The following article is a part of a series of brief country profiles for the EU-28 ahead of the European elections in May.
Slovakia joined the EU in 2004 as part of the big enlargement round that saw 10 new countries join that year. But it almost missed out, as things looked very different while the country was ruled by the authoritarian leader Vladimír Mečiar in 1992-1998.
Contrary to the Czech Republic (Slovakia’s neighbour and part of the same country, Czechoslovakia, until 1993) and to other Visegrád Group members (Poland, Hungary), it decided to adopt the euro in 2009.
There are more than 5.4 million people in Slovakia, which is around 1.2% of the EU-27 (without the UK). In this year’s European Parliament elections, 14 Members of European Parliament (MEPs) will be elected by Slovakia – 2% of the EP total (minus UK).
Slovaks were perhaps the biggest EU enthusiasts prior to their accession, as 93.7% voted positively, the highest among all candidate states holding referendums at the time of accession. However, this was not reflected in EP election turnout, as in 2014 just 13% of people made use of their right to vote.
Moreover, just a narrow majority of Slovaks (51%) consider the EU a good thing, as opposed to 10% against. This is below the EU average (62/11). A big share of Slovaks is indifferent about the EU, as 37% consider it neither a good or bad thing.
Most (72%) Slovaks support the euro as the common currency and a majority (62%) feel they are EU citizens. However, a big chunk doesn’t (37%), and only 33% trust the EU while 57% don’t This is worse than the EU average (42/48).
Slovak economy has been upbeat in recent years. It recorded a growth rate (in real GDP) of 4.1% last year. Moreover, between 2014-2018 the national average was 3.5%, well above the EU average of 2.1%.
Nonetheless, there are risks as highlighted in the European Commission’s most recent winter forecast, including labour shortages and global uncertainties. Moreover, the IMF highlighted declining productivity growth as a structural problem of its economy as well as household indebtedness, which has doubled over the past decade.
Despite this, Slovakia’s economic growth is expected to keep up the pace through 2019 and 2020, with rates of 4.1% and 3.5% respectively. This is again much better than the EU’s forecasted average of 1.5% and 1.7%, albeit from a relatively low starting point.
Looking at Slovakia’s overall economic size, its total GDP stood at almost €85 billion 2017, which is less than 0.7% of the EU-27 (without the UK) total.
In real GDP per capita, this comes down to €15,000 in 2017, which is a bit more than half of the EU28 average of 27,700. When considering purchasing power standards (PPS), Slovakia’s per capita GDP stood at 76% of the EU28 average in 2017.
Slovakia’s unemployment rate has been falling rapidly: from a high of 14.2% in 2013 to 6.6% in 2018, below the EU28 average of 7%. It is expected to drop further to 6.3% and 6% by 2019 and 2020 respectively, below the EU28 averages of 7% (2018) and 6.3% (2020).
The country’s youth unemployment rate remains relatively more problematic, as it still stood at 15.4% in 2018, in line with the EU average of 15.6%. Nonetheless, as circa 1 out of 3 young people was jobless between 2010-2013, this is a noteworthy improvement.
Political context and direction
After the fall of communism in 1989, Czechoslovakia became a federative republic, which after four years dissolved into the Czech and Slovak republics in 1993, in what was known as the Velvet Divorce – a reference to the bloodless Velvet Revolution that marked the transition from communist rule in 1989.
Both nations embarked on their own journey, without any conflict, and share a close diplomatic relationship. It was more of a top-down political decision to split the countries, rather than a bottom-up social demand.
Slovakia’s constitution entered into force in late 1992, and partly from January 1993, when the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic ceased to exist. It rooted Slovakia as a parliamentary democracy, with a unicameral body of 150 members elected directly for a four-year term.
The most important political figure is the prime minister (currently Peter Pellegrini), with the president (for the time being Andrej Kiska, before the president-elect Zuzana Čaputová assumes office on 15 June), as the head of state elected directly for a five-year term
While the role of the president is ceremonial, it does incorporate the appointment of top judges, the ratification of international treaties, and the possibility to veto laws passed by the Parliament.
The 1990s in Slovakia were marked by the dominance of HZDS led by Vladimír Mečiar, whose illiberal rule stalled Slovakia’s EU integration, as the country failed to meet the EU’s democratic criteria to start negotiations.
Slovakia was also the only country in the Visegrád Group not to join NATO in 1999. During Mečiar’s time at the helm, Slovakia was also marred by multiple controversies, which led to increasing international political isolation.
A change of direction came in 1998 with new Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, who was from the SDK coalition of pro-EU parties. The party later disintegrated, and from its ruins, the liberal-conservative SDKÚ party was born.
The subsequent coalition government led by Dzurinda (2002-2006) successfully caught up with neighbours, culminating in EU and NATO membership in 2004.
The following years (2006 onwards) are identified by the dominance of the social-democrat SMER-SD under the leadership of Robert Fico, who was Prime Minister between 2006-2010 and 2012-2018.
In 2010-2012, Slovakia was shortly governed by Iveta Radičová from SDKÚ, however, she lost the vote of confidence on the issue of a financial bailout for Greece, as her coalition partner SaS refused to agree on the bailout.
