Threats to Democracy in Slovakia

Introduction

In 1989, communist regimes crumbled in Central Europe. To a large extent, it was due to communism’s inability to keep pace with the economic development seen in the democratic world. A standard of living, which was lagging behind, was an important cause of dissatisfaction among people in the region. The process of catching up started with the transition to democracy and market economy.

Despite nearly three decades of progress, recent troubling trends in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary – the so-called Visegrad Group or V4 – show that democratic development is not straightforward. The appearance of authoritarian-leaning and opportunistic politicians, the influence of the oligarchs, widespread bribery, weakening of media independence, judicial power, and regulatory authorities are some of the features increasingly present in V4 countries. If democracy continues to weaken in the region, sooner or later the damage to the rule of law will also have an impact on economic growth. That, in turn, may further embolden anti-democratic forces seeking to undermine democratic feedoms in the name of pursuing economic prosperity via misguided means.

The Institute for Economic and Social Reform (INEKO), with support from CIPE and the National Endowment for Democracy, conducted a study on the recent trends in Slovakia affecting democracy in the country. The study shows considerable popular dissatisfaction with the quality of democracy, worsening in the last few years. In order to ensure broad input, the research was based on a representative public poll, a questionnaire conducted with selected public figures, detailed interviews with business people, and discussions with students. The results reveal that the most frustrated segment of the population is prone to accept radical non-democratic solutions. This is a warning sign that further strengthening of extremists and opportunists in Slovakia’s political life is a real possibility.

A key feature of political opportunism is that it ignores and disrupts fair discussion based on factual arguments. In Slovakia, this phenomenon started to spread more intensively in 2006 when the Smer-SD party, led by Robert Fico, won the election based on a myriad of unrealistic or outright harmful promises. At that time, most analysts believed that this political approach could not win in the long run because it could not solve social problems with unsound policies, and would eventually lead to the loss of public support. Time has shown that it this is not always the case. The failure to address problems in combination with misusing power increases the dissatisfaction of the people. These feelings of frustration may push them further towards extreme ideas as opposed to democratic ideals.

Just like in 1989, growing dissatisfaction is generating demand for change. The difference is that before the fall of communism people clearly saw the alternative in a transition to democracy and market economy. Today, many people do not see such a clear alternative. Many blame the perceived weakness of democracy for abuses of power and continued social problems. They fail to understand that the answer is not less democracy but, on the contrary, building a better functioning democracy. If democratically-minded citizens in Slovakia and the region as a whole do not succeed in making that case, there is a risk that the popular demand for change will be satisfied by the authoritarian politicians with long-lasting consequences for freedom.

Main trends and findings

Public opinion poll and expert views. A representative opinion poll conducted by INEKO in November 2016 yielded concerning results: 40% of the population considered the quality of democracy in Slovakia to be “rather bad” to “poor” and only 26% of the interviewees were satisfied. According to 43% of respondents, the level of democracy has deteriorated in the last five years, while only 18% think that it has improved. Surveyed public figures were even more critical about the state of democracy in the country. Half of the experts who filled out INEKO’s questionnaire found the current state of democracy “rather bad” to “poor” and 71% think that the quality of democracy has deteriorated in the last 5 years. There are several reasons behind these results: a failure to investigate the corruption cases of Gorilla1 and Bašternák;2 no punishment for bribery; entry of a far-right politician Marián Kotleba and his party, ĽS-Naše Slovensko (L’SNS),3 into mainstream politics; the response of the government to the refugee crisis; and the flawed election of the General Prosecutor.4

Opinions about the quality of democracy in Slovakia

  Opinion poll Survey among public figures
Rather good to excellent 26 % 25 %
Neither good nor bad 33 % 25 %
Rather bad to poor 40 % 50 %

Opinions about the change in the quality of democracy in Slovakia in the last 5 years

  Opinion poll Survey among public figures
It has rather improved 18 % 13 %
It has neither improved nor deteriorated 36 % 16 %
It has rather deteriorated 43 % 71 %

Source: Representative survey by Focus for INEKO; INEKO questionnaire conducted among selected public figures

The representative opinion poll has demonstrated that the main cause of public dissatisfaction is the perception that politicians do not work in the public interest but in their own interest or that of affiliated businesses. Similarly, Slovaks resent the fact that bad management of state property and funds is not punished, that people are not equal before the law (many politicians seem above it), and that enforceability of the law is poor. The questionnaire among public figures has shown similar conclusions.

