With the unexpected victory of Zuzana Čaputová in presidential elections Slovakia got into the focus of European public. Even so the success of the environmental lawyer is considerd as sign against politival apathy, voter turnout in the second round was less than 42 %. Which is much compared to the last European elections in Slovakia, were only around 13 percent went to the ballots. In our short series on the European Elections in May we want to give young voters a voice: This time Ema, student of European studies from Žiar nad Hronom, shares insights into Slovakia.
„This time I’m voting!“ – the motto of this year’s elections to the European Parliament has a special importance to me. These elections are the first European elections in which I have the opportunity to decide who is going to represent me on the European level. I personally see no difference between voting on the national or the European level, because being both Slovak and European is part of my identity. I have spent most time of my life in the European Union and do not remember my life before Slovakia joined the EU very clearly. But that does not mean that I have no clue about Slovakian past and history. I know how lucky we citizens of Slovakia are that we can call ourselves Europeans, that we can influence our own future in a broader perspective: We can live in all other member states freely. We can study abroad more easily. We get more opportunities to work in different countries than our parents did. I even somehow take for granted the fact that we can travel to 26 other Schengen countries without showing our passports or IDs. But when doing so we regularly forget how much effort we had to put in to come to this point. This is why politics do matter – on the European level as well as on the national.
Distrust “leftovers” from soviet times?
If we look at the results from Eurobarometer, Slovakian citizens tend to be quite neutral or on the positive side concerning our membership in the EU. We are especially satisfied with the fact that we adopted the Euro as our currency ten years ago. However, when it comes to voting for the European Parliament, our turnout is extremely poor. European Elections in Slovakia are a perfect example of the concept “second-order elections”. Most of us are simply convinced that our vote is not important, needed or heard at the European level in the first place. But why is that? It might sound like a cliché, but in my opinion one of the reasons is that many Slovakians simply do not understand how the European Union works: What does each EU institution do? How are European laws drafted and afterwards adopted? And finally: How can we, or our elected representatives, influence our future in the EU? To be fair, I see why people might find it difficult to understand how a complex international organization like the EU is working. Even I, a student with a Bachelor’s degree in European studies, had difficulties to get to know all the complicated procedures and processes and I see why people simply do not care. People that come home after work don’t want to research European institutions and policies.
One could insist that citizens of all EU member states go to work and have their own problems, but they still vote. That is true and, in this matter, Slovaks are the same except the “voting” part. If you expect me to explain why Slovakians don’t vote on the European level even if a larger part of the population believes more in European institutions than in our national, I can just guess based on my experience with people that surround me. If we are talking about the elderly part of Slovakian population, there is still a sense of distrust towards the EU, based on their experience in the past. By that I mean that not so long ago Slovakia was a satellite of the USSR and Slovakian policy was strongly coordinated with the policy in the Soviet Union, just like today when our legislative is greatly dependent on the EU. Even though we participate on creating EU legislative and we have the opportunity to shape them, a similarity is perceived by many. And there are still people in Slovakia who believe that their life was better during communism than now.
A generational gap?
A few years ago I was working at a factory near my hometown during summer. I got into an argument with one lady there, who was trying to persuade me that if communism was still in Slovakia, our lives would be much better. She also mentioned that we should not have adopted the euro as our currency and be like the Czech Republic, that still has its crown. When I argued that eventually, Czech Republic has to adopt the Euro one day because it is a part of their accession agreement to the EU, she kept repeating that this is not true and that I am too young to understand what I am talking about. She had her truth and was not willing to change it even though I gave her the arguments. And I know that she is not just an exception.
Just a few weeks ago, there were election simulations in Slovak high schools foreshadowing the presidential elections we had in March. These elections were aimed at students under 18 who cannot vote in real elections yet. One entire class in the high school that I attended voted for Marián Kotleba, the leader of a neo-Nazi party in parliament. I spoke to my aunt, who is head teacher of that class and she said that they did it as an act of rebellion. This example could be very easily transferred on the matter of European elections – I suppose the decision not to vote could be seen as a rebellion.
Domestic issues overshadow EU matters
This leads to another important question: How can we expect people to be interested in the elections for the EU Parliament when we need to deal with terrible situations in our domestic politics? Last year a journalist and his fiancée were murdered because he was investigating mafia connections of politicians on the highest levels. This resulted in the largest mass demonstrations Slovakia experienced since the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and the establishment of the movement “We want a decent Slovakia”. This movement was established by young students and very quickly gained the support of actors and other publicly known people. They had several demands such as a radical reconstruction of the government, the new interior minister to fire the chief of police and an independent investigation into the murder. These demands show how rotten our politics are by corruption. We have a neo-Nazi party in the parliament with a constant support of approximately 10% of the Slovak population. We hear about frauds regarding EU funds on almost daily basis. Politicians and their parties win elections by spreading homophobic and xenophobic information and people do believe them. The president of the Parliament is frequently visiting Russian Duma, takes selfies with Russian oligarchs, impeaches sanctions on Russia. On top of that he is accused of plagiarism regarding his doctoral thesis and falsely using the title JuDr (Doctor of Law).
