With alarm, we are watching the global rise in authoritarian populism, accompanied by a decline in democracy, in trust in institutions and leaders, and in rights and freedoms. In our region of Central Europe, observers are disillusioned by the failure of the poster children of the November Revolutions, Hungary and Poland, to deliver on the promises of the transition some thirty years later, and by their backsliding. In comparison, Slovakia is not doing terribly, although the key to its success lies in the chosen comparative frame. It is still experiencing similar trends to its V4 neighbors, particularly the plague of “hyperdemocracy,” a phenomenon caused both by the cultural backlash against globalization, as well as the local historical legacy of uncare and exclusivism that forms part of Central European national identities. The pandemic has exacerbated these trends, successfully tempting the imagination of several political leaders that“they alone can save us.”
Some trends are specific to the Central European region and need to be addressed to understand the local variety of democratic decline separately, or in addition to the literature embedded in the Western discourses. The recent publication of The End of the Liberal Mind: Poland’s New Politics, featuring six Polish scholars (actually succinct summaries of six books) of the “Born Free” generation, who experienced most of their adulthood after the regime change of 1989, is exactly such a contribution, looking at the structural roots of the crisis of liberal democracy in Poland which also resonate in the context of the neighboring Slovakia.
The Slovak political scene is defined by hyperdemocracy, a term introduced in The End of the Liberal Mind by Stefan Sękowski to label the winner-take-all mentality and missionary zeal of the self-proclaimed saviors who justify the means by the ends. This is an outcome not only of transformation and discontent with globalization, but also an outgrowth of a much older tradition of exclusivist citizenship which has long been at home in Central Europe.
Two Traditions of Citizenship
The Slovak hyperdemocracy is a product of an increasingly polarized society, which is a current feature in many places of the world. It reinforces a prior social cleavage that can be traced back over a century or more, and which has survived multiple regimes and regime changes. This cleavage produced two traditions of citizenship (understood as practice rather than a legal status inscribed into legislation).
The first of the two traditions is tied to the progressive, liberal, cosmopolitan stream that has been prevalent among the influential minority of the Slovak educated class. It was this stream that contributed to the building of the joint democratic home of the first Czechoslovak Republic, that organized in dissent against the communist regime around the platform of human rights, and that sought to rebuild Czechoslovakia after 1989 on liberal traditions and values, and promoted the “return into Europe.” The other tradition is related to the traditional, conservative, inward-oriented stream that was first tied with the efforts for the autonomy within the first Czechoslovak Republic, the “Slovak question” during the communist Czechoslovakia, and the surge of nationalism and separatism after 1989, carried later in Mečiar’s Movement for Democratic Slovakia and the nationalist and populist parties of later incarnation. The central problem here, and elsewhere in Central Europe (aptly pointed out by Jarosław Kuisz), is the problem of rebuilding the state after 1989, the inability to muster enough vision and confidence to found the new sovereignty firmly on the political values of liberal democracy and human rights (as, for example, the South Africans had). This “struggle for minds” has not been resolved by generational change and continues to divide Slovakia and Central Europe.
The latter tradition found nutrients in the migration crisis, the globalization crisis, and most recently, in the pandemic. Combined with the changing nature of political parties and the prevalence of social media, it led to the phenomenon that in neighboring Poland Stefan Sękowski labeled “hyperdemocracy”—a “democracy cubed,” which equates “democratic rule with the unlimited fulfillment of the majority will.” He used it to describe the political style of Lech Kaczyński and PiS in Poland as a more accurate description than “neo-authoritarianism.” Hyperdemocrats operate with a missionary mindset, promising to end corruption, uproot the communists/oligarchs (choosing the right enemy for the particular context), and bring change. Little change has, however, been brought, as hyperdemocratic tools are used to favor the winners of the election, thus continuing to undermine the rule of law. Hyperdemocracy is fueled by the political transformations described in The End of the Liberal Mind by Maciej Gdula – personalized politics, decline of party structures, and populist marketing through social media, turning away from value narratives in favor of bite-sized events, sensations, and conflict.