On the brighter side, experts queried by INEKO believe that there are also positive developments in Slovak democracy. They see the 2014 presidential election of an independent candidate Andrej Kiska, an entrepreneur, and philanthropist, as one such development. They are also optimistic about the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) advancing systemic changes to reign in the abuse of power, and the work of public ombudsman Jana Dubovcová. The activities of watchdogs and think tanks focused on combating bribery, as well as the media and civic protests following the Gorilla and Bašternák cases, were also viewed as important for a better functioning democracy in Slovakia.5

NGOs have a relatively strong tradition in Slovakia since the 1990s when a segment of the public became active - also thanks to international support - and managed to reverse the policy of nationalism and isolation from Western structures fostered by the government led by Vladimír Mečiar. At the moment, the condition of NGOs is rather fragile, mainly as a result of the exit of foreign donors after Slovakia’s accession to the European Union (EU) and the partial funding available from national sources. Freedom of the media remains strong, as confirmed by the current 12th place of Slovakia in a freedom of media ranking of 180 countries by Reporters without Borders. To compare, the Czech Republic has been ranked 21st, Poland 47th, and Hungary 67th.

The INEKO study also explored attitudes about potential alternatives to the current form of democracy. Results show that dissatisfaction with the abuse of power drives many to extremism. Based on the public opinion poll, 23.9 % of Slovaks believed that abolishing the parliament system and establishing a dictatorship were an alternative. As many as 28% would go back to the socialist regime that existed before 1989, and 35% said that Slovakia should leave the EU. These attitudes were reflected in the March 2016 election where the right-wing extremist party ĽS-Naše Slovensko surprisingly obtained 8.04% of votes, and SME RODINA, Boris Kollár’s populist party, obtained 6.62% of votes and also entered the Parliament. Including the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities Party (OĽaNO), which received 11.03% of votes, non-traditional parties won more than a quarter of all votes.

Altogether, though, just 16% of respondents in INEKO’s study supported leaving the EU and also replacing the parliamentary system with a dictatorship. People with these opinions tend to have a lower household income, lower levels of education, and support radical political options. They are also present among voters of other parties (11-19%) and non-voters (20%). According to these results, people giving up on democracy and the EU are still in a substantial minority. More than two-thirds of respondents can see the possibility of improvement of democracy through greater involvement of decent people in public affairs. Almost the same proportion wishes to strengthen the independence and competence of police investigators, public prosecution, judiciary, and audit and regulatory authorities to reduce the abuse of power. Strengthening the independence and expertise of audit and regulatory authorities was also identified as one of the key solutions in INEKO’s questionnaire of selected public figures.

Alternatives to the current state of democracy

 photo FS IMG_zpsfzsc6udq.png

Source: Representative survey of Focus for INEKO

Research shows that support for extremist and opportunist parties in Slovakia has major economic drivers. It is not caused by an absolute drop in the standard of living (that standard has been rising), but rather by continuing or only slightly shrinking regional differences in income and poverty. Regions, where extremist parties have gained most support, are also the poorest ones. Just like with the regions, there is a link between support of ĽSNS and economic underdevelopment of particular districts.6 A somewhat weaker link also exists between support for ĽSNS and the share of Roma population in a particular district. The unemployment and dependence on social allowances of the Roma population is very high, mainly in remote settlements, which in turn fuels anti-Roma rhetoric of L’SNS politicans.

Business views. The INEKO study also gathered perspectives from the business community in Slovakia through detailed conversations with 11 managers and entrepreneurs from various companies of various sizes and industries. No respondents were satisfied with the state of democracy in Slovakia. They perceive the judiciary as not reliable, do not believe that there is equality before the law, and see the level of morality in the society as declining. Many say that the business environment has been deteriorating in the last few years, mainly because the government gives advantages to certain politically connected companies (e.g., makes special laws and selectively burdens other firms with special taxes).

