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July 6, 2020
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Irena Biháriová on developments in Slovakia: Who is really being ostracized?

24.3.2020 10:51
Irena Biháriová. (PHOTO:  Facebook)
Irena Biháriová. (PHOTO: Facebook)

In Slovakia, it is a principle that the heads of the so-called "oversight committees" in the National Assembly are members of the opposition. The situation in 2016 was an exception, when the governing coalition (led by the Smer-SD party) refused to allow fascists to become the chairs of any such committees.

It appears that the current coalition MPs have decided to break with that fragile basis for refusal: they have agreed with the opposition vice-chair of the "People's Party Our Slovakia" (ĽSNS), Martin Beluský, chairing the Oversight Committee for the National Security Authority. ĽSNS chair Marián Kotleba sought the post of head of the Oversight Committee for Military Intelligence, and while he did not win a majority of votes, it is not yet ruled out that a different candidate from that same party will succeed.

We are now in an era where MPs from the party with the highest concentration of convicted felons and members with neo-Nazi pasts have been entrusted with working to oversee the state. The benevolence with which some coalition leaders approached the dilemma of appointing them certainly is not helping.

Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovič (OĽaNO) and Slovak Economic Minister Richard Sulík (Freedom and Solidarity) agreed a couple of days ago to allow a change of attitude with respect to what they called the "political quarantine" of the ĽSNS. The new PM alleged that the customary approach of "ostracizing" the fascists has not proved effective.

Sulík's contribution was to propose that if the role of oversight committee head gives more power to MPs without "violent pasts", then it is possible that the granting of these long-sought powers to them will demonstrate their real character. I suppose if the ĽSNS MPs were not made the heads of these oversight committees we would never have enough of an opportunity to test their competence and the values with which they are equipped, and I guess that's why it is now necessary to give them even more jobs, because apparently the posts of Governor of the Banská Bystrica Autonomous Region (BSSK) and MPs in the National Assembly of the Slovak Republic probably still aren't enough of an opportunity for them to fully demonstrate the nature of their expertise, the nature of their grounding in human rights, and the nature of their ability to handle public financing.

Kotleba is not better than Smer-SD

Since currently the only opposition party besides the followers of Kotleba is Smer-SD, there was just one other opportunity in play. The chairmanship of those committees, which does traditionally belong to the opposition, could have been left to Smer-SD.

We can think whatever we want about Smer-SD (and we do), but there is one point of contention that we must agree on: The ĽSNS is not better than Smer-SD. We can actually reproach Smer-SD for all that they did while in power, but they never denied the Holocaust, they never posted status updates glorifying Hitler, they never promoted the anti-Romani or overall anti-minority agenda with the kind of forcefulness that, in the case of members or sympathizers of the ĽSNS, flooded the desks of the detectives in the anti-extremism unit.

Whatever political science or professional criterion we choose to analyze them by, Smer-SD is not at all an extreme-right party, even if our experience with their roguery supports a harsher assessment of them. In this context, therefore, there is nothing for us to do but just accept that it will always be better if all the "opposition committees" are headed by Smer-SD than for a single one of them to be led by a fascist.

Who "ostracized" the fascists and what their "political quarantine" was like

I was extraordinarily struck by the incoming PM's statement that the "ostracism" of the ĽSNS should stop here. I don't know if I was living until now in a parallel universe or not, but no thorough ostracism or political quarantine of the ĽSNS has been happening here in Slovakia.

Let's recall several facts:

1. Just 31 MPs in the outgoing legislature pledged not to collaborate with the fascists

In 2016, when the ĽSNS first made it into the national legislature, my colleagues and I initiated the "Stop Fascism" Challenge for the newly-elected MPs to pledge to maintain a cordon sanitaire with respect to the ĽSNS. The pledge involved the so-called Schwerin Principles, which were applied by the German Parliament from time to time against the neo-Nazi NPD party.

It is exactly thanks to those measures that Germany's federal legislators managed to push that party absolutely into the background and then out of mainstream politics. For that reason, we demanded of MPs here in 2016 that they not attend television discussions featuring representatives of the ĽSNS, that they not cast votes along with them, and that they not seek them out as allies for their own legislative motions.

At that time, a "whole" 31 MPs took the pledge, out of the entire National Assembly. With the exception of a couple of brave politicians, almost all of the MPs who did sign the pledge eventually broke it.

We were justifiably offended when, during its votes in the national legislature, Smer-SD acted as if it had reached an agreement with the fascists, although the party never admitted that. If, however, the incoming Prime Minister does not even formally know how to rule out some of his MPs seeking support for their bills from the fascists, that is so alarming that we cannot stay silent about it.

2. Television debates with Kotleba did happen

Politicians' self-centered vision of how they would "deal with" Kotleba on television has always been much stronger for the many who are arguing today that his "political quarantine" should be abolished than have any considerations of the wider social impact of allowing him on TV. Those who are objecting that the "political quarantine" never functioned are actually the same ones who never upheld it.

We reiterated in vain the fact that Kotleba cannot be defeated by blandishing graphs, expert discussions or appeals to values. His typical voter has stopped believing the establishment.

Whatever expert solution the establishment offers, the Kotleba voter will be either despised by that voter or, with all due respect, the solution will be markedly less understood by that voter than Kotleba's clear, harsh slogans are. The argument cannot be won in any way other than by sinking to Kotleba's level, but if we all sink to that level, then we all have lost.