The second term of SMER-SD (2012-2016) resulted in an absolute majority in parliament, the first time in Slovakia’s history, as the opposition parties were becoming increasingly fragmented and many new parties emerged but with little success.
In 2014, SMER-SD’s dominance was seriously questioned when Fico was beaten in the second round of presidential elections by millionaire and political outsider Andrej Kiska, amidst concerns that SMER-SD (and Fico) would gain too much power.
As SMER-SD slowly bled support before 2016’s parliamentary elections, in the context of the ongoing migrant crisis, it shifted to the right, seizing the opportunity the anti-immigration populist agenda presented. It expressed increasingly nationalist anti-immigration rhetoric.
The elections nevertheless resulted in a loss for SMER-SD, which secured only 28% of the votes compared to the 44% it won in 2012, while a number of populist parties surged.
ĽSNS – a far-right extremist party – reached the electoral threshold for the first time. The Slovak National Party (SNS) – a right-wing nationalist party – gained in popularity, and the newly created right-wing populistic Sme Rodina, also passed the threshold. Altogether, these right-wing parties won a quarter of the vote, by capitalising on the anti-immigration agenda.
SMER-SD was forced to create a coalition with the national conservative SNS, and the liberal-conservative MOST – HÍD, an inter-ethnic party for cooperation with the Hungarian minority which makes up 9% of the total population.
This government’s term was marred by corruption and by the brutal murder of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, after he started digging into alleged links between the office of Fico and the Italian mafia.
The murder caused a huge outcry from the public, who demanded a thorough investigation and staged the largest protests since the Velvet Revolution. The public called for anti-corruption measures and posed questions about the country’s state of democracy.
This ultimately resulted in the resignation of Fico, who was replaced by Peter Pellegrini. Multiple ministers also stepped down. However, with Fico still heading SMER-SD, he maintained scope to influence Pellegrini and set the direction of the government.
The murder accelerated the decline of SMER-SD and bolstered the opposition. Recent presidential elections were seen as a crossroads: sticking with the old establishment in the form of SMER-supported EC Vice-President for Energy Union, Maroš Šefčovič; or a desire for change embodied in the political novice Zuzana Čaputová from the relatively new social liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS) party.
The electoral campaign was remarkable for the sudden transformation of Šefčovič, who had hitherto cultivated the image of a centrist EU technocrat. After an unexpected loss in the first round, he scurried over to the populist right in an attempt to close the gap, but to no avail.
Čaputová was ultimately victorious and is set to be the first female president. Her victory bucks the populist trend in the Visegrád countries, where the heads of state and government are right-wing males.
In this sense, this year’s EP elections could be a stepping stone towards next year’s parliamentary elections, which will be decisive for Slovakia in choosing whether to follow the progressive or nationalist path.
In any case, Čaputová’s victory increased support for newer opposition parties, whereas the SMER-SD’s decline continues. Another potential player could be the outgoing President Andrej Kiska, currently the most trusted politician in Slovakia.
On 4 April he officially announced plans to create a new political party after his term ends. However, with the multitude of political parties currently in the running, this could also lead to further political fragmentation.
Voter turnout will be the most important factor, given that in 2014, only 13% of Slovaks bothered to vote in the EP elections.
A recent poll suggests that the recent presidential elections affected preferences, with SMER-SD down 1.5% on a previous poll at 19.7%. However, this could still result in three MEPs for the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).
PS, which made a coalition with the liberal-conservative SPOLU, has had a large boost in numbers that could be attributed to the victory of Čaputová, going from 9.5% in the last poll to 14.4%. This could translate to two MEP seats.
Although both parties are new and therefore did not join any European group yet, it is expected that PS would join the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), and SPOLU would join the European People’s Party (EPP).
The economically liberal and ‘Eurorealist’ SaS also received a slight boost, and its 12.9% could secure two seats for the Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR).
Next would be ĽSNS with 11.5%, which could win one or two MEP seats for one of the Eurosceptic parties, given that ĽSNS has not joined any EP party yet as well.
Sme Rodina would also gain one or two seats with 10.7%. It has aligned itself with the Eurosceptic Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF).
Other parties that are expected to gain one seat each are the conservative OĽaNO for the ECR; and SNS, which could join the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFD) or another Eurosceptic group.
The Christian-democrat KDH and MOST-HÍD also have a chance of winning a seat each for the EPP.
Give the previous low turnout and the rapidly shifting political sands in Slovakia, these predictions could still change. Nevertheless, the European elections could be a test as to what could be expected from the parliamentary elections in 2020.
Patrik Fritz works as an EU policy analyst in the European insurance sector, and holds a master degree in European Studies.
Robert Steenland works as an evaluation and research consultant in EU policies, as well as an analyst in EU politics. He holds a double degree master in European Governance.
Daniel Matthews-Ferrero is a Marie Curie PhD researcher in the POLITICO programme at the University of Aberdeen, focusing on contemporary Western European populism. He holds a Master’s degree in European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe.