ELECTION campaigns often unleash the basest political instincts. When observers assumed that in this year’s elections to the eight self-governing regions that attempts to mobilise voters based on ethnicity would be avoided, they were wrong. Traditionally, Nitra has been the region where “wide-Slovak coalitions” emerged in several elections to unite parties across the political spectrum in an attempt to weaken the election chances of ethnic Hungarian candidates.
This year however the battlefield moved to Trnava Region where after incumbent governor Tibor Mikuš failed to secure re-election in the first round, he will face József Berényi, the head of the Party of Hungarian Community (SMK), in a run-off. Despite continuous disagreements between SMK and Most-Híd (the latter emerged after the split of the SMK) the party of Béla Bugár, Most-Híd, will support Berényi.
Prime Minister Robert Fico, who will certainly not enter history as a minority-friendly politician, rushed to campaign for Mikuš and called for his electorate to come out to elect their own governor “because we are in Slovakia”. Fico argued that the ethnic Hungarian parties are uniting to elect a Hungarian governor “in Trnava, a Slovak town”.
While not seeking to comment one way or another on Berényi’s abilities to run a region, campaigning based on ethnicity reopens those old cellars where the ghosts of nationalism wait for their chance to escape. In Slovakia these sentiments can be easily reignited as they remain just below the surface among certain segments of the population.
Bugár was nevertheless quick to point out that Smer does not seem to mind the activities of ethnic Hungarians when, for example, they involve the support of Smer’s candidate Zdenko Trebuľa in Košice Region, where victory eluded the incumbent by a narrow margin.
Ethnic Hungarians will still have a decisive say in Nitra Region where Tomáš Galbavý, the joint candidate of right-wing parties and one of the surprises of the first round of regional elections, picked up as much as 37.3 percent of the vote, enough to make incumbent Milan Belica of Smer nervous. It is not accidental at all that Galbavý greeted his audience at a rally with “Jó estét kívánok”, meaning “good evening” in Hungarian, and earlier suggested that he is learning Hungarian.
Unfortunately, there remains little focus on, for example, the policies the candidates stand for or scrutiny of how realistic their promises are, perhaps because at the end of the day, something else will be the deciding factor.
The most serious case of race and ethnicity playing a key role in voting is in Banská Bystrica Region, whose electorate might end up on a wall of shame should they fail to send a strong signal and reject far-right extremist Marian Kotleba – who has in the past routinely dressed in outfits resembling the uniforms of the wartime militia, the Hlinka guards, and called one of Slovakia’s largest minorities “parasites”.
Kotleba’s presence brings many challenges to the media, politicians but also regular citizens. The media has to negotiate its own ethical standards and pick the right way to report about the man who has been charged with the crime of supporting a movement oppressing human rights. There are many tough questions. How much coverage is sufficient to make the audience aware of the whole story around Kotleba’s success? Do we tell the story without giving much space to Kotleba’s own interpretations or will we trust the intellect of the reader to decide? Of course more caution should be applied on a portion of the media, which often reported on Kotleba merely to shock the audience and generate more clicks and viewership.
Politicians will also have to make tough choices: will they endorse Smer’s candidate Vladimír Maňka, who will square off against Kotleba in the second round, even if they are opposed in principle to everything Smer says and does?
If past elections are any evidence, it seems more than half of Slovakia’s population is cursed with opting for lesser-evil votes. A vote for the lesser evil brought Ivan Gašparovič to the presidential palace and has helped many others climb into governments. In Banská Bystrica much more is at stake. The vote is about what response a region and indeed a country gives to a dangerous phenomenon, which seems to be gaining force thoroughout Europe, and if ignored, could see options go from bad to worse.