By Nina Hrabovska Francelova
Fear and anger are two of the dominant emotions that a large section of Slovak society displayed in reaction to the COVID-19 crisis, President Zuzana Čaputová said in her “state of the republic” address to parliament at the end of September.
“I can understand the fear because it is a deep-seated human emotion,” she told MPs on September 28. “But what is not a deep-seated human emotion is the attempt to consciously abuse or exploit this anger and fear, or to use this topic to direct hatred towards other people.”
President Čaputová was referring to the current climate in Slovak society where extremist rhetoric and the use of radical narratives are becoming a normal way of speaking for some politicians – and not just those at the extreme end of the political spectrum.
Observers point out that when “mainstream” politicians start to use narratives that cleave close to those of extremists, only extremism benefits.
Nurturing ‘pub talk’
The popularity of Robert Fico, the former prime minister and chair of the social democratic Smer party who is currently an opposition MP, has received a boost lately. While only 19 per cent of voters trusted him in November 2020, that figure had risen to 29 per cent by September, according to a poll by Focus.
Fico is among the worst of the politicians who nurture what Radoslav Štefančík, a political analyst from the University of Economics in Bratislava, terms “pub talk”.
By way of example, Fico wrote on Facebook in August that the political scientist Jozef Lenč, who has been critical about Smer in the past, should not be accepted as a political analyst in a “Christian country”, because Lenč is Muslim and, as such, he only attacks Smer because the party is against migration quotas and against the emergence of Muslim communities in Slovakia.
Štefančík also singles out the deputy chair of Smer, Ľuboš Blaha, who uses exceptionally “radical” language in his public statements, as well as Boris Kollár, chair of the coalition party Sme Rodina. The far-right parties People’s Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) and Republika, founded by LSNS defectors, are also “strongly represented” in this regard, according to the analyst.
Smer enjoys current support of 14.4 per cent, Republika 6.8 per cent, ĽSNS 4.6 per cent (below the threshold of 5 per cent to enter parliament) and Sme Rodina 6.7 per cent, based on the most recent poll conducted by Focus Agency between September 7 and 11. Counted together, they have the support of about a third of the Slovak electorate.
Typically, the language of extremists is not any more radical, because anything more extreme would risk prosecution and perhaps even a ban on party activities. Thus, the most radical voices are often those of politicians who on the surface support ideologies that are incompatible with such rhetoric, Štefančík says.
“Neither a Social Democrat nor Liberal in Western democracies would dare say, for example about Muslims, what they say in Slovakia,” he explains.
Yet representatives of the far right in Slovakia have faced several lawsuits over comments they made. Milan Mazurek, then an MP of ĽSNS who later deserted the party for Republika, became the first deputy to lose his seat in parliament over a court ruling. The Supreme Court found him guilty of making racist comments about the Roma minority. And the Specialised Criminal Court sentenced the leader of ĽSNS, Marian Kotleba, to four years and four months for displaying Nazi symbolism. The verdict is still under appeal.
“But ĽSNS voters are former voters of other parties and some of those parties want their voters back,” Štefančík explains, adding that Smer is trying to tempt ĽSNS voters. “Because the voter hears radical language, they start to use it as well, but on the border of what is acceptable or just behind it.”
Further social acceptance
In some cases, mainstream political parties have deliberately adopted part of the agenda of the far right in a more refined form in order to appeal to that section of the electorate, explains extremism expert Tomáš Nociar.
“Sometimes such a strategy is successful in the short term, other times it is not,” Nociar says. “In the long run, however, the far right in particular benefits in this respect, as it contributes to its further social acceptance.”
Nociar explains that the 2016 election when ĽSNS entered parliament was a turning point in this sense. He mentions two effects that the election had.
The first was the further normalisation and acceptance of the far right in Slovak politics with the participation of such parties in government – the Slovak National Party (SNS) in the Fico cabinet, or Sme Rodina in the present. The second was the arrival of the extreme right in mainstream politics, which is unparalleled in Europe.
“Slovakia is currently the only country in the EU where the extreme right is represented in the national parliament, and where the negative attitudes of part of the mainstream political spectrum towards it are gradually transforming into the ambivalent,” Nociar explains.
Giving the ‘go-ahead’ to society
As a consequence, Slovak society risks losing its ability to tell between good and bad, between what is decent and what is not, Štefančík notes.
“The limit of the acceptable will be shifted to a lower level, which could have tragic consequences for the nature of democracy,” Štefančík says, adding that the Holocaust did not start with mass transports either, but started with the tacit exclusion of Jews from society.
It is the politicians and public officials who define the normative frameworks of how it is acceptable to talk about certain events, groups of people or individuals, explains Barbara Lášticová, a social psychologist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
“If radical expression is normalised in this way, it might give part of society the impression that it is okay,” she says.
At the same time, the political discourse also helps to co-construct social representations about relationships between certain groups of people (for example, vaccinated vs. non-vaccinated), she notes.
“If these relationships are framed as conflicting in the political discourse, it could lead some people to believe that expressions of hostility towards another opinion group are also acceptable,” she says.
Applying the handbrake
This trend is very dangerous, reckons Alena Holka Chudžíková, researcher at the NGO Centre for the Research of Ethnicity and Culture (CVEK), as it deepens negative attitudes towards minorities. She mentions specifically foreigners and Muslims, referring to the campaign before the 2016 election that overlapped with the migration crisis, which was misused by many politicians to gain political advantage.
She explains that hostile narratives which signal to society such attitudes and expressions are alright can have a direct impact on minorities.
“We know, for example, that it was at the time of the humanitarian crisis that Muslims living in Slovakia experienced hate, both verbal and physical,” Holka Chudžíková says. “So, we see that there is a great risk that hate speech can turn into action.”
Despite the negative trend, Slovak society has so far shown a rare ability to apply the brakes to avoid the abyss into which it is heading, notes Štefančík.
“We can only hope that we will not want to apply the handbrake only at the moment that we fall into the abyss,” he sighs.