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After almost three decades of transition, Slovakia—a full-fledged member of the EU and NATO—now faces serious challenges to its liberal democracy. These includes the illiberal tendencies of those in power, clientelism, political corruption, and antiestablishment sentiment among the public. Meanwhile, the rise of right-wing extremist parties that leverage existing social problems for political gain, capitalize on the pan-European issue of migration, and cast doubt on Slovakia's foreign-policy orientation has elicited a prodemocratic response from an alliance of the country's civil society, independent media, and pro-Western politicians.

In recent years Slovakia has been perceived by some international observers, and presented by its own government, as an island of political stability in the Visegrád group of Central and East European countries. Slovakia, so the story went, was still governed in full compliance with liberal-democratic norms—in contrast to neighboring states (Hungary, Poland, and partially the Czech Republic), where populist parties and politicians undermined democratic institutions and provoked harsh conflicts with the opposition, the media, and civil society.1

Recent dramatic events, however, have cost the Slovak government its image as Visegrád's democracy champion. In late February 2018, young investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée were shot to death in their own residence. The murder triggered massive public protests, with demonstrators demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico and Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák. Before his death, Kuciak had been investigating corrupt ties among business groups, the state bureaucracy, and leaders of Fico's Smer-SD (Direction–Social Democracy), the most powerful party in the current governing coalition. When links were reported between individuals working at top levels in the Slovak government and suspected associates of a major organized crime syndicate based in Italy's Calabria region, many citizens' confidence in Slovakia's democracy plummeted.

In an effort to limit the protests' impact, discourage citizens from joining them, discredit civic activists, and, above all, keep himself in [End Page 78] power, Prime Minister Fico resorted to conspiracy narratives involving charges that foreign actors (including U.S. philanthropist George Soros) were interfering in the country's domestic affairs. In so doing, Fico was following in the footsteps of such politicians as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary, ruling-party leader Jarosław Kaczyñski in Poland, and Czech president Miloš Zeman.

Fico's remarks provoked even deeper public anger, and were followed by massive demonstrations comparable in scale to those that took place during the November 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended Communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia. In their wake, both Fico and Kaliňák resigned in March. Fico's deputy prime minister and fellow party member Peter Pellegrini took over as prime minister. Public protests continued, however, and more high-ranking officials have since announced their departures.

Young people took the lead in organizing this remarkably successful protest movement, which has taken on the moniker "For a Decent Slovakia." Previously, many had viewed Slovak youth—who lack personal experience of such defining moments as the Velvet Revolution, the defeat of authoritarian-minded prime minister Vladimír Meèiar in Slovakia's 1998 election, and the EU-accession process—as a "selfie generation," inward-looking and uninterested in public affairs. Their willingness to stand up against corruption and for democratic values and the rule of law has challenged such perceptions.

Slovakia's political turmoil comes at a moment when political forces seemingly opposed to liberal-democratic systems are on the rise across much of the world. In Europe, mainstream and pro-EU parties have reeled under the impact of growing public support for illiberal populists and Euroskeptics, who are pushing narratives and policy proposals frequently at odds with liberal-democratic values. In Central Europe in particular, illiberal forces are beginning to reverse the post-1989 process of democratic consolidation by reshaping institutions to benefit themselves politically; limiting the space for free political competition; constraining media pluralism; and hindering the free development of civil society. As populists rally their supporters with denunciations of "traditional" political elites, moderate programmatic parties are searching for ways to renew their appeal and defend liberal-democratic values.

