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How Poland Beat Authoritarianism (And Slovakia Didn’t)
It’s all about strong, appealing, moderate centrists.
WHILE POLAND’S CENTER-RIGHT IS CELEBRATING the outcome of this weekend’s election, Slovakia’s new governing coalition—spanning from the hard left to the conspiratorial-nationalist right—just announced its nominations for the new cabinet to be led by Robert Fico, a former prime minister who resigned in disgrace in 2018. I predicted that Poland’s political center would hold while Slovakia’s would implode. But as a Slovak-American, I have no reason to gloat: An aging ex-TV anchor known mainly for her anti-vax views, Martina Šimkovičová, is poised to become Slovakia’s next culture minister. Rudolf Huliak, currently under police investigation for hate speech targeting gay people, has been picked to lead the environment ministry.
Much has been made of Poland’s record electoral turnout on Sunday—more than 74 percent—which set a record in Poland’s modern history by surpassing even the level of mobilization seen in the first free election in 1989. Yet the Slovak election saw high turnout as well, with more than 68 percent of eligible voters casting ballots. The main difference was what was on offer.
In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) faced a well-organized, deeply institutionalized opposition built squarely around the political center. Perhaps the most striking election result was the strong performance of Third Way, an alliance of two smaller center-right parties that are more socially conservative and rural than the dominant Civic Platform led by Donald Tusk. What made this political force stand out is its combination of conservative commitments and political moderation, rejecting the apocalyptic binary which Polish parties have presented to voters in recent elections.
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In the new governing coalition, ranging from the center-left to center-right, Third Way will be a natural countervailing force to the “New Left,” which in turn disappointed expectations. (The far-right Konfederacja Party also underperformed expectations.)
There are, to be sure, serious questions about how the emerging coalition will govern. Following PiS’s expansion of entitlements and Poland’s well-justified military build-up, public finances will need stabilizing before public debt starts spiraling out of control. The World Bank expects the deficit to be close 5 percent of GDP his year and next year. Fiscally conservative and left-leaning voices will probably have very different perspectives on how to bring it down. Both among social progressives and those irked by PiS’s politicization of the courts and public broadcasting, there will surely be a temptation to overreach both on cultural issues and in purging the state apparatus of PiS cronies. Whether Third Way and the more prudent voices within Civic Platform can temper any excesses remains to be seen.
Though much smaller in size, Slovakia bears some similarities to Poland. Both populations are predominantly Catholic, though Catholicism per se plays a less central role in Slovak politics. Both societies also fall on the less urbanized end of the European spectrum. Yet while in Poland the pro-Western, moderate forces have coalesced around Civic Platform, a political force that is broad-based and politically ecumenical, in Slovakia, the center has been fractured between a center-left that’s slightly too far left and a center-right that can’t organize itself.
In the most recent Slovak election, the main center-right party has been Progressive Slovakia (PS), a distinctly liberal and socially progressive party whose rhetoric on, say, LGBTQ issues would fit better in Berkeley, California, than in the villages of Slovak Carpathians. While PS has done many things right, including establishing institutions that can outlast its founders—a rare feat in Slovakia’s highly personalized politics—it has also benefited from dysfunction on the center-right.
In 2020, the moderate center-right got a chance to govern, which it squandered for reasons that are too complex and too idiosyncratic to discuss at any length. The winner of the 2020 election, Igor Matovič, had been an effective campaigner but proved disastrous at governing—especially during the pandemic. The combination of micromanagement, paranoia, and constant conflict proved poisonous for the center-right governing coalition even under his hand-picked successor, the less conflictual Eduard Heger (who does deserve credit for Slovakia’s impressive assistance to Ukraine). With three prime ministers in as many years—the last being a technocrat-caretaker without a parliamentary—the pro-Western, politically moderate electorate ended up demoralized, with many turning toward PS as a viable alternative, untainted by the chaos.
Before joining the governing coalition with Fico, Hlas (“Voice”)—a catch-all, social-democratic party that broke away from Fico’s Smer (“Direction”)—had the potential of seizing the country’s political center of gravity. Yet in the new government dominated by more unscrupulous and unsavory elements, the party will likely be gradually re-absorbed into Smer. That leaves Slovak voters, at least for now, with a difficult choice between different flavors of political extremism and Western European–style progressivism. The Christian Democrats or Freedom and Solidarity, a fiscally conservative pro-market party, might benefit from their years as parliamentary opposition, but neither can play the role of a big-tent party that Civic Platform does in Poland.
While it is reasonably safe to say that Poland and its democracy will be fine, only time will tell whether PS in Slovakia can grow into a political force strong enough to keep Fico’s worst instincts in check. Its success will require, as a starting point, tempering some of its more ambitious ideological tenets, whether they have to do with environmentalism or LGBTQ rights. If instead its opposition to the new government is fueled by culture war issues or by the niche causes of Bratislava hipsters, Slovakia might be on track to cement Fico’s hold on power for more than just one term.