Exclusivism of Hyperdemocracy
Hyperdemocracy is escalated by the decline of traditional political parties. With the prevalence of social media, a traditional party base is not needed for the outreach and organization among the newcomers on the political scene, who often rose as anti-cartel movements. The current Slovak ruling coalition has two such parties, The Ordinary People and We Are Family, that have been built around the eccentric personalities of Igor Matovič and Boris Kollár with just a handful of members—a hodgepodge collection of opportunist political aspirants of various persuasions. As in Poland, these political parties lack a programmatic vision. The few parties that have actually come with a detailed program have failed to perform a successful “show,” thus failing to attract a significant voter base in comparison with the personalistic, anti-cartel, populist, or anti-systemic parties that rely on a different arsenal. It is, in majority, the visionless parties that are making the political decisions, in line with “the philosophy of ‘Wait till Tomorrow’ (as Stefan Sękowski describes the parallel situation in Poland). Party agendas and coalition government programs are compilations that speak to particular immediate promises of individual parties and cannot be mistaken for a program. In this, Gdula adds, these parties are inherently modern, flexible, adapted to the current era.
The “us” vs. “them” type of thinking, so deeply ingrained in the second tradition of citizenship in Slovakia, has been aptly translated into the expression “our people,” introduced and popularized during the times of the Prime Minister Róbert Fico. When a now disgraced oligarch Ladislav Bašternák (currently in jail for tax evasion) was stopped for speeding in 2012, he got off without a fine, because the radio transmitter instructed the policemen that he is “one of our people.” Since then, the term “our people” has been used repeatedly by this political clique as a justification in situations when rules were bent or broken on their behalf.
The hyperdemocracy of the Slovak sort has roots in the early years of semi-authoritarian rule of Vladimír Mečiar. After the “night of the long knives” (when in 1994, the new parliament passed many controversial measures, occupying parliamentary committees and monitory bodies by party nominees), Meciar delivered a portentous message for his opponents: “The elections are over, get used to it. We are not doing anything else but implementing the expectations of citizens. We are translating the outcomes of the elections into practical life.” This “winner-take-all” mentality has not really been absent from any political administration since. All in the name of democracy, which, as Tomasz Sawczuk points out, everybody says they love.
The outcome of hyperdemocracy is political leaders who are incensed at the request to uphold the rule of law in relation to themselves. They are genuinely convinced that their duty is to implement the mandate they were given through the elections, which means anything that occurs to them at any given moment, and that the best way forward is through the appointment of “our people” to the decisive posts in the society. Hyperdemocracy has long had a solid ground to lay roots in, but is most apparent in the leadership of the government of Igor Matovič, which has been elected into office a year ago. The campaign prior to the elections already unveiled fully some of the traits of the governance to come—it was a show, with focus on the mediatization of corruption scandals, with a clear single promise of uprooting the corruption and resurrecting the rule of law. Only, the rule of law was not understood as a set of rules and institutions, but as embodied in the guarantee of the “right people.”
There are many examples, but three recent ones suffice to illustrate the hyperdemocratic mindset.
Among the important political appointments that the Matovič administration carried out were the 72 heads of district offices. The Prime Minister proclaimed utmost transparency in their selection, establishing a portal where the candidates can be vetted by the public. At the same time Matovič stated that the heads of the district offices will be politically nominated by his Ordinary People party because the Ministry of Interior belongs to them within the coalition government. The rest of the employees were to be selected on the basis of expertise and “input” from the fellow citizens. Similar and equally alarming logic was used in a recent suggestion that the reconstruction funds from the European Union should be allocated to the individual ministries on the basis of percentages that parties heading those ministries received in the elections. By this logic, the Ministry of Education, for example, which is among the hardest hit and will need to implement programs to make up for lost education of tens of thousands of children, and facing a major reform of higher education, would receive a pittance, since the Freedom and Solidarity partyheading that department only received 6% in the election. Fairness, to a hyperdemocrat, is a game of simple numbers.