Pavol Lančarič, general director of mobile operator Orange Slovensko said, "Instead of setting the level playing field, the chaos occurs, unequal treatment of businesses." Many business owners complain that the oligarchs dominate the country’s economy and decent entrepreneurs have no possibility to voice their interests. Attorney Peter Serina from Bratislava explains: "The quality of democracy is important mainly for small enterprises with domestic capital so that they have equal chances and a stable, foreseeable, and fair environment. Supra-national companies arrange important things alone (…) For a state it is easier to communicate with a company which employs 20,000 people than to communicate with 20,000 freelancers."

A vast majority of the interviewed entrepreneurs do not participate in public tenders and calls aimed at the acquisition of subsidies and EU funds. They consider them to be manipulated and corrupt. Respondents confirm that such tenders are often won by companies established only for this purpose and after winning they forward contracts to real suppliers. A similar situation applies for allocating EU funds. Ján Lunter, who is the founder and co-owner of the food producer Alfa Bio in central Slovakia, is more specific: "Who wants something from the state, e.g. financing for EU funds, must give money to the ruling parties. Such money is collected through project companies for EU funds, (…) commissions amounting to 30% of the contract." Another frequently mentioned problem is the lack of high-quality workers as a result of a failing school system.

The dissatisfaction of business people with the current system is also documented by a local Index of business environment compiled by the Business Alliance of Slovakia, showing continuous decreases from 2005, with a short exception in 2010 and 2011. The reasons lie mainly in the private sector’s disapproval of changes in laws, state economic policy, and the worsening perception of the functioning of the political system. Similarly, according to the Competitiveness Index compiled by the World Economic Forum, Slovakia had its best (37th rank) in 2006, then fell down to 78th in 2013 and improved just to 65th in 2016, from among 138 countries rated.

Attitudes of students. The INEKO study included discussions with students (five discussions with 40 students; three held at secondary grammar schools in various regions of Slovakia and two at a university in Bratislava). A negative view of the state of democracy and society prevailed, with secondary-school students generally much more frustrated than university students. According to many, democracy in the country functions only seemingly because politicians usually do not deliver on their promises, do not pursue public interest, abuse power, lie, and are not punished for these transgressions. Students from eastern Slovakia, in particular, feel that politicians are not interested in their economically disadvantaged region. According to most secondary-school students, there is nobody to vote for, no decent democratic alternative. They do not trust the leading politicians, including Prime Minister Robert Fico.

While most students dislike Marián Kotleba because he is a radical, many of them believe that Kotleba has identified Slovakia’s social and economic problems correctly (particularly the Roma issue). Kotleba received many votes from young people because he is a new face in politics and he stands for change. Interviewed students knew many of his supporters among their peers.

Students also noted that bribery and clientelism are common in education, healthcare, police, courts, EU funds administration, etc. The state fails to control and punish corruption. Students in one of the discussions said they would rather not report a bribe since it would not make any difference or could even harm them. Several students confirmed that they also had personal experience with bribes.

Concerningly, a large majority of secondary-school students want to study and live outside of Slovakia because they do not believe that they can change anything about the functioning of the state with their own actions. More university students want to stay in Slovakia.

Recommendations aimed at enhancing democracy

INEKO’s original research and broader analysis of the state of democracy in Slovakia resulted in a number of recommendations for different stakeholders. The following is a subset of these recommendations.

For the government and other public authorities:

  • Fight against corruption. Perform robust investigations of all cases of corruption and power abuse, particularly the Bašternák and Gorilla cases. Enhance transparency of the public sector, including open data.
  • Implement judicial reform. Strengthen the independence of the police, public prosecution, and courts by separating them from the executive’s influence.
  • Support the independence and build expertise of auditing and regulatory offices.
  • Professionalize state administration, foster merit-based nominations for the management of state-owned enterprises and companies financed and co-financed from the state budget.
  • Continue implementing the "Value for Money" project and extend it to the entire public sector to analytically assess all major expenditures, projects, regulations, and policies.
  • Foster educational reform and public awareness to develop critical thinking and knowledge about the functioning and importance of democracy for the quality of life of its citizens.
  • Enhance the quality of public services in education, healthcare, and judiciary by measuring and disclosing results (higher accountability), financial incentives, and exchanging best practices.
  • Fight poverty, social exclusion, and regional economic disparities.
  • Improve the business environment by decreasing the administrative burden, eliminating inefficient regulations, promoting competition in public procurement, etc.
  • Make it possible for private capital to enter areas where economic competition may improve service delivery (e.g., passenger rail transport, post, healthcare, energy industry).
  • Measure and disclose the results and efficiency of organizations financed and co-financed from the state budget and take steps aimed at enhancing efficiency.
  • Measure and disclose (also retrospectively) the efficiency of projects co-funded by EU funds.
  • Use the knowledge, capacities, and independence of the Council for Budget Responsibility to assess and disclose the impact of political parties´ election programs on public finances, the labor market, and the business environment.
  • Actively pursue and effectively punish any expressions of extremism.
  • Fight against foreign propaganda, reveal and identify foreign sources of false information, including national sources that uncritically receive such information.
  • Perform transparent grant tenders to provide subsidies to civic society for projects focused on enhancing government transparency and accountability.

For politicians and political parties, including municipal-level politicians:

  • Disclose information about sources of financing and about the use of funds in a clear manner and at one location, both for the entire political party and for individual candidates.
  • Disclose detailed declarations of assets, also for close family relatives.
  • Adopt codes of ethics for political parties obliging them to disclose any conflicts of interest.
  • Use the existing capacities of think tanks (or establish their own think tank) to look for solutions to socio-economic problems.
  • Answer the questions of all journalists and respect freedom of the media.
  • Enable and strengthen the involvement of citizens in decision-making about the use of public resources. For specific measures, take inspiration from the Transparency International Slovensko project "Open Local Governement."

For businesses:

  • Transparently support democratic politicians and political parties, also at the regional level.
  • Transparently support independent NGOs and media, particularly investigative journalism. Withdraw advertising from internet portals and media sources that spread false information.
  • Organize alliances promoting enhancement of the business environment and democracy.
  • Be actively involved in public discussions regarding society-wide problems.

For NGOs, civic activists, and the media:

  • Fact-check politicians. Continuously verify the truthfulness of statements (e.g., demagog.sk project), also reveal and correct false statements made in the past.
  • Track the viability of politicians' promises as well as their fulfillment, assess election programs.
  • Monitor and assess the efficiency of projects and tenders in areas where the largest public contracts or subsidies are awarded (e.g., in transport, healthcare, IT, defense).
  • Monitor and assess the work of the courts, police, public prosecution, and other public auditing and regulatory offices.
  • Propose and support systemic changes aimed at improving the functioning of the state and of the business environment, seek and spread examples of best practices in public governance.
  • Request and foster transparency in the use of public finances and in decision-making processes. Reveal any wasteful use of public finances, unfair decisions, etc. Investigate suspicious links between public authorities and politically connected businesses.
  • Measure and disclose the quality and efficiency of public services.
  • Monitor and assess the quality of proposed and adopted legislative measures as well as the work of parliamentarians.
  • Monitor and assess the quality of democracy in Slovakia (e.g., the IVO Barometer project).
  • Fight against propaganda. Reveal and identify sources of false information and confront those who spread it; use facts to refute false claims. Pay special attention to social media.
  • Seek and disseminate the best international and national practices about civic education on the functioning and significance of democracy and of the EU. Reach out also to people who support extremist and opportunist parties, particularly young people.
  • Appreciate and protect whistleblowers, highlight positive examples of the work of politicians, officials, journalists, and activists.
  • Create local partnerships focused on integrating citizens from marginalized groups into the society.
  • Disclose information about sources of financing, including the amounts of provided support.

For the media specifically:

  • Do not acquiesce to political pressures when selecting preferred opponents in broadcast discussions. Place searching for the truth above seeking political balance.
  • Devote more space to investigative journalism and to coverage of current events, social problems, and potential solutions.
  • Raise awareness about the functioning and importance of democracy and of the EU as well as the threat of opportunism and extremism. Involve important and popular persons in this process.
  • Explore the reasons for citizens supporting extremist and opportunist parties and focus the discussion on such supporters.
  • Disclose information about end owners as well as donors, including the amounts of provided support.

