Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko. Unless you are a Slovak native the chances are these words mean nothing to you. The first two words can be translated as ‘People’s Party’ – a euphemism used across Europe by political organisations of every persuasion to conjure images of solidarity, collective will and popularity. The second part of the phrase ‘Our Slovakia’ is slightly less ambiguous. Taken together, they represent the most recent strand of neo-fascism rearing its ugly (skin)head in eastern Europe.
In last weekend’s national elections, People’s Party-Our Slovakia took 8% of the vote, securing 14 seats in the 150-strong Slovak parliament. To put this into context, incumbent prime minister and leader of centre-left party Smer managed only 28%, and at the time of writing, has been unable to form a coalition. LSNS (to use its Slovak initials) has captured a significant slice of the electorate, and will enter parliament for the first time.
LSNS has its roots in the Slovak Brotherhood, an organisation born in the late 90s – one of many extreme-right wing groups that appeared at roughly the same time. It was not until 2000 that the party first gained recognition – its members began attending national memorial events wearing distinctive black uniforms, intentionally reminiscent of a fascist paramilitary group called the Hlinka’s Guards. Named after Andrej Hlinka, an influential Slovak priest and politician in the early part of the 20th century, the Guards were the central pillar of Slovak state police between 1938 and 1945. Trained by the SS, they played a leading role in the detention and subsequent deportation of Slovak Jews to Auschwitz.
The Slovak Brotherhood became a registered political party in 2005, but endured a torrid 2006 election, mustering a paltry 0.16% of the vote. Three years later, several leading members of the Slovak Brotherhood renamed an already existing marginal political party and LSNS was born. Led by Marián Kotleba, the party gained 1.33% of the vote in the 2010 elections – still far below the requisite 5% needed to enter the Slovak parliament. When this result was repeated two years later, it seemed the party were destined to remain peripheral to the point of insignificance. Four years later, still under Kotleba’s leadership, it has 14 seats in parliament and has become a significant voice in Slovakia’s fragmented political landscape.
Its party programme can be summarised in a single (hyphenated) word; anti-Roma. Party members describe the Roma population as criminals and ‘asocial parasites’ who abuse the welfare system (ironically, the same charge levelled at eastern Europeans by the UK’s own right-wing extremists). LSNS has organised anti-Roma rallies in areas with a significant Roma population in an effort to ignite pre-existing tensions, and in 2012, the party called for the implementation of a eugenics programme. Party leaders envisage a society based on ethnic origin rather than citizenship, and tragi-comically describe the LGBT movement as ‘sexual extremists’.
Like all extremist parties, LSNS reject the term, and instead attempt to hide their virulent neo-Nazism behind a cloak of anti-establishment populism. The party portrays the political elite as a corrupt, self-serving and indifferent to the needs of the ‘ordinary working man’. It advocates leaving the European Union, and claims the myriad other political parties are ‘lukewarm’, offering half-baked solutions to the Roma/migrant problem (sound familiar, Mr Farage?). It also proposes creating a home-guard style defence militia to ‘protect’ the Slovak people (give it a few years…).
In all seriousness, despite the comparisons with British right-wing extremists, the Slovak ‘equivalents’ are really nothing of the sort. While Ukip is undoubtedly toxic, as are Le Pen and her ilk, there is something quite different about having a party which claims direct political descent from the perpetrators of the Holocaust sitting in parliament.
The first major concern is the net effect of having an extreme right-wing party in the mainstream political debate. In essence, it poisons the discourse, like a drop of ink in a fish tank, slowly spreading across the entire political spectrum. Though it should be pointed out that this does not always occur, Slovakia offers a perfect example of extremism reframing the debate on its own skewed terms. Each of the eight political parties that gained parliamentary representation campaigned, to a greater or lesser extent, on an anti-migrant platform.
Despite his leftist credentials, the overall winner Robert Fico was no exception; his stance on immigration is akin to that of his neighbours Viktor Orbán (in Hungary) and Beata Szydło (in Poland). In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, Fico claimed he would “monitor all Muslims living in the country” and has since remarked that “integration with people of a different religion simply doesn’t work.” Fighting extremism with extremism is a deeply flawed strategy; indeed, such statements are slightly alarming coming from a man likely to play a leading role when Slovakia takes over presidency of the European Union in July.
A second major concern is the fact that, according to recent figures, the majority of first-time voters opted for LSNS. While it is common knowledge that far-right parties enjoy a significant degree of support among disaffected 50+ year olds, the fact that more and more young people are attracted to the party’s hateful rhetoric is worrying. This trend is repeated across the region; in Hungary, the majority of university students voted for Orbán’s Jobbik party. Youth disillusionment with the political establishment appears to be finding an outlet in the ‘populist’ parties of Eastern Europe – who, on their part, intentionally associate reduced employment prospects and other social concerns with rising levels of immigration. The fact that anti-migrant discourse is shaping the political present is disturbing; that it might shape the political future is downright depressing.
It should be pointed out that all parties have categorically ruled out any possibility of forming a coalition with the LSNS, thus leaving them isolated and relatively weak in Parliament. Nevertheless, the rise of LSNS from a rag-tag collection of neo-Nazis prancing about in their grandfathers’ uniforms to a significant political force should set alarm bells ringing across Europe.
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