A different aspect of the hyperdemocratic mentality is the reality show-like character of governance. The first weeks of the pandemic have inspired the Prime Minister to initiate a Mutual Assistance Fund, to which Matovič himself pledged to donate his salary along with the coalition ministers and MPs. The Fund pays out around 500EUR to the applicants, which is accompanied by contributions from the public on the basis of the posted stories of suffering and pleas for help. Matovič, in the meantime, has apparently “lost his appetite” to contribute his salary to the project, claiming the launching of the fund took too long. A handful of government officials and parliamentarians donated parts of their salaries a few times. In January 2021, nobody contributed to the fund anymore. Hyperdemocrats are interested only in new events that can be mediatized here and now, not those whose time in the spotlight has passed. A similar feel of “feed them to the lions” was the Prime Minister’s extemporaneous post on Facebook after he tested positive for COVID-19 during the time when political leaders were getting the first vaccinations. To convince the public that he is not avoiding the vaccination, he offered to have his wife and mother vaccinated in his stead if his Facebook post receives more than 10,000 likes (he also failed to mention whether they consented to the experiment). Some members of his cabinet also took to Facebook to conduct plebiscites among their fans as if they represented the whole of Slovakia.
The most recent glaring example of “our people-ism” is the election of the Special Prosecutor. Even though Daniel Lipšic, the candidate who received the support of the coalition MPs, is a respected advocate, his election was accompanied by the characteristic bending of the rules for “our people.” The unwritten rule is that the Special Prosecutor, in charge of investigating the most sensitive charges of corruption and organized crime, is non-partisan. Lipšic has been an active political leader for decades, has very close connections with the top political leaders, and has been engaged in several cases currently under investigation. In order to qualify for the candidacy, Lipšic was quickly given the security clearance, which, under normal conditions, takes months to finalize. Matovič, however, saw no problem in this process, stating: “Robert Fico, Pellegrini, and SMER went into politics to rob Slovakia and hand it over to the mafia. This is as different as ‘night and day’ when it comes to our final aims.”
Need for a Caring Democracy
Matovič used the sentiments of the public skillfully, focusing strongly on the overwhelming emotion of injustice and proclaiming the mission of cleansing the public space and bringing the corrupt oligarchs, politicians, and judges to justice. He tapped into the strong emotions lingering after the protests following the murder of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and daily publicized interconnections between corrupt oligarchs, judges, and politicians that saturated the media space afterwards. His support had skyrocketed only two weeks prior to the elections as an outcome of his eccentric videos from France and Malta from in front of the houses of the Slovak oligarchs which they could not afford from legally admitted income.
Today, the Prime Minister is losing support just as quickly —more than half of the people and two of his coalition partners think that he should be replaced, and 79% express mistrust in him. This is an outcome of incompetence, chaos, and failure in communication amidst the pandemic crisis. The promise of the anti-corruption campaign against the oligarchs and corrupt judges and bureaucrats is also faltering as the new administration’s head of the intelligence services was just detained on suspicion of corruption. It is also because of the failure to lead with empathy. People who take a supermarket by storm when there is a sale on respirators are mocked on the Prime Minister’s Facebook for their struggle to save one Euro. In a society, where, like in neighboring Poland (as Karolina Wigura points out in the conclusion to the book), a large segment of the population experienced a pervasive sense of loss in the processes of transformation and later globalization, such lack of sensitivity is costly. His coalition colleagues, even the liberal leaning ones, are exhibiting similar lapses of judgment, narrow-mindedly focusing on the opening of the economy amidst the pandemic that left thousands jobless and without income. The Prime Minister is arrogant and lacking in any self-reflection, his press conferences are a barrage of scapegoating, denunciation of experts’ recommendations and berating of the people for lack of discipline in upholding the often chaotic and contradicting pandemic measures. By contrast, President Zuzana Čaputová, elected two years ago from among the platform of youthful liberals of the Progressive Slovakia, led from the beginning on the message of compassion, shared humanity, dialogue, and expertise, is the most trusted political leader. Her election and popularity are an indication that the liberal, inclusive, cosmopolitan tradition of citizenship is attractive to the public as well. However, it seems to be seen as suitable only for the more symbolic post of the Presidency rather than for the executive power where things get decided. It is a platonic declaration of values towards the exterior and perhaps also towards the self, perhaps to feel better about the society and the values it represents. But the parliamentary elections are a different animal altogether and the exclusivist, inward-looking, winner-takes-all mentality is expected and rewarded.
