female prime minister, news which my 6-year old daughter greeted with great enthusiasm.

TSS: The election turnout was expected to be very low, about 50 percent, yet the actual number hits 59 percent. What do you think was the reason for this unexpected interest by voters?

KDK: Well the problem is in the expectations rather than the interest. In my research for our last interview I found that voting intentions were not running behind 2006 and that in other elections there had been a slight uptick in turnout from the mid-2000s to the late-2000s and so there were little grounds for expecting a sharp decline.

A small share of turnout increase may be related to the emergence of several new parties which perhaps offered some motivation for turning out: Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), Most-Híd and SDĽ between them attracted more than 20 percent of the vote; it is not too big a stretch to think that without these plausible new parties some of the voters might have stayed home.

TSS: The election results for the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) have encouraged political analysts and opposition politicians to talk about the end of the Mečiar era. What does the fact that they were left outside parliament mean for the party's future?

KDK: The day after the 2006 election I plotted out trend lines for the various parties’ parliamentary delegations and found that the trend line for HZDS pointed precisely at 0 in 2010. I turned this into a provocative graph for my blog, but never ever expected it to be so accurate. Until about two months ago I figured the party would have enough reserve strength to scrape over the barrier. Now that HZDS is out of parliament it will be even harder to reverse that trend. Three forces work strongly against HZDS in the coming four years: history, demographics, and organisation.

History is not a causal factor but something to take a close look at to determine causes. Parties almost never return to parliament after dropping below the 5-percent threshold. Once out of parliament, parties tend to be forgotten and sink even further or disappear altogether as the several past examples indicate. In Slovakia the only major exception I can think of is SNS, which re-formed after its split in 2000 and managed to recover its initial electorate.

Demographics plays a major role in the sense that HZDS already had the oldest electorate in Slovakia's politics and it was aging at about one year per year. Even if all of its voters stayed loyal – something that obviously did not happen between 2006 and the present – it would still have fewer voters than it does now (and despite the picture of Mečiar with a laptop, a party that distributes flour on election day does not show strong signs of being able to reach out to younger voters). HZDS also has the oldest leader of any of Slovakia's major parties. Mečiar will be 72 in 2014 and he is already not the active campaigner and public presence that he once was.

HZDS organisation will also work against the party's recovery. A party with 4.4 percent might be able to recover to 5 and SMK will be trying to demonstrate their resilience – but not with the same leadership. The problem for HZDS is that Mečiar has systematically created a party that cannot live without him. Since every HZDS leadership challenge has ended up with the departure or expulsion of the challenger there is really nobody left in the party. HZDS and Mečiar are inseparable and for that very reason both appear to be without a political future.

TSS: What is behind the very high result for Smer? Why, on the other hand, did the support for SNS drop?

KDK: For SNS the results were actually highly consistent with the polls (with the occasional exception of Focus and the constant exception of the consistently-errant surveys by Median) which showed a long-term drop toward 5 percent, motivated I suspect (though I cannot prove it at the moment) by the party’s ever-lengthening list of scandals and outrageous remarks.

The question on many minds, I'm sure, is why the affairs surrounding the new Hungarian government did not cause its preferences to increase. I cannot be sure without looking into post-election polling numbers, but the answer may be that these simply did not resonate with voters in the way that they resonated in the media. Corruption appears to be more tangible and distasteful than statements from Budapest which do not have any clear personal impact for most voters. The other question is where the SNS voters went. Here the evidence suggests that as many as 1 percent of them went to Ľudová Strana Naše Slovensko, with its even more radical solutions, and that nearly all of the rest either left the electorate or went to Smer.

Voter choice is always relative, and for a voter with a nationalist orientation who nevertheless dislikes Slota or the corruption of his party, Smer is the next best nationalist alternative and less touched by scandal. This, however, raises the further question: Where did the Smer voters go?

From one perspective, Smer’s results are high only by the standards of the final week of polls, which we now know to be (for reasons unknown) in sharp error. Leaving aside the final week’s drop (and the polls of the final week proved in both 2006 and 2010 to make worse predictions than those from a month before) Smer lost more than 10 percentage points from its peaks during 2008.

