Kotleba voters likely reticent to speak out in polls

In two decades watching Slovak elections, analyst says he has never seen a party's results take as big a leap over pre-election data

BBSK regional governor Marian KotlebaBBSK regional governor Marian Kotleba (Source: SITA)

KEVIN Deegan-Krause, who has been researching behaviour of Slovakia’s voters and the electoral trends in the country practically ever since Slovakia started running its own elections after 1993, says he has never seen a party take such a big leap as the far right party of Marian Kotleba did in the March 5 election. In an e-mail interview with The Slovak Spectator, Kevin Deegan-Krause responds to questions not only about the results of the parliamentary election but also about the electoral system in Slovakia as such.

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The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Surprise is a word that we have used quite a lot on the election night. What was the biggest surprise for you?

Kevin Deegan-Krause (KDK): As an outside observer without daily contact with Slovakia’s politics, there is a lot I do not know and a lot I can be surprised about, and my degree of surprise is almost perfectly related to the difference between the final polls and the actual results.  For the sake of clarity, I’ve gone and arrayed the differences between the final polls and the predictions in the attached table. The least surprising results were for parties that only slightly underperformed: SNS and Most-Híd. Smer’s underperformance was actually no more significant than for SNS and Most-Híd, but the raw difference in percentage points – an average of 5.8 percentage points across all four major polls – makes it seem more significant.  Underperformance by KDH was not much greater than for Smer, and not much more unexpected (both were on a declining trend in the period before the election), but it ended having the more significant (and surprising) outcome of KDH’s exclusion from parliament (an outcome that was in doubt until late into election night as the party dropped below 5.00 hovered around 4.90 but never rose above 4.95).

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TSS: The main story of the elections clearly is the 8 percent for Kotleba. Should we have seen this coming? Apparently few people did.

KDK: I always think that I should have seen this kind of thing but frankly in two decades of looking at Slovakia’s elections, I’ve never seen party take this big a leap: over three times greater than the average polls and without any kind of trend.  We’ve seen parties below the threshold jump above, but in nearly every case, such parties have shown a positive trend prior to the election.  Not so for ĽSNS which had showed little growth and no inclination toward a jump.  Of course in perfect hindsight the party’s votes may have been a bit reticent about declaring themselves (we saw the same with Kotleba’s voters in the regional governor’s race, but we’ve also seen times where ĽSNS did not exceed the polls) and the inflamation of the migration issue probably helped the party a great deal, but clearly the party’s rise did not trigger the normal indicators.  It’s a pretty safe bet that in future elections, observers will try to find some other ways of tracking the party’s underlying support levels.

TSS: What are the peculiarities of election system in Slovakia, when viewed from abroad, maybe in comparison with other election systems?

KDK: Slovakia is in many ways the most normal of electoral systems. It is, at least, one of the most straightforward, with a standard 5-percent threshold, a standard quota method for translating votes into seats (so simple that any voter can do it) and a single district, and thus a common ballot across the country. That single district does make Slovakia a bit unusual (since most countries with proportional representation do include regional subsections).

TSS: Do you consider the system just? The 5-percent threshold has been questioned repeatedly, for instance.

KDK: Since thresholds have traditionally been proposed as ways of reducing extremism and fragmentation, the current results in Slovakia do not exactly justify their use. Still, it is possible that without a threshold, the fragmentation (if not the extremism) would be worse.  A 4-percent threshold would have put ten parties in parliament and added parties with distinct profiles (though not necessarily extreme). This year, the absence of parties between 4 percent and 1 percent means that even elimination of the threshold altogether would not have added any other parties to parliament.

The bigger question is how thresholds affect voting behavior, particularly as it interacts with the two-week polling blackout. In normal circumstances, the threshold forces voters to make a strategic decision between the party a voter prefers and the party a voter thinks may exceed the threshold. The shorter the poll blackout period, the better chance voters have to make a correct assessment. The two-week blackout makes it virtually impossible in the case of many parties for voters to make a strategic decision, though it may, ironically, increase the likelihood that voters vote their conscience.

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