Life is good in Hlohovec, a castle town nestled on the banks of the Váh river in southwestern Slovakia. With a thriving auto industry, it has one of the country’s lowest unemployment rates. Salaries here are 10 percent above average.
But that is not all that bucks the national trend. So does support for the radical right.
In recent European Parliament elections, 16 percent of voters in the Hlohovec district backed the People’s Party - Our Slovakia (ĽSNS), widely seen as neo-fascist. In one of the town’s electoral districts, support for the party topped 30 percent.
That compared with 12 percent backing for ĽSNS nationwide, putting it in third place behind a coalition of progressive parties and the ruling Smer party.
The result in Hlohovec left experts scratching their heads.
“I’m not sure about looking for rational reasons,” Hlohovec Mayor Miroslav Kollár said. “The social dimension of support for the radicals that might be understandable in areas with high unemployment rates and low salaries doesn’t apply here.”
The received wisdom is that extremism tends to thrive in areas of socio-economic deprivation where far-right populists can jab at festering resentments and scapegoat easy targets: minorities, migrants, liberal elites in distant cities.
But that hardly squares with this affluent town of 20,000 people.
Located close to two of Slovakia’s four big auto factories and the Jaslovské Bohunice nuclear power plant, Hlohovec boasts an unemployment rate of under 2 percent, according to the Central Office of Labour, Social Affairs and Family.
And with the capital, Bratislava, an hour’s commute away, the town is not exactly in the boondocks.
Despite its advantages, locals from Hlohovec and its surrounding municipalities have disproportionately backed ĽSNS in recent parliamentary, presidential and EU elections.
Led by Marian Kotleba, a former schoolteacher known for his admiration of the Slovak puppet state of Nazi Germany during World War II, ĽSNS has held 12 seats in parliament since 2016. Kotleba ran for president in March, coming fourth.Related articleRead more
His party tends to achieve its best results in northern and central regions with low employment and where tensions run high with marginalised Roma communities — not much of a problem in Hlohovec.
For sociologist Oľga Gyarfášová, towns like Hlohovec are anomalies that show that populist disenchantment is a mindset that does not always match reality.
“Social frustration and comparative deprivation [when people feel that others have more than they do] is the result of a subjective assessment of the situation that might significantly differ from the data about low unemployment rates, salaries and purchasing power,” she said.
According to Mayor Kollár, voters in Hlohovec have historically favoured strong leaders — first the authoritarian-leaning Vladimír Mečiar in the 1990s and later Robert Fico, who has led the ruling Smer party for the past 15 years.
In 2012, at the peak of Smer’s strength, Fico’s party scooped up slightly more than 50 percent of the town’s vote.
In the 1990s, Mečiar’s People’s Party - Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the similarly nationalist Slovak National Party together used to get more than 55 percent here.
“Now that these parties are losing support, people are moving towards parties that are perhaps even more undemocratic, authoritarian and extremist,” said Kollár, who organised a counter-protest to a rally of ĽSNS supporters in the town ahead of EU elections in May.
Back in the 1990s, sociologist Vladimír Krivý set out to draw an electoral map of Slovakia’s regions.
He found that areas that particularly favoured HZDS were almost identical to strongholds of the fascist Slovak People’s Party (HSĽS) during World War II. This national-populist tendency, as Krivý called it, holds true for Hlohovec.
Town chronicles reveal that Hlohovec had its own regional cell of the Hlinka Guards, a fascist paramilitary group, from October 1938.
A photo taken that year shows the Hlinka Guards marching through the main square during a visit to the town of top HSĽS officials.
“The locals were very welcoming of this ideology back then,” said historian and Hlohovec native Marián Kamenčík, citing a survey recorded in the town chronicles showing that 70 percent of Hlohovec residents approved of the political leadership of the country shortly after the HSĽS won at the ballot box in 1938.
For sociologist Gyarfášová, this is evidence of “some kind of ‘territorial memory’ and a leaning towards the authoritarian parties that is transferred from generation to generation”.
But she added: “It is not the whole explanation”.
Young men in uniforms
Across the Váh river is Šulekovo, a large village that is administratively part of Hlohovec. The two electoral districts in Šulekovo post higher support for ĽSNS than the town does — over 30 percent in one of the districts.
Šulekovo is also one of the few villages in the region with a Roma minority, the usual target of far-right slogans in Slovakia.Related articleRead more
Locals say Roma families have lived here for as long as anyone can remember, mostly in the village centre. While in reality there are few tensions between Roma and other residents, Kollár concedes that some people in Šulekovo do complain about these families.
For a number of years, the village was the site of annual marches by members of Slovak Togetherness, a far-right group formerly led by Kotleba. (The group was banned in 2006 on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, though it continued as a civic organisation.)
The lure for the marchers was the village’s memorial to Viliam Šulek and Karol Holuby, members of a 19th-century nationalist movement led by renowned poet and philosopher Ľudovít Štúr.
The two were tried and executed for taking part in a revolution against the monarchy in 1848, and the village was later named after Šulek.
While some villagers recall the Slovak Togetherness marchers wearing black uniforms like those of the Hlinka Guards, few see a connection between the village’s notoriety as a neo-fascist pilgrimage site and recent election results.
The vogue vote
Ratkovce is a village of some 350 people on the northern edge of the Hlohovec district. In the recent European Parliament vote, ĽSNS scored more than 24 percent here.
Locals also disproportionately backed Kotleba in his run for president in March, handing him first-round victory in Ratkovce with 23.7 percent.
“The support for ĽSNS is distributed among all groups of residents,” said Martin Červenka, mayor of the village since 2010. “There is no particular type of people who you could say vote for this party in our village.”
He admits he finds the far-right leanings of some of his fellow citizens perplexing.
“Even good people who are always ready and willing to help others identify themselves with these slogans,” he said, blaming ignorance and political apathy.
“People basically don’t have major problems here, so sometimes they simply need to make them up,” he said.
It is precisely the lack of problems that puzzles the experts.
“This is an issue that troubles many sociologists and psychologists nowadays — we cannot give generally valid factors that lead people to vote for extremist parties,” Gyarfášová said.Related articleRead more
She does not rule out the possibility that supporting ĽSNS has simply become fashionable for some — especially teenagers.
She cited a recent study (in Slovak) of the causes of radicalisation of Slovaks aged 14-17, which found that right-wing extremism cuts across geographies, age groups, family circumstances, ethnicity, social backgrounds and other divisions.
“Young people vote for Kotleba out of protest, to define themselves against the mainstream, but they do not realise that this party undermines the foundations of democracy,” Gyarfášová said.
The attraction of Kotleba is that he names problems directly, eschews political correctness and speaks up against corruption and cronyism, she added.
Juraj Hladký, a university lecturer who also serves as deputy mayor in Leopoldov, a small town next to Hlohovec, said he knew no older people who support Kotleba.
The reason that young people tend to fall for extremist slogans is that Slovakia has no “active education of people towards peace, or towards tolerance”, he said, citing low awareness of the Holocaust as an example.
“This is the only thing that I really fear: that this ‘brown [fascist] ideology’, very insidious, will come back,” Hladký said. “And I don’t feel like anyone in Slovakia really cares about that. That’s the terrible part – politicians are only able to unite when their own personal benefits and profit are at stake.”
This story was produced in partnership with Reporting Democracy, a cross-border journalism platform run by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.