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No easy read on what Fico wants

AFTER its comprehensive election victory, there is now absolutely no reason why the Smer party cannot implement its entire political agenda – the question that must now be answered is what that political agenda is, and how the various factions within Smer will move to advance or retard particular interests, says Kevin Deegan-Krause, an associate professor of political science at Wayne State University and a long-term observer of Slovak political trends.

AFTER its comprehensive election victory, there is now absolutely no reason why the Smer party cannot implement its entire political agenda – the question that must now be answered is what that political agenda is, and how the various factions within Smer will move to advance or retard particular interests, says Kevin Deegan-Krause, an associate professor of political science at Wayne State University and a long-term observer of Slovak political trends.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Deegan-Krause, a Fulbright Scholar and a former consultant to the US Department of State on the politics of central Europe, about the election result, the prospects for the right and the art of predicting election results.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What surprised you the most about the outcome of this election?
Kevin Deegan-Krause (KDK):
The magnitude of the Smer victory was impressive and on the high end of the party’s polling, but it was not out of the range of normal polling for the party. Though we have clearly moved from a time when Smer underperformed its polling to a period when it over-performs. All of the “surprises” in this election were in the “known-unknown” category, things we knew we did not know, and related mostly to the performance of parties on the threshold of 5 percent. Indeed in the final Focus poll there were 6 parties within two percentage points of 5 percent, and it was possible to envision more than a 35-percent swing in party votes based on only a 6-percent overall swing in public opinion, if all went in precisely the right direction. In this case there would have been a surprise no matter what happened. As it was, though, the surprises generally broke the way of the prediction, if not to the degree. For my own part I was certainly surprised about the performance of Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO), but for the others I was not as surprised, especially the weak performance of the Slovak National Party (SNS) and the strong performance of the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), which seemed to be in the cards from early on. In that sense my biggest surprise was the inability of Christian Democratic Party (KDH) and Most-Híd to capitalise on the disarray within the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) and Freedom and Solidarity (SaS). But in retrospect, though it does complement the SDKÚ, the KDH is not really a full-blown alternative for most SDKÚ voters, so I probably should not be surprised.

TSS: Pollsters predicted a historically low turnout for the elections. In the event, the turnout was actually higher than in 2010. What factors mobilised voters in your opinion?
On this I will wait for the verdict of those closer to the ground than I am. In the past, especially in 2010, I disagreed with those who predicted very low turnout, because the evidence did not actually point in that direction, but this year so many of the polls showed a high level of uncertainty in the immediate pre-election period that I assumed along with the pollsters that some of those voters would simply not turn out. It is worthwhile to point to a long-term trend of stabilisation in turnout rates in Slovakia at every level. Turnout declined steadily in most races through the mid-2000s but since then it has stopped declining and in many cases has picked up slightly.

TSS: For the first time since 1989 a single party is able to form the government in Slovakia. What do you think is the reason for this development?
This is a combination of strong party-building on one side and fragmentation on the other. [Smer leader Robert] Fico has built a party that can attract 40+ percent of the vote on a regular basis. Nobody has done that before. [HZDS leader Vladimír] Mečiar had a brief moment of scores at that level but nothing like Fico’s eight-year run above 35 percent. For this Fico must get the credit. After his disappointing performance in 2002 he wisely moved into relatively vacant territory on the economic left, mopped up the party institutions around him on the ideological spectrum, and then proceeded to move tentatively into the Slovak-national territory as well, where he was able to take advantage of sclerosis within the HZDS and the SNS. What is more he has managed personally to keep this increasingly diverse party together, with no defections and no major breaks in discipline. I spent many years thinking and predicting that this could not last, but it has.

