Dr. Juraj Medzihorsky, University of Gothenburg
It is a tradition in Slovakia to present every upcoming parliamentary election as the most consequential yet. But this time there is in fact a chance that a watershed election is ahead.
The most anticipated outcome is whether the new government will be lead by the center-left Smer or by a center-right party. Smer have governed since 2006, with a brief break in 2010-12. During that time, the center-right scene has transformed considerably. In addition to the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), Smer’s current coalition partner Most-Híd, and the Hungarian Coalition SMK-MKP, it now consists of the conservative OĽaNO, the centrist conservative Za ľudí, the liberal PS and Spolu, and the conservative liberal SaS.
The second question is whether the new government will rely on the far right. On that part of the spectrum, the main players are the fascist People’s Party Our Slovakia (ĽS-NS) and the Salvini-allied We are family (Sme rodina). The chances of them entering the governmentt are far from nil regardless of whether the government will be led by Smer or the center-right. Currently, they are highest if Smer were to lead the new government.
Anticipating the outcome is made difficult by as many as 13 parties being in the race, which means that most of them hover below 10 percent in the polls and many are at risk of not passing the 5 percent threshold to win seats in the next parliament (see Figure 1, with the trendline of the smaller parties highlighted for better visibility in the 12 individual panels of Figure 2).
Slovak voters saw such uncertainties before. In the last election in 2016, the main surprise was the entry into the parliament of two far right parties, ĽS-NS and Sme rodina, and the dramatic last-minute voter shifts on the center-right. The latter saw some parties double, and others halve their support. Both surprises were further dramatized by the two-week poll blackout that did not let the voters see what was coming.
For the 2020 election, Smer-SD, SNS, ĽS-NS, and their satellite independent MPs voted in a 50-day blackout, which was swiftly suspended by the Constitutional Court. Though the blackout was ostensibly intended to fight fake news, some see it instead as a sign of Smer’s panic and as a test of a new coalition with ĽS-NS. Both explanations have some merit.
As Figure 1 shows, Smer’s support has been in decline and now stands at half of their 2016 support. SNS is struggling too, and the bookmakers put its chance of passing the 5% threshold at less than 30%. Another coalition member, Most-Híd, is also at risk of not making it to the next parliament.
Such worries are not exclusive to the government coalition. Only OĽaNO (the abbreviation stands for Ordinary People and Independent Personalities) seems safe. Older opposition parties Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), and the Party of the Hungarian Coalition (running in this election under the MKÖ-MKS label) also face challenges in passing the electoral threshold. While bookmakers’ odds favor SaS and less so KDH, they give MKÖ-MKS and Most-Híd modest chances comparable to those of SNS. The more successful new parties aren’t safe either. The strongest of them is the joint list of Progressive Slovakia (PS) with Together (Spolu), which, however, runs as coalition and thus faces a 7% threshold. The far-right Homeland (Vlasť) and centrist Good Choice (Dobrá voľba, DV), both closer to Smer than to the center-right opposition, are also hovering below 5%. With a whole week left before the vote and no possibility to publish any more polls in Slovakia, the room for surprises could hardly be bigger.
The two leftmost panels on Figure 3 below show the range of conceivable estimates for the parties’ seat shares based on the last published polls by the two most reputable pollsters. The most likely numbers are those where the bell curve for the given party is tallest. The two panels on the right show the expected number of seats that each conceivable government coalitions would have in the 150 member parliament. The blue area shows how many of the scenarios that are plausible on the basis of the two polls would have the given coalition command majority support in the legislature. For instance, the last polls promise Smer-SD somewhere between 25 and nearly 40, most probably just above 30 percent of the seats, but really no chance at all that it could form a majority in parliament with SNS, Vlasť and Dobrá voľba, not even if they include the far-right ĽS-NS. A coalition of the center-right with Sme rodina appears to be a much safer bet to get a majority than the feasible-looking coalitions that involve Smer and SNS.
The latest polls and the bookmakers favor 8-9 lists winning seats. The question is which ones. Given that this is crucial for the chances of the various coalitions, there is some speculation about the possible effects of strategic voting. It relates to a popular narrative of the 2016 election: surprising last-minute changes on the center-right. SaS and OĽaNO doubled their support, so the story goes, because some voters decided to rescue them as possible coalition partners. This view casts the two-week poll blackout as particularly odious, since it deprived voters of access to up to date information about the strategic context when they made their choice.
Before the 50-day blackout was suspended by the court, activists organized a fee-based service that will provide its subscribers with new polling data on 20 and again on 26 February. Since the blackout doesn’t cover private sharing of information, these are widely expected to leak (and already did in the Czech and the Hungarian press).
OĽaNO has already repeated its 2016 jump before the blackout kicked in. This time, it rose from just above the threshold to over 13%. So large and rapid was the surge that some now think it has a fair chance of finishing ahead of Smer, which went down a bit in the latest polls. At least one bookmaker suggests that the chance of this happening is over 40%. If this comes to pass, the practical impact will be limited, but the symbolic one will be a big story, since Smer came in first in every parliamentary election since 2006.
Should OĽaNO come in first among the center-right, it will have a shot at building a government coalition behind its own candidate for prime minister. How exactly, if at all, would this work is a hotly debated issue. For starters, OĽaNO’s list contains members of three other parties, the conservative New Majority (NoVa), the fundamentalist conservative Christian Union (KU) and the liberal-conservative Change from Below (ZZ), supplemented by independents. Which of them and in what proportion will make it will depend on the individual preferential votes (Slovak voters can choose not only a party list, but also express which candidates from the list they would like to be elected). OĽaNO has for years kept its membership in single digits, and only recently increased it to double digits merely to meet the minimum needed under new party registration rules. Instead of building a party organization, party leader Matovič opted for an online referendum open to anyone which he claims to be binding for OĽaNO’s participation in the government. Yet Matovič himself does not enjoy the trust of the other center-right leaders, who see him as more interested in publicity stunts than in governing, which requires reaching and keeping agreements.
Until OĽaNO’s surge, the favourite to lead a possible center-right coalition was For people (Za ľudí), a new party led by the former president Andrej Kiska. Perhaps for this reason Smer is focusing its negative campaign on Kiska. Coupled with the fact that its manifesto is only 20 words long, this makes Smer’s current campaign look a bit hapless compared to those of 2006-2016. To compound their problems, Smer’s coalition potential is at new lows. The party’s best chance to stay in government hinges on SNS, DV, and Vlasť passing the threshold, and on finding an arrangement with the far right. None of this appears particularly likely at the moment, given the polls and the political costs attached to such an arrangement. Thus, the center-right stands a better chance of building the new government coalition. However, as the figure above shows, such a coalition may need the support of the far-right Sme rodina. Such support “won’t be a cheap bride” – Sme rodina has already said that much.
 A note on reading the polls. Of the polling companies that regularly publish opinion polls, only Focus and AKO are members of the Slovak Association of Survey Agencies and open to peer scrutiny. Focus relies primarily on face-to-face interviews and AKO on CATI. While Polis and MVK have been on the market for a long time, and can count some of the parties as their clients, they do not welcome peer or public scrutiny.
 Of those lists that stand a decent chance of entering the parliament, only that of PSS is registered as a coalition. Several other lists contain members of multiple parties. However, such lists are registered as single party lists, and face only the standard 5% threshold. This applies to OĽaNO’s four-party assemblage, ĽS-NS and their passenger microparties, SaS satellite OKS, Most-Híd’s passenger Šanca, and MKÖ-MKS’s assemblage.