Slovakia Faces a Stark Choice
A historic murder trial ahead of parliamentary elections could boost liberal democratic forces over the populist ruling party.
Slovakia has been in the grip of nationalist populism for most of the past 14 years, and far-right contenders are gathering strength. But the opening of a historic trial ahead of the parliamentary election on Feb. 29 has offered liberal democrats the chance to take the country in another direction.
On Jan. 13, the Slovak oligarch Marian Kocner arrived at a special court in the small city of Pezinok to stand trial for ordering the murder of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, two years ago. If convicted, Kocner could face a life sentence.
Kuciak and Kusnirova were gunned down in their home on Feb. 21, 2018. At the time, the 27-year-old journalist was working on an investigation in eastern Slovakia that allegedly connected Kocner with Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia. Kuciak’s story, published posthumously, linked the case directly to Maria Troskova, an advisor in the prime minister’s office.
Former Prime Minister Robert Fico, who remains the leader of the nominally center-left Direction-Social Democracy (Smer) party, had shrugged off corruption scandals for his 10 cumulative years in power, but the journalist’s murder proved too big a scandal for him to contain. Fury exploded onto the streets, and Fico was swept aside.
The Smer-led coalition government limps on. But the shock of Kuciak’s murder, which has revealed just how deeply Kocner’s tentacles reached into the Slovak state, has revived both liberal forces and the specter of fascism. The liberal-democratic bloc hopes that evidence of the corruption that has thrived under Smer will mobilize voters in its favor. The anger unleashed by Kuciak’s murder has already partly shifted power in Slovakia, reawakening the country’s liberal forces and catapulting the political newcomer Zuzana Caputova to the presidency last March.
A crucial fight awaits. “This election will decide if we will have basic decency in Slovak politics or move to a primitive form of populism,” said Tomas Koziak, the rector of Academia Rerum Civilium in Kutna Hora.
While nothing can dispel the horror of the murders for Kuciak’s and Kusnirova’s families, the gunman Miroslav Marcek’s testimony, in which he admitted to the killings, has raised the pressure on Smer and the other nationalist parties in the governing coalition. Ministers, prosecutors, judges, and even police have dropped like flies as investigators uncovered evidence on Kocner’s phone detailing their roles in his nefarious schemes. Fico insists that messages suggesting he regularly met with Kocner, who happened to be his next-door neighbor, are misleading.
“The trial will help confirm the information that has been released in the media,” said Andrej Matisak, an editor at the Slovak newspaper Pravda. “In the current climate of mistrust in the media, that’s a very important point ahead of the election.” Kocner has already tried to use this mistrust to his advantage by claiming to have been “ambushed” by the press, he added.
Suggestions in the international media that Caputova’s election to the largely ceremonial presidential post represented a clean break with nationalist populism were off the mark. Nationalists and extremists also attracted significant support in the March presidential vote, showing they remain a strong political force. The parliamentary election is the key battleground where Slovakia’s political path in the wake of Kuciak’s murder will be decided.
To push Smer out of government, up to six disparate parties considered to be Slovakia’s democratic opposition will likely need to form a coalition. Of the bunch, the populist, anti-graft Ordinary People party has emerged as the strongest, polling at 16.4 percent. Two new centrist parties emerged with the liberal revival: Progressive Slovakia, co-founded by Caputova, and For the People, founded by her presidential predecessor Andrej Kiska in September 2019. Both are polling at between 8 and 9 percent.
Smer is just leading the polls with around 17 percent of the electorate, more than 10 points below the most recent election in 2016. “Everyone is keeping tabs on the trial, and that’s clearly bad news for Smer,” said Matisak. “They were the ruling party and allowed this cancer to thrive.”
But it’s unlikely that all the votes shed by the governing party are going to the centrist democratic bloc. The neo-Nazi People’s Party-Our Slovakia (LSNS), which is polling around 10 percent, appears to be benefiting. Party leader Marian Kotleba has ditched the black uniforms he used to wear in a bid to project a softer image, but he retains his anti-establishment message.
Despite the fascist party’s rise, the fragmented political landscape should keep Kotleba away from the levers of power. The neo-Nazi party is so toxic that few can imagine any parties—including the nationalists—working alongside it in a coalition.
Still, the corrupt networks exposed by the Kocner case make Kotleba’s promise of fair treatment for all—except, of course Slovakia’s Roma and Muslim populations—more seductive for the poorer and less-educated provincial voters who have lost the most under the system that replaced communism. (Kotleba’s ideology has also appealed to the rich.) The party leader’s shaved head and trimmed mustache dot billboards around Slovakia, sending a message: LSNS is the only party untainted by links to oligarchs and scandals.
“The Kocner trial is a double-edged sword,” said Milan Nic, an expert on Central Europe at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “It helps mobilize support for the democratic parties, but at the same time offers a boost to Kotleba as an opponent of the whole system.”
Progressive Slovakia has taken a strong stance against right-wing extremism. “Fascism is still alive,” Caputova warned at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland last month during events to mark the 75th anniversary of its liberation. As well as campaigning for votes, the party has also organized protests against LSNS events across the country.
Despite Kotleba’s gains, most analysts say they expect the Kocner case to offer enough momentum to push the democratic bloc acrossa the line to a slim majority. But that won’t be the end of it. Cleaning up a system riddled with corruption wouldn’t be easy even with a strong mandate. A government cobbled together from five or six parties with little in common besides their commitment to basic democratic standards will find it doubly difficult.
The recent brief detainment of former state prosecutor Dobroslav Trnka illustrates the challenge. On Jan. 16, Caputova hailed Trnka’s arrest as a “breakthrough for justice.” Evidence from the Kocner investigation revealed that Trnka had blackmailed government ministers and others on behalf of the oligarch. But prosecutors dropped their charges of “abuse of office,” and he was released the following day. The prosecutor’s office has offered only a vague explanation.
The problems run deep, according to Koziak, the political scientist. He contends that Fico merely upgraded a system built in the years immediately after the end of communism, with corruption at its core. In the 1990s, murders and kidnapping linked to authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar prompted then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to label Slovakia the “black hole of Europe.” While opposition parties ousted Meciar in 1998, the corruption was never cleaned up.
The Kocner case has exposed just how deeply the rot runs, and Slovakia must now harness the resulting anger to throw off the nationalist populism that has taken root across the post-communist countries of Central Europe, said Nic. “This is crunch time,” he said. “The deep corruption revealed has killed trust in the state, but also accelerated a shift to a new generation charged with renewing the quality of governance.”
Should the democratic opposition fail to cleanse the system, the danger is that Slovaks could be tempted to invite extremists like Kotleba to blow it up. “We realize that risk,” said Pavel Sibyla, a senior Progressive Slovakia official. “I just hope that all of the democratic parties will feel the same deep responsibility towards the country.”