One of Slovakia’s eight administrative regions, Banska Bystrica, will soon be governed by a far-right nationalist. On Nov. 24, Marian Kotleba, the candidate for the People’s Party-Our Slovakia, won 55 percent of the vote in a runoff election after having received roughly 21 percent in the first round. While moderates still dominate Slovak politics, far-right parties are becoming an acceptable political alternative in the country–a trend that can be seen elsewhere in Europe.
Kotleba has been involved in far-right politics for at least a decade. In 2005, he created the far-right Slovak Togetherness-National Party (also known as the Slovak Congregation), which had pronounced anti-Roma and anti-Semitic rhetoric. It also had a strong anti-globalization platform, as evidenced by its opposition to Slovakia’s membership in NATO, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. After 2008, the group was no longer allowed to run for office, but it remained an active civic organization.
In 2010, Kotleba created a new party, the People’s Party-Our Slovakia. The party received only 1.3 percent of the vote in the 2010 general elections and 1.5 percent of the vote in the 2012 general elections. However, it performed relatively well in Banska Bystrica, where Kotleba is from. In that region, the People’s Party-Our Slovakia received 10 percent of the vote in the 2009 regional elections.
Kotleba’s victory in the 2013 regional elections stems from several factors. First, he hails from the region and has a relatively strong voting base there. Second, he won over anti-establishment voters. The center-right Slovak Democratic and Christian Union-Democratic Party was largely discredited after the government of former Prime Minister Iveta Radicova was implicated in a corruption scandal and lost a vote of confidence in 2011. The center-left Smer party of Prime Minister Robert Fico, who succeeded Radicova in 2012, is quite popular, but Vladimir Manka, the region’s Smer candidate and incumbent governor, is not. Slovakia’s political elites are also responsible for the results in Banska Bystrica; the moderate political parties in the region failed to reach an agreement to join forces against Kotleba in the runoff election.
In addition, Kotleba has substantially improved his image in recent months. During the campaigns of the 2000s, he was often seen wearing black uniforms and espousing pro-Nazi sentiment. This time, his attire was more muted, and his campaign focused more on job creation than on racial hatred, mentioning the “gypsy threat” only sporadically. Like many center-right and nationalist parties across Europe, Kotleba has toned down his rhetoric somewhat in order to portray himself as a valid option for moderate voters.
Banska Bystrica, the fifth-most populous administrative region in Slovakia, is significant even though it is not particularly wealthy. In Slovakia, prosperity is determined partly by geography. Western regions are more prosperous than the rest of the country because of their proximity to Central European markets. As a result, the areas surrounding Bratislava in the far west are connected to the Germanic world and have low unemployment rates and strong economies. Banska Bystrica is in the center, so it is not as rich as Bratislava, but it is also not as poor as the eastern regions.
Its significance pertains more to demography and ethnicity. Because of its proximity to Hungary, the region has a relatively large Hungarian community (around 12 percent of the overall population, or three percentage points higher than the national average). More important, it has a relatively large Roma community. Precise data is difficult to obtain, but Banska Bystrica likely is home to one of the largest Roma communities in Slovakia, which lists the ethnic group as its third largest. Roughly 20 percent of the country’s Roma are thought to live in Banska Bystrica.
Whereas in northern Europe the main targets of far-right parties are the Muslim minorities, in Central and Eastern Europe the main objects of scorn are the Roma. In Hungary, strong anti-Roma rhetoric and the association of Gypsies with criminal activity are key elements of the nationalist Jobbik party’s agenda. A similar trend is underway in Bulgaria, where Roma have been denounced by the nationalist Ataka party.