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Jozef Bátora : "Hungary is the main issue in the Slovakian elections"

On the 12th June Slovakian citizens will head to the polls in a general election overshadowed by tensions with neighbouring Hungary. What will the thse elections change for the foreign and European policy of Slovakia? Why are the new Hungarian laws on citizenship such a cause for concern in Slovakia? Who are the political parties with a chance of being elected? Â Jozef Bátora, Associate Professor of Institute of European Studies and International relations in Bratislava, explains the issues at stake in this election.

Touteleurope : What is the political situation in Slovakia at the moment? How has the economic crisis affected Slovakia?

Jozef Bátora : The economic crisis has in general hit Slovakia hard like other European countries. The Social democratic government has been increasing the national debt. Nonetheless, Slovakia has been doing relatively well and has one of the highest levels of economic growth in the European Union.
While there have been some cutbacks and austerity measures, in the run up to the elections the government has been spending a lot on public works such as motorways and bridges. This is their way of dealing with the crisis. However, even if they are trying to cut back on costs to reduce spending, it is seems that the financial situation in Slovakia is relatively good compared to the other countries in the region.

Jozef Batora is associate professor at the Institute of European Studies and International Relations in Bratislava, Slovakia. His research is focuses on Institutional change dynamics in diplomacy in the context of European integration.

TLE : What are the main issues being debated in the election campaign?

JB : The biggest issue since the change of Government in Hungary in April is Slovakia’s relationship with Hungary. It is the major election issue. There have been some corruption scandals on both sides of the political spectrum. Most recently on the government side to do with the financing of political campaigns over the last ten years. But all this has been overshadowed by the dual citizenship law introduced by the Hungarian parliament and the issues that is raises for Slovakia. Hungary changed its laws on citizenship in May in order to make it easier for Hungarian speakers and ethnic Hungarians to apply for citizenship.

What is the reaction in Slovakia to this Hungarian Dual Citizenship law? Why is this such an emotive issue ?

JB : The reason this is problematic is that there are 500,000 citizens in Slovakia who are of Hungarian origin which is 10% of Slovak population. They live around the Southern border of Slovakia with Hungary. There is a general worry that these people may seek Hungarian citizenship and become more attached to Hungary.

The question of how Hungary deals with minorities in the neighbouring countries has been on the table since the Trianon Treaty which ended the First World War. It is a recurrent issue which gives rise to the fear that Hungarian minorities might seek autonomy and try to break away from Slovakia. I think, however, that this a rather irrational fear.

Since 2006 , Slovakia is ruled by a coalition government composed of SMER (centre left) led by Robert Fico, Slovak National Party (SNS, far right) led by Jan Slota, and Movement for a Democratic Slovakia-People’s Party (HZDS-LS, centre right) led by Vladimir Merciar. The members of the opposition are Slovak Democratic and Christian Union-Democratic Party (SDKU-DS), Party of the Hungarian Coalition (SMK), and Christian Democratic Movement (KDH).

TLE : Is national identity a major issue in the Slovakian political debate?

JB : National identity hasn’t been a burning topic of national debate but the recent developments in Hungary have brought this issue to the fore. The sensitivity around this question underlines the uncertainty of the Slovak identity. These quite radical reactions often stem from insecurity about identity. There is a subconscious sensitivity about borders and about changes of borders. Somewhere in the back of people’s minds there is a sense that the Southern border isn’t fixed and that it could be called into question. For instance, it would usual for a Head of State to visit their neighbouring country for their first state visit after taking office as a strong diplomatic signal. However, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbàn, chose instead of visiting Slovakia, to visit to Poland, the historical neighbour of the former Hungarian Kingdom. In this sense, identity is coming up again but it has not been a major preoccupation of Slovakians and has much to do with the current political relations between Slovakia and Hungary.

Hungary is introducing old concepts of how one understands the nation, they are introducing a very ethnic concepts. The Hungarian government should not being giving passports to people who did not live in Hungary just because they are part of the Hungarian nation.

TLE : Will Robert Fico’s parties and the current coalition parties be reelected?