Presidential elections: a light at the end of the tunnel?
When drafting the first version of this article, we were preparing for presidential elections and some of the candidates could be considered extremely dangerous for our political future and what was even scarier is the fact that quite a large percentage of citizens would vote for them as polls indicated (One of them being Marián Kotleba, the leader of the Neo-Nazi party). Why was this dangerous? His party consists of people who deny the Holocaust, celebrate former Slovak fascist president Jozef Tiso (in office between 26 October 1939 – 4 April 1945), use the greeting “Na stráž” which was used during the far-right totalitarian regime in Slovakia. One of its members threw stone blocks on a Muslim family at Bratislava main station (and ironically, he is now a member of Slovak Human rights and Minority rights Committee). Sadly, I could continue this list for a while. Moreover, since our strongest party in parliament, Smer-SD (formerly led by Robert Fico, who stepped down after the mass demonstrations last summer) is willing to negotiate with the neo-Nazi party in order to realize their political will.
Fortunately, none of the above-mentioned candidates succeeded in the first round of the elections, however the far-right wing and controversial judge Štefan Harabin, who based his campaign around conspiracy theories, immigrants and “islamisation” of Europe gained around 25% of the votes in total, which still is alarming. We cannot forget about this fact and we need to have it in mind even though our newly elected president the liberal Zuzana Čaputová (in the run-off competing with the vice chairman of the European Commission Maroš Šefčovič), will be for sure strongly pro-European and will support our transatlantic partnerships.
Besides these surprisingly good news Slovakia is currently facing a constitutional crisis. The mandate of nine out of thirteen judges of the Constitutional Court ended in February, which almost completely stopped the functioning of the Court. There were thirty-nine candidates to replace them, one of them being Robert Fico, Slovakian former prime minister, who moreover aspired to be the chairman of the Court. Obviously, this caused a significant controversy in Slovakian society, not only because of his past, but also since he did not meet any of the crucial conditions to apply for the position of a Constitutional Court judge. A special committee that was established to “grill” the candidates voted twice about the fact whether Fico met the conditions. The first time, the votes were 50:50. The second time, one of the committee members was replaced by Irén Sárközy, who supported Fico and therefore, the committee decided that he could be considered a candidate.
As the next step, the Parliament will vote on the candidates, who will be presented to the President, who eventually chooses nine of them and appoints them as judges. But even SMER’s coalition partners did not want Fico in Constitutional Court. They made it very clear that they will not vote for him and they wanted the vote to be public, to be sure that they could not be blamed for voting for Fico. In order to gain enough votes SMER decided to ask the Nazis to support Fico. Eventually, Fico revoked his candidacy after it caused this huge public controversy.
I could go on and on depicting numerous issues that we are dealing with in Slovakia. My point is that if people are overwhelmed by (political) problems that affect their lives directly, they won’t pay attention to something distant to them as the European Union currently seems.
Bring the EU closer to Slovakian people
Moreover, many young people in my age, who are fed up with our politics, who went and protested in the streets when Ján Kuciak and his fiancée were murdered, who believe in the European Union, who believe in democratic values admitted that they are not planning on going to vote in European elections when I was asking them researching this article. The most common reason they mentioned is that they do not have enough knowledge about the EU. That they do not know what it means to have our representatives in the European Parliament, what is their agenda and how they participate in making the EU function. When I asked them whether they would vote if they had better knowledge and therefore understood basic principles of the EU, they said yes. But they would not use their free time to educate themselves on the EU. To me this is a clear indication that young people (at least those I have talked to) would not mind learning this at school or access this information more easily. This could finally result in them going and voting according to their believes and according to their idea of Europe. Some also said that the European elections are not as present in the media as our national elections. I partly agree. Despite the fact that the campaign “This time I’m voting!” is quite present now, I think that the EU might have underestimated this element in the previous elections and could have started to “sell” itself better earlier – saying that, I believe it’s better late than never and share the opinion that this campaign is a great starting point in order to reach a younger generation.
Despite my scepticism, I have never even considered not going to vote in any election. We need to realize that not long ago many people did not have the privilege of expressing their opinions, believes or values by voting in Slovakia. I see it as my civil duty and my goal is to persuade as many people as I can: by talking to them and explaining why it matters to take part and I believe that many of them will come to similar conclusions as I do and will say – This time I’m voting!