How serious is the illiberal challenge? Are the so-called "traditional" programmatic parties really obsolete, as the populists insist, or will they instead emerge as the ultimate guarantors of democracy? In Slovakia, the events of March 2018 showed once again that continuous public pressure on political actors, particularly those with illiberal or corrupt tendencies, is crucial to preserving liberal-democratic systems. But these events also revealed serious underlying challenges to the functionality and legitimacy of the country's democratic institutions. These [End Page 79] challenges, which are affecting other Central European countries as well, include:

  • State capture, which arises when corruption and clientelism spread to a degree that diminishes the significance of formal democratic institutions. Governance ceases to be impartial, and the preferences of organized interest groups come to influence legislation, state contracts, and public-sector appointments. These trends erode confidence in democratic institutions, creating an opening for populists and extremists to attack "the establishment" and promise a more "clean and efficient" (meaning nondemocratic) approach to governance.

  • Selective justice, in which illicit ties among politicians, business circles, inefficient law-enforcement institutions, and corrupt judges affect the selection and outcome of cases. Rather than all being equal before the law, groups or persons linked to the ruling political forces enjoy de facto impunity for wrongdoing that would result in punishment for ordinary citizens.

  • Media concentration, with oligarchs controlling a growing share of private media outlets and placing journalistic independence in jeopardy. Domestic conglomerates entering the media sphere hope to create a favorable environment for their businesses, and some of the businessmen involved also have strong party ties or their own political ambitions. Some are even government officials.

  • The "tyranny of the majority," a threat linked in Slovakia to the governing style of certain political forces that grew out of opposition to the country's postcommunist socioeconomic reforms.

Slovakia's Postcommunist Path

The Slovak Republic is widely regarded as an example of a successful democratic transition. The country has a liberal-democratic regime and a functioning market economy. A member of the EU and of NATO (both since 2004), it follows a pro-Western foreign policy based on deep political, economic, and security integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. Yet since its split from the Czech Republic in the 1993 Velvet Divorce, Slovakia has been—and remains—an arena of sharp political competition between advocates of liberal-democratic values and those who prefer illiberal and authoritarian approaches. With authoritarian practices periodically reemerging as these two camps alternate in power, Slovakia's path has been anything but linear.

Slovakia's 1992 constitution laid the foundations for a multiparty parliamentary system, with a tripartite division of powers and a system of checks and balances. While the country's institutions were generally functional during the transition period, how well they complied with [End Page 80] democratic and rule-of-law principles varied depending on the leanings of the dominant parties and politicians, the balance of power among them, and the development of the country's political and legal culture. Even after Slovakia's accession to the EU, formal rules frequently came into conflict with the more informal norms shaping politics and governance. Perhaps most serious has been a persistent tension between the political system's institutional foundations and the governing styles of key actors:2 Although the system is geared toward a consensual model of democracy, based on negotiations among parties, certain political forces have instead followed a majoritarian approach.

Since the 1990s, Slovakia's party system has been marked by a polarization primarily connected not with ideology, but with contrasting approaches to exercising power. The country's parties can be divided into two main groupings based on this distinction, each with internal ideological variety. The first group consists of programmatic parties with clearly articulated ideological orientations that have espoused liberal-democratic values. Most occupy recognizable niches on the traditional European party spectrum. These parties were in opposition from 1994 to 1998; they formed governing coalitions after the 1998, 2002, and 2010 elections. They initiated and oversaw the transition process, including the establishment of democratic institutions, the introduction of a market economy, and preparations for and adaptation to EU and NATO membership. The parties belonging to this category include the KDH (Christian Democratic Movement), DÚ (Democratic Union), DS (Democratic Party), SDKÚ (Slovak Democratic and Christian Union), SMK (Party of the Hungarian Community), SDĽ (Party of the Democratic Left), SDSS (Social Democratic Party of Slovakia), SZ (Green Party), ANO (New Citizens' Alliance), SaS (Freedom and Solidarity), and Most-Híd (Bridge).