JB : It is very unclear. I would first of all say that the current Government coalition, that is a social democratic party Smer and the national party SNS, will not be there after the elections. Smer will gain the most votes that is to say probably around 35% in the polls. The far right Slovak National Party will struggle to reach the 5% threshold needed to enter parliament. The question is whether Smer can manage to build a coalition with some of the other parties in parliament.

The Right wing conservative parties have been trying to build a coalition of five parties which could replace the current coalition. The Far right party would be not be part of this Government as the current opposition SKDU would exclude them outright.

As a last resort if it is the only way to remain in power after the elections, Robert Fico would form a Government again with the nationalists. It would be an unfortunate development as we would have an increasingly nationalist governments both in Hungary and in Slovakia.

Smer, (Main government Party 2006-2010, centre left) 
Slovak Democratic and Christian Union
- SDKU-DS (Main opposition party, Liberal conservatives, centre right)
Slovak National Party
, SNS (Coalition partner in government 2006-2010, far right) 
People’s Party - Movement for a Democratic Slovakia
LS-HZDS (Coalition partner in Government 2006-2010, Nationalist conservative party )
Party of the Hungarian Coalition SMK-MKP (Hungarian minority party, centre right)
Christian Democratic Movement KDH (opposition party, centre right)
Conservative Democrats of Slovakia KDS National conservatism

Parties which are not in the current parliament but who may reach the 5% threshold :

Freedom and Security Party
, SaS (centre right)
Hid-Most (centre right)

TLE : Will this lead to a rise in the far right vote?

JB : All the political parties are trying to drum up support to rally the voters and the citizenship issue is something Slovak voters feel strongly about. Save the Hungarian party, all of the Slovak parties have condemned the Hungarian citizenship law. Slovakia is taking measures in retaliation to modify its own law which will stipulate that if a Slovakian takes on Hungarian citizenship they will lose their Slovakian citizenship.

It is hard to understand why Slovakians would want to avail of this new Hungarian law. A Slovak and European passport provide you all the benefits and rights you need (free travel, free access to health care in the EU). Hungarian citizenship is purely an emotional matter because in terms of real benefits it doesn’t give you anything.

TLE : How would you characterize the far right party in Slovakia?

JB : Slovak National Party who are in Government at the moment can be characterized as a far right party. They campaign on sovereignty and on anti-Europe issues. They have produced a very controversial billboard showing a Roma citizen with the caption “we should not be feeding people who do not want to work” . It was taken down the next day by the company who placed it and the Slovak National Party have since tried to claim that they have found a job for this person. However, they consistently try to portray Roma people as free-riders profiting from Slovakian society. This is the thrust of their campaign.

Support for the Slovak National Party has been dropping, even plummeting, in the recent weeks over scandals about financing and use of EU money. They are now at about 5,5% in the polls and the benchmark to get into the Parliament is 5%. One of my key criticisms of the Hungarian citizenship law is that it will boost support for extremist parties and will probably ensure they get elected. It is hard to understand timing of the Hungarian Government which chose to publish the citizenship law at this time.

There is also an Extreme right proto-fascist type movement but they don’t stand a chance to reach the vote threshold as they stagnate at around 1%.

TLE : How do the economic policies differ between the two main parties?

JB : The opposition claim that would introduce responsible budgetary policies and they would not continue to indebt the country as the current government has done. The opposition has a more restrictive economic policy in mind. However, if you compare Slovakia to most other Member States in terms of budgetary and financial discipline, it is doing well under Robert Fico’s administration. The economy were high growth rates in 2005 and 2006. When Prime Minister Fico came to power he did not change the key successful policies, notably the flat tax rate of 19%. They maintained these reforms for the good of the country.

TLE : Will there be any change of European and Foreign policy if the opposition come into power?

JB : If the opposition parties notably SDKU-DS came to power, Slovakia would be much more predictable in terms of European policy and transatlantic relations. The current Government has been trying to forge a foreign policy which is directed towards four geographic areas NATO countries and the EU of course, while at the same time cultivating very good relations with Russia and engaging in commercial relations with China. They have pursued quite an opportunistic foreign policy.

I think the opposition would have a more value-based and pro-western approach. Slovakia needs a value based foreign policy; we cannot continue to be a straw in the wind.

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