A variety of experts argued at the time that many of these were ‘soft’ supporters who chose Smer as the default option since it was in government during a period of economic growth. The work of Andrew Roberts and others shows that incumbent parties in central Europe do tend to lose support during periods of economic decline and many of those softer supporters appear to have been affected by increasing unemployment and scandals involving those close to Smer. Where did they go? Some simply did not vote, others voted for SDĽ or KSS, and a significant number of the remainder appear (at least in pre-election surveys) to have opted for SaS. From a purely left-right ideological standpoint this shift seems unlikely, but if voter choice is relative and often non-ideological, then those who simply seek economic opportunity (without having a firm idea of how it should be brought about) and/or seek a cleaner alternative (the role that Smer itself played in 2002 and 2006) then SaS may be a reasonable choice.

My question is what happens to Smer now. It has always been a party that seeks opponents and it will find this easier to do from opposition, but it will face at least three big challenges:

First, it managed its increased result with a significant inflow of voters from SNS and HZDS and with rhetoric designed to attract those voters. It would not surprise me if the Smer electorate has not now moved significantly toward the older and rural side of Slovakia’s demographic spectrum, ending up where HZDS did in about 1994 or 1996. This will shape the party’s appeals, as will the weakness of SNS, and it would not surprise me to see Smer move even more fully into the ideological space formerly occupied by HZDS in the late 1990s of ‘the (not-as-radical-as-Slota) defender of Slovakia's national sovereignty’.

Second, Smer will be going from government to opposition with a very large parliamentary representation. It has been in opposition before and stayed very disciplined, but not with such a large group. It has had a large delegation before but not without the carrots (and sticks) of parliamentary and government offices. It will be interesting to see whether Smer can avoid splintering if some deputies, perhaps with savvy media advice and outside financial support, see an opportunity for doing better on their own, particularly if Smer itself inclines more toward the nationalist appeals.

Third, Smer’s own leader may be torn about what to do in 2014. Since 2008 I have heard persistent rumours that Fico would rather be president than prime minister. Because I work from the presumption that leaders would rather have more power than less, I have always discounted these rumours as either wishful thinking (by Fico's opponents) or misdirection (by Fico's supporters) but they have come up so often from so many sides that I sometimes have to wonder. If it is true that Fico would rather be president than prime minister, he will have his best chance to do so in 2014. Indeed it is hard to imagine a candidate who could come close to beating him in a one-on-one race and he will have the advantage of running from the opposition, without the burden of responsibility for government policies.

My suspicion still is that even with those advantages any politician I know would still rather be prime minister than president, but if Fico does opt for the presidency (or even lets his mind wander in that direction), then Smer will need to deal with tensions among a rather large and diverse group of second-tier politicians – Robert Kaliňák, Marek Maďarič, Dušan Čaplovič, Pavol Paška, Ján Počiatek, Monika Beňová and a few others – who may be looking to step into Fico’s shoes and who may not like it much when one of the others takes the spot.

TSS: How do you evaluate the results of the two parties representing primarily the ethnic Hungarian minority? Were the results surprising to you?

KDK: This one has always been opaque to me, in part because I cannot read the Hungarian press and because what I read in the Slovak press does not even allow me to pretend to know what is going on in the Hungarian community. And there were no precedents that would have allowed me to build a rough model based on past election data.

In principle I found it highly unlikely that the Hungarian parties would maintain the 55:45 split they needed to both stay viable but the polls pointed consistently at their near equality. If we discount [the Civic Conservative Party] OKS, whose preference votes accounted for almost 10 percent of all Most-Híd’s preference votes, the actual ratio of Most-Híd to SMK among ethnic Hungarians was probably about 7.2 to 4.4, so the final ratio was just a bit above 60:40.

It may be that Béla Bugár’s geniality and moderation were more of an electoral motivator than Pál Csáky's better organisation, but for a better understanding of why 20 percent more ethnic Hungarians favoured Bugár's new party rather than Csáky's more established one I look forward to a thorough and demographically-grounded analysis from Hungarian-speaking experts.

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