The second grouping encompasses political parties that preferred an authoritarian style of governing and employed populism and nationalism to mobilize voters. These parties had a highly confrontational understanding of politics, with little appreciation for negotiation and compromise. Their ranks included HZDS (Movement for a Democratic Slovakia), SNS (Slovak National Party), and ZRS (Association of Workers of Slovakia). In its own way, Smer-SD belongs to this same camp. These parties created coalition governments in 1992, 1994, 2006, 2012, and, partly, in 2016. HZDS leader and three-time prime minister Vladimír Meèiar came to symbolize authoritarian tendencies in Central Europe in the 1990s, with elements of illiberal democracy—such as a penchant for ignoring constitutional strictures—emerging during his final stint in office (1994 to 1998).

While the electorate of the proreform and pro-European political parties is usually fragmented along ideological lines, the electorate of the national-populist forces tends to be more homogenous. This means that when in power, the national populists form either single-party cabinets [End Page 81] or coalition governments with smaller groups fully dependent on them. Such governments habitually ignore opposition initiatives, refuse nearly all legislative proposals submitted by opposition parties, and cast doubt on the opposition's right to criticize the government.

In the end, these parties have been unable to change Slovakia's institutional fundamentals or dislodge the principles of constitutional liberalism, which were anchored by EU membership and by a successful process of democratic consolidation after Mečiar's 1998 defeat. Yet their inclinations toward authoritarianism, clientelism, populism, and ethnic nationalism have led to a drift away from the consensual model.3 In addition, power grabs by these parties have sparked confrontations among the president, parliament, government, and Constitutional Court. By contrast, the programmatic parties have preferred a consensual approach and fostered more cooperative relationships among the branches.

Populist Persistence

The national-populist parties, which have garnered a significant share of the vote in parliamentary elections since 1992, have thus been the main drivers of illiberal politics in postcommunist Slovakia. Although an antiestablishment stance is a defining characteristic of these parties, they have persisted over the long term as a constituent part of the political establishment, presenting an obvious paradox. Their antiestablishment identities make more sense if considered in the context of transition-era debates surrounding the advent of a liberal-democratic system, a market economy, and EU and NATO membership—all pillars of the current social order.

Although Slovakia underwent a profound transformation beginning in 1989, the country remained divided about the need for liberal reforms; a consensus was reached only among a part of the elite.4 Against this backdrop, populist politicians sought to capitalize on some citizens' resistance to market reforms, as well as on broader concerns over emerging socioeconomic problems including unemployment, inflation, and large regional disparities. Populists rejected privatization and criticized economic liberalization, arguing that the introduction of market principles had led to corruption, social inequality, and poverty. These tactics fed and exploited nostalgia for the Communist regime, which remains widespread among some social groups. With politicians instrumentalizing (and sometimes provoking) resistance to the new policies, antireform social populism became a recurring feature of public discourse. Some voters found enticing its promises of redistribution, resistance to elites, and a paternalistic state that would combine a generous welfare policy with "stronghanded governance."

The currently embattled Smer-SD represents a particular twist on [End Page 82] Slovakia's populist politics. Smer originally emerged through the individual initiative of Robert Fico, whose personal ambitions exceeded the bounds of the postcommunist Party of the Democratic Left (in which he had been one of the leading figures since the early 1990s). In 1999, with the support of a group of entrepreneurs previously close to Mečiar's HZDS, a new party was established with Fico at its head. After 2006, Smer-SD (so renamed after joining with other parties in 2005) became the dominant political force in the country. It headed the government three times: in coalitions from 2006 to 2010 and again since 2016, and as the single governing party from 2012 to 2016.

In its early years, Smer portrayed itself as a "nonideological" party and tried to avoid clearly defining its position. Gradually, however, taking its cue from the leanings of potential voters, the party began to accentuate its leftist character. It subscribed to the "Third Way" concept in 2002 and then, before the 2006 elections, declared its support for "social democracy." The party's actual ideological profile had little in common with social-democratic values: Instead, Smer-SD is a national-populist political formation that employs left-leaning socialist rhetoric. During its years as the governing party or coalition leader, it became the main engine behind the formation of a cronyist system.

In Slovakia's most recent parliamentary vote in March 2016, Smer-SD's seat share dropped considerably. Nonetheless, Fico continued as prime minister, a post he had held from 2006 to 2010, and then again from 2012 to 2016. After the elections, Smer-SD (with 28.3 percent of the vote and 49 of 150 seats in the unicameral National Council) formed a ruling coalition with three smaller parties: the ethnic-nationalist SNS (15 seats), the center-right Most-Híd (11 seats), and the moderate-conservative Sieť (10 seats). After several months Siet' collapsed, leaving a three-party governing coalition. Some amount of regrouping has taken place since the elections, with the Christian Democrats—kept out of parliament in 2016—rebuilding their support and two small centrist formations appearing on the scene.

Yet the 2016 elections highlighted how difficult it has become for the mainstream political parties to reach out effectively to voters. These parties' vote share has dropped, and some of their previous supporters have gone over to antiestablishment or even antisystem extremist forces. In addition, a significant number of citizens who had previously been nonvoters showed up at the polls in 2016, with many opting for "alternative" parties. The rise of new political entities with unclear ideological orientations, antiestablishment attitudes, and minimal or no experience with governance has upended the existing party system. These forces include the populist-conservative Sme Rodina, with 11 seats, and the ideologically amorphous OĽaNO (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities) with 19. Most troubling, the neofascist party ĽSNS (People's Party–Our Slovakia) gained its first seats in parliament, and therefore [End Page 83] the right to financing from the state budget. ĽSNS received 8 percent of the vote and now has 14 deputies in the National Council.

In Slovak politics today, President Andrej Kiska stands out for his clear support for liberal-democratic values and a pro-Western foreign-policy orientation. Kiska, an independent, claimed a convincing second-round victory in the 2014 presidential contest, thwarting a bid for the office by Fico. After his election, Kiska repeatedly criticized clientelistic excesses, spoke out against xenophobia and racism, and demanded the social isolation of ĽSNS. In March 2018, he supported the demands of protesting citizens, urging either new elections or a reconstruction of the government, and contributed significantly to the resignations of Prime Minister Fico and Interior Minister Kaliňák.

Extremism at the Gates

In recent years, radicalization on a number of levels has been evident in Slovakia's political life. Extremist and antisystem political forces have grown stronger,5 and some representatives of mainstream parties have taken to using increasingly radical rhetoric on issues involving minority communities. Beyond the political class, new online media have enabled the increasingly wide dissemination of ethnic-nationalist, racist, and anti-Semitic messages; attacks on liberal-democratic principles; and challenges to Slovakia's pro-Western foreign and security policy. Compared to the recent past, the majority population displays a greater "social distance"—in other words, more intolerant and prejudiced attitudes—toward minority groups, including Roma, Jews, Muslims, migrants, other ethnic or racial minorities, and persons with non-heterosexual orientations.6

External factors, particularly Europe's migrant crisis and Russia's hybrid war against the West, have amplified these trends. Antidemocratic and illiberal indoctrination from the Russian Federation is aiding local anti-European radicals on both the far left and the far right. In an effort to disrupt European integration and disconnect Slovakia from its democratic allies, Russian propaganda and local agents of influence spread narratives aimed at undermining citizens' trust in democratic institutions, the outcome of the transition, and Western alliance structures. These narratives promote ethnically or religiously defined values (pan-Slavic solidarity, traditional Christian norms of behavior) over universal democratic values; present liberal democracy as an unsuitable form of social organization for Central Europeans; and offer misleading theories about the alleged disadvantages for smaller countries of participation in groupings such as the EU and NATO.7

Meanwhile local extremists are building support, especially among those indifferent to democratic values and skeptical about the results of the transition. To this end, they employ crude social demagoguery, with [End Page 84] appeals to xenophobia and anti-Western sentiment. Giving extremism a parliamentary platform can intensify its corrosive social effects, and in this regard the ĽSNS presence in the National Council presents a major challenge. The party's fascist leanings are apparent both in its ideology and in the histories of many members, including party leader Marián Kotleba. Among their ranks are long-known radical-nationalist activists, some of whom have committed acts of racially motivated violence. In the past, Kotleba and others sported uniforms dating to Slovakia's Nazi-aligned dictatorship under Jozef Tiso (1939–45), which sent tens of thousands of Slovak Jews to their deaths.

ĽSNS leaders also reject the country's current Euro-Atlantic foreign policy orientation and express sympathy for the foreign policy of the Russian Federation. The party has come to be the main representative of anti-European and anti-Western forces in Slovakia, and in 2016 it initiated (unsuccessful) petitions for referendums on withdrawing from the EU and NATO.

This is the first time in Slovakia's postcommunist history that such an openly antisystem political force has secured parliamentary representation. Yet the problem is larger than ĽSNS itself. By nourishing antiimmigrant sentiment, sometimes to the point of hysteria, more moderate political actors (including Fico and Smer-SD) created an atmosphere that has generated increased support for the right-wing extremists.

While there are many reasons behind the ĽSNS breakthrough in the 2016 elections, public-opinion surveys conducted over the last several decades allow us to identify three clusters of attitudes as key in making the public receptive to radical-nationalist appeals. These are perceptions of "others"; historical memory; and what we call the "geopolitical mentality."

Slovak society has long been marked by a pronounced "social distance" between the majority population and ethnic minorities, foreigners, and any groups seen as "other." In the first two decades after 1989, these attitudes were articulated (and politically mobilized) mainly with regard to traditional autochthonous minorities, especially the Hungarians and the Roma. Mobilized intolerance and challenges to the rights of ethnic minorities became key political dividing lines, complicating Slovakia's democratic consolidation and integration into the EU and NATO.

Ethnic mobilization grew weaker only after 2010. One factor behind this shift was the founding of Most-Híd (Bridge), a civic-minded center-right party that represents both a large block of ethnic-Hungarian voters and some ethnic Slovaks. In addition, the non-nationalist, proreform coalition government in power from 2010 to 2012 broke an ongoing cycle of mutually reinforcing nationalist displays and recriminations in Slovakia and in neighboring Hungary (where nationalists including Viktor Orbán had set themselves up as advocates of Slovakia's ethnic-Hungarian [End Page 85] minority). Yet while the nationalist agenda receded somewhat from view, the potential for politicians to remobilize intolerance and social chauvinism remained. Surveys have shown that the Slovak public perceives the country in ethnocentric terms8—undoubtedly reflecting the tone set by political elites.

The migration crisis of 2015 brought about a resurgence of xenophobic themes in public discourse, and in the run-up to the 2016 general elections, Slovakia's political parties—above all, the governing Smer-SD—took advantage of this rhetorical "opportunity." Politicians "surfed" on the wave of majority opinion, in the process strengthening xenophobic attitudes. Surveys conducted in early September 2015 found that only 18 percent of Slovaks accepted the idea of their country as a potential new homeland for refugees.9 Similarly, few took a favorable view of the EU's proposal of national quotas for refugee admissions.

Surveys have also revealed a troubling lack of historical knowledge and awareness, leaving an open door for right-wing extremism. Revisionist historians together with a part of the political establishment have fostered relativistic interpretations of deeply problematic historical events. Current high-school students know very little about the Holocaust, the atrocities committed by Tiso's regime, and the forty years of communist rule.

Finally, more than decade after Slovakia's accession to NATO and the EU, reservations linger about the country's formal geopolitical alignments. Many view political and military neutrality as a tempting alternative, reflecting the notion that for "small" Slovakia it is best to get along with everyone, not to stand out, and to remain neutral even in case of conflict. In a 2016 survey, about half the population favored the idea of occupying a middle ground between West and East.10 The geopolitical fiction of an in-between, neutral position offers a ready-made basis for foreign-policy appeals by radical and far-right actors, who can also take advantage of isolationist, anti-American, anti-EU, and generally anti-Western moods among some citizens.

In the period from 2016 to 2018, the right-wing extremists displayed their disdain for the rule of law through attempts, under the pretext of maintaining order, to set up their own structures in the place of state authorities (for example, the police). Most prominently, ĽSNS sent "security patrols," consisting of members or sympathizers dressed in T-shirts with the party's logo, to keep watch on trains. Targeted legislative changes failed to prevent these "patrols," which were framed in a racist narrative about allegedly crime-prone Roma ("Gypsies") causing problems for the law-abiding "white" population.

In May 2017, Prosecutor-General Jaromír Èižnár turned to Slovakia's Supreme Court with a proposal to dissolve ĽSNS. The prosecutor-general described ĽSNS as "an extremist political party with fascist tendencies" and concluded that "the aim of this political party is to [End Page 86] eliminate the current democratic system in the Slovak Republic." His proposal invoked a provision of Law 85/2005 on political parties and political movements (§ 2, part 1), which stipulates that "a party may not, by its statutes, programs or activities, violate the Constitution of the Slovak Republic, constitutional laws, laws and international treaties."11 As of this writing in April 2018, the Supreme Court has not yet issued a verdict.

ĽSNS sought to demonstrate its strength and local viability by making a play for numerous regional offices in November 2017 elections. Relative to other parties, it ran one of the highest numbers of candidates for regional-assembly seats, and also fielded candidates for governor in six regions. This attempt to gain a foothold in regional politics failed: Only two representatives of the party were elected as regional deputies, and party leader Kotleba, who had been elected governor of the Banská Bystrica region in 2013, lost his reelection bid.

Two main factors contributed to this result. First, regional deputies are elected by a modified majoritarian system rather than through the proportional-representation system used for the national legislature. This favors candidates representing strong parties or broad coalitions, neither of which applied to the representatives of ĽSNS. Second, the electorates of the democratic parties were mobilized not only by these parties' own efforts, but also by various citizens' initiatives that highlighted the risks posed by rising antisystem forces and the broader spread of nationalism, racism, and hatred.

While the regional-election outcomes weakened ĽSNS politically, there remains cause for concern. Although the electoral system largely kept ĽSNS candidates out of office, the vote totals reveal that the party's overall support did not decrease compared to the 2016 parliamentary elections. Indeed, it actually increased slightly in some parts of the country. In the 2017 contest, with turnout at 30 percent, the party's gubernatorial candidates—running in only six of Slovakia's eight regions—received a total of 111,453 votes. In the parliamentary elections, for which turnout was roughly twice as high (59.8 percent), ĽSNS received 209,779 votes.

The intense political and civic mobilization against the extreme right in 2017 offers grounds for hope that neofascists will not remain a force in politics forever. Yet dealing with antisystem forces raises complex issues. Advocates of a permissive approach can argue that in a democratic society all—including the holders of extreme views—should enjoy the freedom of expression, the freedom of assembly, and other rights without restriction. Such broad tolerance, however, can prove treacherous. Its proponents may condemn extremism, but they fail to recognize the seriousness of extremists' aspirations to do away with the democratic system. They also understate or underestimate that system's vulnerability, and the danger of passivity in the face of such threats. [End Page 87]

In Slovakia, the position of the general public is mixed. More than 70 percent perceive extremism and its expanding impact as a threat, but only 50 percent support a ban on ĽSNS (38 percent oppose such a measure).12 A significant part of the younger generation holds permissive attitudes toward extremist activities. In addition, surveys show widespread views and attitudes identical to those professed by the extremists themselves: intolerance, isolationism, and a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories.