For foreign donors, including the EU:

  • Support NGOs focused on systemic changes and vigilance against abuses of power (such as the Fund for Transparent Slovakia).
  • Support projects with the goals of systemic improvements such as judicial reform, tackling corruption, increasing transparency in the public sector, eradicating poverty, and education reform.
  • Measure and disclose the efficiency (“value for money”) of projects co-funded by EU funds.

For teachers and all citizens:

  • Speak with young people about the functioning and importance of democracy and of the EU, about current events, social problems, and potential solutions.
  • Be engaged in issues of public interest at both a central and local level.
  • Discuss issues based on arguments, respect different opinions; be constructive and avoid spreading hatred.
  • Critically assess the information appearing on social networks, ask for the original sources, search for arguments in favor and against, ask questions.

Conclusions

The formal existence of democracy is not a guarantee of economic success that benefits all segments of the society; the quality of democracy matters. History shows that the main source of prosperity derives from inclusive institutions, i.e. rules of functioning of politics and economy that prevent misuse of power by the few at the expense of the rest of the population. Yet, building such institutions is a formidable challenge, as illustrated by the current troubling developments in Central Europe.

The key tool against misuse of power is a functioning democracy where the division of powers exists and power is not concentrated in the hands of a small group. Key factors that support the development of inclusive institutions include fair competition among political parties; independent regulatory bodies; independent judiciary and investigation units; free media; civic society; and entrepreneurs independent of politicians and monopolies. As the experience of Slovakia shows, such institutions, even once established, can come under increasing strain and threat in societies where dissatisfaction with the political and economic status quo is high.

There are no simple solutions. To survive and thrive, democracy must be supported by a strong informal coalition of independent media and NGOs focused on checking the government’s actions, improving transparency of public spending and decision-making, fighting against bribery, and supporting reforms. Entrepreneurs who are not connected to ruling politicians and monopolies, but who have both financial resources and motivation to support pro-democratic forces in society, are of special importance. Systemic measures should also focus on de-centralizing concentrated government power and strengthening checks and balances. Independence and expertise of investigation, inspection and regulatory authorities are important conditions for that.

The public interest also demands that the Slovak education system strives to develop critical thinking in students and better explain that democracy is a basic precondition for improvement in the quality of life of the entire population. A functioning democracy creates conditions for free discussion, enabling citizens to look for the best solutions to social problems. A larger discussion about the significance of democracy should involve and be targeted towards people who support extremist and opportunist parties, and especially at young people. At the same time, it is necessary to appeal to the government to more efficiently address problems that people perceive as a failure of democracy, thus reducing the room for growth of popularity of extremists. Measures aimed at supporting economic growth and eradicating poverty should be a part of the solution.

Author Peter Golias is a member of CIPE's Free Enterprise and Democracy Network (FEDN) and Director at INEKO. Michal Pisko is project coordinator at Transparency International Slovakia, and domestic news editor at Daily SME. Jozef Hajko is an author and a blogger on Slovak history and economics.

INEKO Institute is a non-governmental, non-profit organization established in support of economic and social reforms, which aim to remove barriers to the long-term positive development of the Slovak economy and society. The report on the state and development of democracy in Slovakia is the main output of the INEKO project that has been financially supported by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). The English version of the report includes main findings of the original Slovak version together with recommendations for reversing the growing influence of non-democratic and authoritative powers. This project is performed by INEKO in cooperation with the Business Alliance of Slovakia (BAS).The full report is available here.

Citations:
1 Disclosure of transcripts from secret meetings of influential businessmen with top politicians indicative of bribery.
2 Disclosure of suspected tax fraud by a businessman Ladislav Bašternák with close connections to top politicians of the ruling Smer-SD party.
3 A right-wing extremist party whose supporters openly admire the fascist Slovak Republic from the WWII period.
4 The President of Slovak Republic did not appoint the General Prosecutor who had been lawfully elected by Parliament, which ultimately led to the appointment of a candidate proposed by the ruling Smer-SD party.
5 The authors of the study note that these results may be slightly distorted due to the fact that approximately 30% activists from NGOs and 12% journalists and other publicists were among they survey participants.
6 There are eight regions (Higher Territorial Units) and 79 districts in Slovakia.

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