3. The Slovak way to fight Kotleba: Draw inspiration from him

Part of the political scene in Slovakia (those leaving office and those taking office) has chosen what is indeed the most bizarre path for coping with this phenomenon: Attempting to draw inspiration from Kotleba. The best-known example is the case of former PM Robert Fico, who believed that symbolically patting the ĽSNS politician Mazurek on the back for defaming Romani people would be a gesture that the ĽSNS votes would appreciate, and that they would then decide to prefer a diluted radical to a real one.

However, things do not exactly work that way, it is for that precise reason that anybody who steps onto Kotleba's playground is doomed to lose. The SME RODINA (We Are The Family) party has much richer experience with this tactic and has literally created a tandem with the ĽSNS in submitting the lowest kinds of laws attacking democracy itself.

The most horrifying example of how the extremists have managed to dominate mainstream politics has been the contamination of the political discourse with the idea of the "risk posed by the liberals". It has been crazy-making to watch in real time as all of the parties along the political spectrum joined in spinning the web of propaganda in which the extremists regularly catch this imaginary enemy - and how effectively they provided that aid.

The ĽSNS convinced the voters and part of the public that a threat exists in the form of liberals who are responsible for the breakdown of the family and the identity of the nation, who advocate for minority prerogatives and endanger values that are naturally important to people. The other political parties, instead of presenting brave, correct counter-arguments (without the necessity of standing up for Progressive Slovakia, nobody was asking for that), took up this damaging narrative themselves.

Eventually that was also reflected in the coalition agreement, the program requirements of which not only failed to feature the actual threats Slovakia is facing, in any form, but also demonstrated the ideological intersection of the well-worn agenda of the ĽSNS and the radical streams following the Roman Catholic priest Marián Kuffa. If this trend applies, then we cannot claim the ĽSNS has been ignored, politically isolated, or has experienced ostracism.

4. The followers of Kotleba cannot be kept in "political quarantine" if we lower our standards to attract their voters

This is exactly what became the leitmotif of the campaigns of all the political parties, including the winners: Surprisingly, the fascist electorate received more empathy and kindness than any other voting bloc here ever has. It was as if ĽSNS voters were the only people here to have ever ended up in some sort of valley of starvation from which they had to escape along crumbling roads while the rest of the nation enjoys access to absolutely above-average public services.

Naturally, not all ĽSNS voters are fascists, but it is necessary to say that excuses legitimizing voting for the fascists were sometimes produced to an absurd degree here. More than any sincere solidarity, what was hidden behind these excuses was an attempt to curry favor with that group of voters and, even more, to accelerate their fear of being "the deceived, hard-working part of the white nation".

How must those Romani people who voted for OĽaNO feel today when, during this legitimizing convulsion, the fact is forgotten that it was exactly the Roma, not people living with uncompleted roads in their neighborhoods, on whose backs the ĽSNS has been cultivating its political popularity for years? An exceptionally sad example of bending over backward for those voters was the step that candidate Matovič took when he was playing with the idea of appearing side by side with Kotleba on the same tribunal to speak to Kotleba's voters.

The only thing sadder than that was when, in the serious situation of physical assault being committed against the members of his potential coalition ally, Progressive Slovakia, Matovič suddenly lost the compass that had been instructing him as to which side justice and solidarity were on. Instead we heard moral relativism, speculations as to whether it hadn't actually been we, the politicians from Progressive Slovakia, who had unnecessarily provoked the fans of the ĽSNS to attack.

I get it. In the political battle for scoring points with voters, values go by the wayside.

5. Who is basically being ostracized in reality?

It is unacceptable, in a democracy, for there even to be debate about whether fascists should be ostracized (isolating them politically). We either believe the fascists are a component of mainstream politics, or we insist that our task is to not allow them into the mainstream.

Moreover, the ĽSNS can reach the masses its own way and for quite some time has not needed such a generous step from other politicians as entrusting the party with the chairmanship of these committees. They have already built a robust structure of channels of information, one that no other party on the Slovak political map can boast of.

The manipulative videos posted online by Uhrík are shared in numbers greater than the Prime Minister's videos, even those posted at the best of times. If politicians have the feeling that the ĽSNS is still in "political quarantine" and that it is necessary to give them some room, then they missed the point in time when that party was acquiring that room even without the "noble intentions" of those entrusting them with committee chairs.

This is, again, just a low attempt by those in power to curry favor with ĽSNS voters. By doing so, they are declaring not just their disrespect for parliamentary procedure, but also their ignorance of the ways to minimize the influence of the ĽSNS.

The progressive task

If we want to build Slovakia into a country that eventually makes it beyond the "Carpathian horizon", then it is not enough to satisfy ourselves with getting rid of Fico - a dozen repair jobs on the justice system will be of no aid, nor will the Excel approach to saving the economy, nor will the ideas from online referendums. A governing coalition needs to have, first and foremost, a common ground of values beneath its feet, something to always base its decisions on, and a clear moral compass in hand, one that will not lead the new Government astray, and especially not in exchange for fast solutions that are superficially effective.

The solution, therefore, is not to give posts to the fascists and legitimize them even more, but to create, through consistent arguments with the opposition, the issues on which elections are won. However sincerely we wish the new Government luck, we are aware that opposing the subjects that have allowed the ĽSNS to connect with a certain part of the new governing coalition will now be the main task for those of us in Progressive Slovakia.

Irena Biháriová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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democracy, Extremism, Fascism, Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko



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