Eroded Trust, Declining Participation

Against this backdrop, how do Slovak citizens view the state of their democratic system? Surveys conducted by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) between 2014 and 2017 offer a window on the public mood. On the normative level, there is an overwhelming consensus that democracy is the best political system, the "only game in town." If the Slovak public accepts democracy as an ideal, however, citizens also see a huge gap between this ideal and its implementation in their country—between what "should be" and what they experience. Another frequently articulated contrast is between "good democracy" and "bad politicians." Satisfaction with political systems depends partially on their "outputs," and these findings suggest a sense that the Slovak system has failed to live up to democracy's implicit promise of effective, responsive, and impartial governance.

A lack of official transparency and long-term dissatisfaction with the quality of governance have heightened political alienation. Civic participation, trust, and social capital have suffered. Public-opinion polls indicate a low level of trust in basic political institutions, particularly parties (19 percent) and the judiciary and legal system (33 percent).13 An overwhelming 85 percent of Slovaks view corruption as widespread in their country, well above the EU average of 68 percent. Moreover, almost half believe that corruption has increased in the past three years.14 Surveys also point to a decline both in civic participation itself and in the importance respondents place on civic participation as a democratic right.15 While these trends do not mean that the public is ready to reject the liberal-democratic system, there is reason to doubt that system's vitality and long-term sustainability without an active citizenry.

Whether the March 2018 protests will lead to a shift in Slovakia's civic culture remains an open question. For the youth in particular, these events could serve as a formative political experience. If so, the demonstrations may represent the entry onto the scene of a new political generation—one that has grown up in a free and democratic Europe and that will defend its values.

In comparison to neighboring Hungary and Poland, Slovakia in recent years has represented a less prominent case of the "illiberal turn," rarely earning a mention in discussions of "democratic backsliding." It [End Page 88] appeared that Slovakia might have been "immunized" by factors including strong EU integration—unlike the other three Visegrád countries, it is part of the Eurozone—and the notoriously pragmatic (one might also say two-faced) approach of the Slovak political elite.16 Yet the murder of Ján Kuciak and his fiancée and the resulting political crisis have brought serious problems to the surface.

Two opposing trends are likely to shape the future of Slovak politics. The first is the radical-populist Zeitgeist currently circulating in the democratic world in general and postcommunist countries in particular. The second is represented by mainstream political forces and individual politicians who are seeking to defend the liberal-democratic regime and prove that it can respond effectively to new challenges. This category of politicians includes President Andrej Kiska, who is following in the tradition of strong liberal-democratic appeals laid down by such civic-minded postcommunist presidents as Czechoslovakia's Václav Havel, Hungary's Árpád Göncz, and Poland's Lech Wałêsa.

When it comes to the future of Slovakia's democratic system, there are two likely scenarios. In the less optimistic one, Slovakia will continue "muddling through," without major declines in democratic quality but also without significant improvements. Yet a more optimistic view is also possible: The terrifying double murder and the political earthquake that followed may spark a sustained increase in civic engagement, with ordinary citizens and civil society groups stepping up to hold the politicians accountable.

Grigorij Mesežnikov

Grigorij Mesežnikov is president and cofounder of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) in Slovakia. He is a regular contributor to Slovak and foreign media and served as key author of the report on Slovakia for Freedom House's Nations in Transit series from 1998 to 2014.

Ol'ga Gyárfášová

Ol'ga Gyárfášová is a director at the Institute of European Studies and International Relations at Comenius University in Bratislava and senior research fellow at IVO.


1. See Béla Greskovits, "The Hollowing and Backsliding of Democracy in East Central Europe," Global Policy 6 (June 2015): 28–37; James Dawson and Seán Hanley, "What's Wrong with East-Central Europe? The Fading Mirage of the 'Liberal Consensus,'" Journal of Democracy 27 (January 2016): 20–34.

2. See Soňa Szomolányi, Kl'ukatá cesta Slovenska k demokracii [The zig-zag way of Slovakia to democracy] (Bratislava: Stimul, 1999); Lubomír Kopeček, Demokracie, diktatury a politické stranictví na Slovensku [Democracies, dictatorships and party politics in Slovakia] (Brno: Centrum pro studium demokracie a kultury, 2006).