A polarized society—where a significant part of the population is driven by legitimate grievances stemming from experienced social and economic anxiety and a feeling of being left behind—requires an ethic of care in its practice if it is to avoid a serious crisis. Rather than punishment, vengeance, exclusion, benefits for “our people” and so on, there is a need for empathic understanding, social and economic justice, meaningful inclusion into the society and its public discourse. A caring democracy, as Joan Tronto defines it, is rethinking democracy from a caring perspective—as a society where people care for democracy and for each other: “Citizenship, like caring, is both an expression of support (as when the government provides support for those who need care) and a burden—the burden of helping to maintain and preserve the political institutions and the community.”
But a caring democracy is currently in line only with the values of a small part of the society. The few parties that are aligned with such a vision of a society and citizenship oscillate around the threshold of electability, representing some 15% of the voters altogether.
Yet the pandemic has also had some positive consequences for democratic practice. In a situation where sensible governance is absent, many withdrew from politics and back to the tried and tested mode of survival, relying on family networks. Liberal democrats, the fledgling minority on the political spectrum, are still struggling to find the language of care that would capture hearts and minds beyond the bubble of the hardcore progressivists and the postmaterialist urbanite millennials and zoomers. But while the government is failing to convince anyone that it is capable of leadership, there are institutions that take over the brunt of the work and carry us through the sudden and at times dramatic measures, such as the testing of the entire population and changing rulings on opening and closing of the schools, all dropped in the lap of regions and cities. The mayors of bigger cities are increasingly visible, interconnected, and respected for their management, flexibility, and caring leadership. Scientists and experts also have taken affairs into their own hands, organizing a Science Helps initiative, or the website Data without Pathos that pools and explains data on the current situation. Thus local networks of civic cooperation emerge in a historically weak civil society and represent fledgling hope for the survival of expertise and decency.
However, unlike in the past, (and unlike in the United States under Trump), liberal democrats have to contend with a new reality in Slovakia: the vision of hope has not been more distant in a very long time. There is no realistic scenario for attracting more than 10-15% of voters altogether (if we are being generous in terms of which parties can be associated with the tradition of progressive liberal citizenship). The blunders of Igor Matovič and his government and the dire mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic in Slovakia (earning the dubious honor of leading the world in the rate of death during the second wave of the pandemic) resulted in a massive coalition crisis, which has culminated with the castling of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance (much like a reshuffle of the figures of the king and the rook in chess game). The lack of vision and ad hoc decisions that often seem to be motivated by the Prime Minister’s need for popularity, having succumbed to his own image of his genius, and water on the mill of the parties previously in power, who benefit by simply doing nothing and saying “We told you so.”
As Wigura points out, “some people are guided by irrational fear, resentment, and hatred, while others are guided by enlightened reason”. The first have elected the Ordinary People of Igor Matovič, expecting extraordinary change. But ordinary people seldom amount to extraordinary deeds. The disappointment paves the way for the return of the parties responsible for twelve years of corruption, theft, and organized crime, and for ruining any real opportunity for the liberal democrats to succeed in the next elections. The latter are destined to get used to the role of new-age dissidents who cultivate alternatives from this new and unfavorable location and ready themselves for an uphill battle with wooden swords.
Dagmar Kusá, Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts