Two recent elections in the neighboring central European states of Hungary and Slovakia point to different trends in the region’s politics. Slovakia’s presidential election appears to be a healthy step towards further consolidation of democracy, as voters stood against allowing a single party to dominate their government. Meanwhile, Hungary’s parliamentary elections showed the effects of the dominant Fidesz party’s efforts over the last four years to change the rules of the game in order to entrench its own power. The election also revealed a worrying increase in popular support for Hungary’s far-right political party, Jobbik. The long-term effects of both elections remain uncertain, but the trends they represent deserve continued close attention.
Slovakia’s Presidential Election, March 2014
On March 29, by a 59.4% to 40.6% margin, voters in Slovakia elected Andrej Kiska as their new president, rejecting the candidacy of the country’s prime minister, Robert Fico.
Kiska’s election was a strong vote for change in Slovakia—Fico had already served two terms as prime minister, and his pursuit of the presidency looked like a power grab. At the same time, Kiska, an entrepreneur and philanthropist with no political party membership or political experience, entails some risk. While he has styled himself an independent and centrist candidate, Kiska’s positions are not entirely clear and the direction of his future policies remains to be seen.
In Slovakia’s parliamentary system, the president is less powerful than the prime minister, but this year, votes for the position appeared particularly significant. Voters feared that Fico’s party, Smer-SD, already dominant since 2012, would control all parts of the government for the near future should Fico win the presidency. In the past, Fico’s popularity had derived from promises to moderate the effects of reforms associated with Slovakia’s political and economic transformation, and on maintaining a certain amount of economic and social stability in the midst of the broader European crisis. However, the prospect of his party’s control of the entire government brought back the specter of the past. A firm hold on the government by just one political party could have provided it with the means to push through major changes with little opposition, and perhaps even allow Fico to boost the role of the president in order to consolidate his own personal power. As one political commentator put it, “We have already had one-party rule here.”
The first round of elections on March 15 involved a total of 14 candidates, most of whom gained very small percentages of the vote. The top three candidates were Fico with 28%, Kiska with 24%, and Yale Law school graduate and independent candidate Radoslav Procházka (formerly associated with the Christian Democratic Movement) with 21%. Voter turnout was only 43.3% in this first round, but the runoff election inspired a significantly larger turnout at 50.5%. As voting maps from March 15 and March 29 show, in the second round many regions tipped in Kiska’s favor after first going to Fico. Kiska was also given a boost when the other defeated candidates banded together to back him against Fico.
Smaller-scale personal failings also soured voters to Fico. He came across as hypocritical for playing up his observance of Catholicism and accusing Kiska of associations with Scientology, despite having explicitly espoused atheistic beliefs when he joined the communist party in 1987. He then belonged to the Communist Party’s successor, the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL) before becoming the co-founder of Smer. Nearly 70% of Slovaks are Roman Catholic. During his second term, Fico has also become embroiled in accusations that he used state money to fund expensive property for a mistress.
Some have suggested that the prevalence of non-party candidates in this year’s election represents a possible crisis of confidence in the country’s political parties. Certainly, problems with corruption over the past few years have not helped to improve the image of Slovakia’s politicians. However, a decisive and peaceful turnover of power in this election could also pave the way for more positive changes to Slovakia’s political system, and could renew confidence that that the voices of voters truly matter.
Hungary’s Parliamentary Elections, April 2014
Things looked somewhat different on April 6 in the Hungarian parliamentary elections. As expected, the centrist ruling party Fidesz remained firmly in power, and the far-right party, Jobbik, saw an increase in its share of the vote.
Fidesz won 44.5% of the vote. A coalition led by the the MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party) came in second with 25.99%, and Jobbik came in third with a record 20.54% share of the vote, up from the 17% it received in the 2010 elections.
Translated into parliamentary seats, this result provides Fidesz with 133/199 seats, or 66.83%. This ensures Fidesz a 2/3 majority and allows it to make major constitutional changes that will help to further entrench its power. The MSZP coalition will hold 38 seats, or 19.1%, and Jobbik will be represented with 23 seats, or 11.56%.
According to Kim Lane Scheppele’s in-depth analysis (see Part 1 here and Part 2 here), Fidesz’s win was never really in question. Only the scale of its victory was up for grabs. Ever since its victory in 2010, she explains, “the governing party has used its four years in office with its two-thirds majority in the parliament to redesign every aspect of the electoral system to its advantage.”
