A Country in the EU Just Put Fascists in Its Parliament

What the electoral victory of Slovakia’s neo-fascists means for the future of European democracy.

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Saturday, March 5, was a dark day for Slovakia. For the first time in the country’s post-socialist history, an anti-minority party with openly neo-fascist links, People’s Party-Our Slovakia, received 8 percent of the vote to gain 14 of the 150 seats in parliament. Even close observers of Eastern European politics (a rather small group) did not expect such a strong showing for the party led by Marian Kotleba, who has proudly donned the uniform of the country’s wartime fascists and has referred to Roma citizens as “gypsy parasites.” Instead, the experts had expected big gains for the established far-right party, the Slovak National Party (SNS), which has been trying to capitalize on Europe’s refugee crisis by indulging in xenophobic rhetoric. It seems, however, that many voters preferred the more extreme version on offer.

The elections in Slovakia are not just a one-off. Rather, they are emblematic of a broader trend: the far right’s growing appeal in Europe’s youngest and most vulnerable democracies.

In Slovakia’s previous elections in 2012, the SNS failed to pass the 5 percent threshold needed for parliamentary representation. Given the ultranationalists’ poor showing, some analysts were tempted to write them off altogether. But then came last year’s Europe-wide refugee crisis. Migrants from Afghanistan, Africa, and, above all, Syria flooded into the continent, overwhelming institutions ill-equipped to deal with the influx.

As anti-migrant sentiment exploded, the SNS — a true far-right party with extremist tendencies — appeared poised to capitalize on its stance as the leading anti-European Union, anti-immigrant force. But when the votes were counted the SNS had made only minor gains: It gained just 9 percent of the vote, only 5 percent more than in 2012. Even so, that still gave it 15 parliamentary seats, once again positioning it as a potential coalition partner for Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Direction-Social Democracy party, which lost its ruling majority.

Analysts had expected that the SNS would draw most of the votes from the growing group of nationalist Euroskeptic voters. Yet the experts underestimated Slovaks’ anti-establishment wrath. Despite its politics, the SNS no longer qualifies as an outsider, having taken part in governing coalitions three times since 1990. In recent years, moreover, it has followed the lead of other far-right parties that have achieved power around Europe, attempting to edge closer to the mainstream by softening its xenophobic rhetoric in favor of an anti-EU platform. Voters clearly showed their dissatisfaction by voting in Kotleba and bringing the far right’s combined take to 17 percent — the highest in Slovakia’s history. What’s more, the neo-fascists did well with young people, and particularly well with first-time voters, picking up 23 percent.

The rise of figures like Kotleba and parties like Hungary’s openly anti-Semitic Jobbik is moving Eastern Europe’s liberal democracies into new and dangerous territory. While extremist parties popped up in parliamentary elections in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, they struggled to sustain support into the early 2000s. In 2010, the SNS was floundering on the verge of oblivion. As the Eastern European countries adopted more EU institutions, growing more prosperous along the way, the ultra-right’s extremism and racism appeared increasingly outmoded and irrelevant.

Today, however, Eastern Europe’s extremists are enjoying their moment in the limelight once again. Electorally, they are catching up with their Western European counterparts, some of which, like the Austrian Freedom Party and the Danish People’s Party, have sustained double-digit support over the years. Unlike their Western European equivalents, however, Eastern Europe’s newest far-right parties are not going mainstream by pandering to the center. Instead they are winning votes on extremist platforms and forcing the center to pander to them.

The open racism and xenophobia of parties like People’s Party-Our Slovakia is a throwback to Western Europe’s far-right parties in the 1980s — before they moderated their xenophobic agenda to recast themselves as primarily anti-EU, anti-establishment parties. Marine Le Pen’s National Front, for example, looks and sounds more like a populist conservative party than the anti-Semitic party once led by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Extremist rhetoric (at least in public) proved a burden for the Western European far-right parties that sought to distance themselves from the legacy of European fascism. The earliest of these parties, including the National Front and the Austrian Freedom Party, faced a choice: Go soft or go home.

The most successful chose the former option, and this rebranding by the Western European far-right has paid off. The “soft” populist nationalists gained at the polls in the mid-2000s and continued their rise in the parliamentary elections following the economic crisis of 2008. The extremist line hadn’t worked because Europe was going through a period of unprecedented stability and EU-driven prosperity. Political parties on the flanks who had grander ambitions were forced to adapt to compete with the centrists. But this is not the case in Eastern Europe.

Slovakia’a elections show that the Eastern European extremists may still be able to do what their Western fellow travelers never managed: Win political influence without softening their extremism. The refugee crisis and social anxieties around Islamic terrorism following the Paris attacks have provided them a political opening — and this opportunity may prove to be their golden ticket to the top. If the Slovak elections hold a lesson for Western Europe, it is that the softened Western far right may no longer be enough to assuage disgruntled voters, who may soon turn to the extremists for answers.

It may be too early to ring the alarm bells of democracy’s demise. It could still be that Eastern Europe is going through a fleeting extremist moment, just as Western Europe did in the 1980s. And once the Eastern European extremists have to compete for votes with the mainstream right (as the Western European parties did), they, too, may find that they will have to soften their policies in order to sustain their momentum. Whether the extremists will fade away or surge will depend on whether Eastern Europe’s centrist parties can manage the refugee crisis while addressing voters’ anxieties. This is no easy task — but failure may spell the end of liberal democracy in the EU’s newest members.

In the photo, Marian Kotleba, a leader of People’s Party-Our Slovakia, attends a commemoration of the 87th anniversary of the death of Slovak Gen. Milan Rastislav Stefanik near the village of Brezova pod Bradlom, Slovakia, on May 6, 2006.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa/Files

Alina Polyakova is the David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution and an expert Russian political warfare and emerging threats. Twitter: @apolyakova

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