The other part of Fico’s clear lead in parliamentary seats is the fragmentation outside of his party. While he has sheltered and integrated multiple positions, his opponents have fragmented, producing four parties oriented to Slovak national questions at the cost of the parliamentary representation of the largest one, SNS, two parties oriented to Hungarian national questions, one of which just barely failed to get enough votes, and four significant right parties. The pure vote loss on the right was no greater than on the left, as it would have been if SaS had fallen a bit more, and so this cannot be blamed on fragmentation of the right, but this does not include all of the small, programmatically unclear parties that sought to grab at least some voters disillusioned by the Gorilla scandal, including 99 Percent, SSS, and a few others. In 2012 almost 20 percent of Slovaks voted for parties that did not meet the threshold, the greatest percentage since 1992 when things were (in theory) much more uncertain, and it is because of that factor that Fico’s impressive 44.4 percent of the vote became a far more impressive 55 percent of the seats. If a mere 1.2 percent of the electorate had switched from one of the smaller parties to the SNS and the SMK in the right proportions, those parties would both be in parliament, Fico would have only 74 seats, and we would now be waiting tensely on coalition talks.

TSS: What are the implications of a single-party government for Slovakia? Do you expect the second government of Robert Fico to be in some ways different in terms of its ruling style compare to the first one?
We are in nearly uncharted territory here. We will be moving from a period when the most important political divisions are quite visible in the space between coalition partners to a period when the most important political divisions will be within a single party, a party that has traditionally kept its internal conflicts muted. There is now absolutely no political reason why Smer cannot adopt its entire political agenda, but now the question will be what Smer’s political agenda is, and how the various factions within Smer will move to advance or retard particular interests. It is not always easy to get a read on what Fico really wants, or on the degree to which he is constrained by factions and sponsors, much less by the EU and other international institutions. For a while at least, the study of Slovakia’s politics is going to be a lot more like the old science of Kremlinology, in which we must read hidden messages in the discourses of those who are all ostensibly on the same side.

TSS: How do you assess the performance of the right-wing parties? How will the right now perform in opposition after the SDKÚ and SaS were significantly weakened?
The right wing has a chance to reboot here, and it will be interesting to see what form that will take. The good news is that the damage to the SDKÚ and SaS was severe enough to suggest that they look hard at their own internal structures and leadership. In the SDKÚ this is already underway, and the SDKÚ has enough of an internal structure to withstand some shake-up and modification. With Lucia Žitňanská in charge, the SDKÚ will become one of only two parties not still run by its founding leader. The KDH is the other, and while the party did not do badly enough to undergo an overhaul, [Daniel] Lipšic’s first place showing in preference ballots and the success of some others may shift the weight of emphasis within the party and allow it to play a stronger, more energetic role. As for OĽaNO, I hesitate to predict anything, but that hesitancy is a sign to me that the party, if it remains together as a party, will be able to play a sustained constructive role.

I think the bigger question is the one that I have been coming back to lately, which is the attraction of “the new”. A revitalised SDKÚ might be able to fill that role, but there’s always the chance of yet another new party. After all, there has only been one election in the past 20 years that did not produce at least one new parliamentary party (HZDS, ZRS, SOP, ANO, Smer, SaS, OĽaNO) and it’s not out of the question that we could see yet another new entrant on Slovakia’s right (or in the Slovak-national space). The experience of 99 Percent says to me that there are limits to the artificiality of such efforts, but as Mečiar, Ľupták, Schuster, Rusko, Fico, Sulík and Matovič have demonstrated, an attractive candidate with some financial backing can change the political landscape quite significantly.

TSS: The Sme daily commented that unlike Slovak polling agencies you determined the election gain almost exactly, while pollster Martin Slosiarik suggested that it might have been accidental. What is your response?
Martin Slosiarik was absolutely correct when he pointed out that my adjustments of the election polls were not based on any deep methodology. At the time I was looking for any guides to how to interpret the numbers we were receiving and my inclination is always to look at the past numbers. But the fact that both MVK and Focus were wrong in the same way in 2010 suggested to me that there might be some characteristics of particular party voters that cause them to answer in particular ways in exit polls and that this pattern might repeat itself over time. I never meant to cast aspersions on the quality of exit-polling work, and I tried to be very clear about this in the blog posts, because I know how difficult good polling is and I am so very glad we have Focus and MVK and other careful firms to gather this data in Slovakia. Without their work, we would have no basis on which to make any guesses. I would also note that Focus’ revision of the exit-polling results was extremely accurate, so depending on what methodology they used for that, there may be hope for future exit polls.

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