This included widely criticized controls over the media, and a reduction in the size of the parliament from 386 to 199 seats, which has received a more mixed response. However, other key changes have slipped by with less notice. One glaring example Scheppele describes in Part 2 of her analysis is a change in the shape of voting districts and in the procedure for changing voting districts. The Fidesz-led government designed the new voting districts such that they can widely vary in number of voters, allowing some Fidesz-leaning districts to exercise disproportionate influence over elections results. Moreover, districts can be changed again only with a 2/3 majority vote by the parliament, which is highly unlikely while Fidesz controls parliament.
The OSCE election monitoring commission has already expressed concern that the election results stem from the uneven playing field that Fidesz has created over its last four years in power.
Moreover, the increase in support for Jobbik, a right-wing party that often appeals to xenophobic, anti-Roma and anti-Semitic sentiments in Hungary, gives cause for concern. Jobbik’s views are extreme, but the party has grown in popularity throughout the current government’s term in power. Like many countries in the region, Hungary struggles with its Roma population. According to one report, “violence toward Roma in Hungary, including terror and murder, continues despite government plans to integrate them into society; for their part, local authorities often turn a blind eye to such crimes.” An increase in Jobbik’s popularity suggests that these problems are unlikely to move toward any resolution.
Jobbik did particularly well in the eastern part of Hungary, which has struggled with unemployment and poverty, but its support increased also in districts around the capital, Budapest. In fact, it has grown in popularity in every vote since 2009, and it cooperates with other right-wing parties within the European Union. Some of its success in this particular election may have come out of the party’s attempts to soften its image—some candidates reportedly “released photos posing with cats and puppies and appeared with their kids in women’s magazines,” but its underlying far-right agenda has not substantially changed.
From the Elections Forward
It will be up to other European and Western countries to maintain their scrutiny of Hungary’s steps in the future to ensure the fairness of its voting system and to discourage the far-right elements within their own states that feed off of the same fears and prejudices as Hungary’s Jobbik party. Likewise, while Slovakia’s election results suggest that the Slovak public is motivated to prevent a similar situation within its own borders, Kiska will need a great deal of support. His inexperience in politics may be problematic, and Slovakia is not entirely immune to some of the same problems that Hungary faces. It too has a large Roma population concentrated in the poorer regions of the country, and far-right groups do exist. Earlier this year, far-right extremist Marian Kotleba won the election for governor in the central Slovak region of Banská Bystrica, raising fears that the far-right in Slovakia may begin to gain popularity as it has in Hungary. It will be important in the future to ensure that if voters in Slovakia reject the control of more established parties, far-right groups do not win over their confidence instead.
The elections this spring in Slovakia and Hungary appear to show the countries going on divergent paths—Hungary’s results suggest a continuation of democratic erosion, while Slovakia’s suggest that the country is becoming a more vigorous and consolidated democracy. However, long-term outcomes remain uncertain, and those who support further democratic development in each country will continue to need strong support from other established democracies.
 Jan Lopatka, “Slovak underdog has chance to beat PM Fico in presidential vote,” Reuters, March 28, 2014, https://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/29/us-slovakia-election-idUSBREA2S00220140329.
 Slavomír Repka, “Prečo Fico nesmie byť prezidentom,” SME blog, March 27, 2014, https://repka.blog.sme.sk/c/352366/Preco-Fico-nesmie-byt-prezidentom.html.
 Roman Cuprik, “Is ‘kissing story’ relevant for public?” Slovak Spectator, Sept. 9, 2013, https://spectator.sme.sk/articles/view/51288/2/is_kissing_story_relevant_for_public.html
 “Slovakia Elects Andrej Kiska as President,” The Guardian, March 30, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/30/slovakia-elects-andrej-kiska-president-robert-fico
 “OSCE: Hungary’s ruling Fidesz victory because of ‘undue advantage’,” Deutsche Welle, April 7, 2014, https://www.dw.de/osce-hungarys-ruling-fidesz-victory-because-of-undue-advantage/a-17549530.
 Anshel Pfeffer, “Hungarian Elections show Rightward, Anti-Semitic Shift,” Haaretz, April 9, 2014, https://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-features/1.584450.
 Pablo Gorondi, “Softer Image Helps Far-Right’s Gains in Hungary,” Big Story, Associated Press, April 7, 2014, https://bigstory.ap.org/article/softer-image-helps-far-rights-gains-hungary.