3. Grigorij Mesežnikov et al., "Slovakia," in Grigorij Mesežnikov, Ol'ga Gyárfášová, and Daniel Smilov, eds., Populist Politics and Liberal Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe (Bratislava: Institute for Public Affairs, 2008).

4. Soňa Szomolányi, "Konfigurácia národnej elity a jej premeny na Slovensku" [Configuration of the national elite and its changes in Slovakia], in Soňa Szomolányi, ed., Spoločnosť a politika na Slovensku: cesty k stabilite 1989–2004 [Society and politics in Slovakia: ways to stability 1989–2004] (Bratislava: Univerzita Komenského, 2005), 206.

5. We draw our definition of antisystem parties from works including Giovanni Sartori, Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis (Colchester, UK: ECPR Press, 2005); and Giovanni Capoccia, "Anti-System Parties: A Conceptual Reassessment," Journal of Theoretical Politics 14 (January 2002): 9–35. Among other features, such parties tend to form a separate pole of the political system and refuse to enter coalitions; use "outbidding" propaganda tactics; and, above all, systematically oppose the founding values of the regime, as recognized by all other parties.

6. See Zora Bútorová and Ol'ga Gyárfášová, "Názorový a hodnotový profil slovenskej verejnosti v čase vzostupu extrémizmu" [Opinion and value profile of the Slovak public in a time of rising extremism], in Zora Bútorová and Grigorij Mesežnikov, eds., Zaostrené na extrémizmus: Výskumná štúdia [Focused on extremism: research study] (Bratislava: Inštitút pre verejné otázky, 2017).

7. Grigorij Mesežnikov and Gabriela Pleschová, "Testing Democratic Resolve in Slovakia" in Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence (Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for Democracy, 2017),

8. Among respondents, 68 percent agreed with the statement "Slovakia is a country of the Slovaks and should remain so." See Elena Gallová Kriglerová and Jana Kadlečiková, Verejná mienka v oblasti pravicového extrémizmu: Výskumná správa [Public opinion about right-wing extremism: research study] (Bratislava: Open Society Foundation, 2012), 10.

9. Survey conducted by the 2muse Agency for the citizens' initiative Call for Humanity. See "PRIESKUM: Prijmeme utečencov za svojich? Takýto je postoj Slovákov" [Survey: Are we taking refugees for ours? This is the opinion of Slovaks], Pluska, 16 September 2015,

10. In a survey conducted by the Central European Policy Institute (CEPI) in February 2016, 52 percent of respondents chose this option.

11. Quoted in Dušan Mikušovič, "Čižnár podal na Najvyšší súd podnet na zrušenie Kotlebovej ĽSNS" [Prosecutor General Èižnár submitted a proposal to Supreme Court to dissolve Kotleba's party ĽSNS], Denník N, 25 May 2017,

12. Bútorová and Gyárfášová, "Názorový a hodnotový profil slovenskej verejnosti v čase vzostupu extrémizmu."

13. "Naše hodnoty 2017: Prvá prezentácia zistení Výskumu európskych hodnôt—EVS 2017 Slovensko" [Our Values 2017: first presentation of the European Values Survey—EVS 2017 Slovakia], Institute for Sociology, Slovak Academy of Sciences,

15. Zora Bútorová, "Aktívne občianstvo a občianska participácia na Slovensku a v krajinách V4" [Active citizenship and civic participation in Slovakia and in the V4 countries] (presentation, Bratislava, 19 December 2017),

16. Soňa Szomolányi and Zsolt Gál, "Slovakia's Elite: Between Populism and Compliance with EU Elites," in Jan Pakulski, ed., The Visegrad Countries in Crisis (Warsaw: Collegium Civitas, 2016), 67–86,

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