Last month, Robert Fico, a pro-Russian populist politician, won the Slovak parliamentary elections with his Smer-party. Fico won with a margin that was not expected by poll-makers. He has been prime minister before, each time making the polarisation in the country even greater. Decades of politicians failing the population have made the country’s population vulnerable to populism. Fico won by profiting from a country rattled by internal division resulting from political crises that were not dealt with properly. Preventing yet another win by a populist politician can mainly be done by reducing polarisation stemming from the feeling of injustice done to the electorate.

Slovakia is a relatively young country (established in 1993) still feeling the consequences of the disintegration of communism and Czechoslovakia. With the fall of the communist regime, Czechoslovakia and later Slovakia and the Czech Republic had to deal simultaneously with political reforms and the transition to a market-led economy. During the communist regime, there was guaranteed social security, as stated in Acts No 100/1988 Coll. on social security and No 103/1988 Coll. on changes in healthcare security. However, the communist regime also used these social securities as a method of pressure on people who were disloyal to the communist regime. 

With the shift to a market-led economy, people were expected to adjust in a relatively short timeframe. The timeframe can be seen as relatively short since the transition-induced recession, which was supposed to shift the economy from state-led to market-led, began almost within a year of the fall of the communist regime. For those who did not have a stable job or for those who lost their jobs as a result of the fall of the communist regime, this posed a significant challenge due to the transition-induced recession. Many of those who pursued higher education in bigger cities across the Czech Republic and Slovakia decided to stay there as the bigger cities provided more opportunities for better-paid jobs. The Slovak countryside and smaller cities were left paralysed by a lack of highly educated people due to a limited number of jobs for this group and possibilities for their further professional growth. It seems this became a vicious circle because companies that require highly educated workers will not settle in the smaller cities and countryside if there is a lack of highly educated people. The lack of opportunities and well-paid jobs left the people in the countryside and smaller cities disillusioned and thus vulnerable to populism. This development is further deepened by a longing for the past due to an ageing population and conservatism. The disillusionment of the people living in the affected areas is transformed into votes for populist politicians. Unfortunately for those who voted for populists, populist politicians often fail to deliver due to unrealistic promises they make during election campaigns.

As previously stated, populist politicians profit from the disillusionment of people who feel abandoned by the government and are thus affected by injustices (as they see it). The result is dissatisfaction, which subsequently leads to, inter alia, polarisation. Consequently, polarisation stems from the dissatisfaction and disillusionment of different groups of people across different places.

As Fiona Hill states in her book There is Nothing for You Here, inequality can be reduced by creating opportunity. Opportunity, according to Fiona Hill, can be created by many actors across a wide scope of society. 

Regarding Slovakia, I argue that by granting high-quality education to youth, by for example aligning the secondary school curriculum with the demands of the labour market, opportunity can be created, especially in the poorer regions of the country. 

To make the smaller cities and the countryside attractive to companies even without government subsidies, the government should invest in the infrastructure to replace the currently outdated and inadequate infrastructure. The result would be that these places would become increasingly accessible and thus connected to the more developed and thriving places.

In conclusion, the election of populist politicians in Slovakia, like the recent election of Robert Fico, stems from the effects of the fall of the communist regime, the following disintegration of Czechoslovakia, and the subsequent changes in society. These effects resulted in deep-rooted polarisation stemming from inequality of opportunity across society. 

To narrow inequality and thus the election of populist politicians, opportunities for the population must be created across all regions and spanning all layers of society. Slovaks need these opportunities to overcome inequality and disillusionment so that no populist politician will be elected again, and the country can close this chapter and look ahead. Lastly, Slovaks should not forget that it is important to remain in dialogue between different sides of the political spectrum, to not give polarisation more fuel.

Image by Anna-Elise Peerlings