A neo-fascist party, whose leader is on trial for hate speech, has big hopes for the general election in Slovakia this weekend.
If things go as some opinion polls suggest, the party could even become a decisive factor in forming the Eastern European country’s next government.
Political scientists here say People’s Party Our Slovakia, known simply as Kotlebovci after its leader Marian Kotleba, is a textbook example of an extremist, far-right party. The group is openly, and vocally, anti-migrant, anti-Roma, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Israel, anti-European Union and anti-NATO.
But its extremism goes well beyond that. Kotlebovci proudly celebrate the legacy of the Slovak State, the 1939-1945 fascist client state of Nazi Germany. They praise its president, Jozef Tiso, a man who was convicted of being personally responsible for approving the deportations of tens of thousands of Jews to German concentration camps.
“Their manifesto doesn’t necessarily refer to neo-Nazi ideas, but they have neo-Nazis in their ranks,” said Gabriel Eštok, a fellow at the Department of Political Science at the University of Pavel Jozef Šafárik in Košice. “There are people on their lists of candidates who have swastika tattoos, who have used anti-Semitic rhetoric, anti-Roma rhetoric, and who have denied Holocaust,” he added.
Kotleba and the party did not respond to CNN’s several requests for interviews and comments. He has in the past denied having extremist views, in news interviews as well as during his court appearances.
Despite Kotlebovci’s neo-Nazi connections, an increasing number of Slovak voters are finding the party appealing, or at least more appealing than the country’s political establishment.
“Many people who are voting for Kotleba, they are not voting for him because they truly believe he will solve all their problems, they know that the party is pretty useless,” said Michal Vašečka, sociologist and the director of Bratislava Policy Institute. “They are voting for him to spite someone, they are voting against ‘the system.’”
The divisions in Slovakia largely copy those seen elsewhere in Europe and the United States. Rural, poorer and less educated voters are being pitted against the “urban elite.” Kotleba is tapping into that sentiment.
“If you go to rural east Slovakia, people there will tell you in your face ‘we will vote for Kotleba to annoy you Bratislava people,’” Vašečka said.
Like in many other European countries. Slovakia’s established social democratic parties are struggling to appeal to their traditional electorate. “The people who lost out from the transformation [from Communism] after the 1989 revolution, who were less successful, less educated, these parties don’t seem to be representing them,” said Tomáš Nociar, a lecturer at the Department of Political Science at the Comenius University in Bratislava.
The problem he says is, the liberal, more right-wing parties can’t reach these voters either as they are also seen as part of the establishment. “So they turn to parties like Kotleba’s,” Nociar added.
Kotlebovci’s first big success came in 2013, when Kotleba unexpectedly became the governor of the Banská Bystrica region. It was a seismic shift in European politics.
A tall man with balding head and a distinctive mustache, Kotleba first became a household name as the leader of the neo-Nazi group Slovak Brotherhood. The movement was banned by Slovakia’s highest court in 2006 for being anti-constitutional.
Kotleba rebranded and his current party became a more polished, suited-up version of the original movement. In his regional campaign, he promised to “restore order” and stop “Gypsy criminals.”
His popularity appears to be rising despite the fact that he is currently standing trial over accusations that he used Nazi symbols, a crime in Slovakia. He denies the charges.
Marek Balaz, human rights monitoring coordinator at the European Roma Rights Centre, said Kotleba both taps into and amplifies the country’s racism problem.
According to findings by the European Commission, the Roma minority is facing persistent discrimination in Slovakia, with many people living in absolute poverty in socially excluded communities and with limited access to public services.
“There is a problem, and the majority in the society sees it and sees that something needs to be done, but the solutions are complex and long-term, and need to be based on evidence, not emotions,” Balaz said. “But people want to solve the problems immediately,” he added.
Kotlebovci’s manifesto is scarce on details, but heavy on anti-Roma rhetoric. It is promising to “put a stop to the preferential treatment of all social parasites, including gypsy parasites.”
In recent years Kotleba has shocked the more liberal parts of the country. His party went from gaining less than 1.6% of the votes in the 2012 general election, to just over 8% in 2016.
“Slovak society initially did not react to this and didn’t take it seriously. Because the intellectual potential of many of the party’s members is very, very low, many people were making fun of them … and then 2016 came, and they got 8%,” Vašečka said.
Nociar said that branding Kotlebovci as just another far-right European group, like Germany’s AfD or Italy’s League, would be misleading. “This party is much more extreme. The Western European parties, they still operate within the democratic framework. Kotleba is not,” he said.
“They are copying all of the messaging used by fascists, take any book about fascism and you’ll find exactly the same rhetoric,” Vašečka said. “They claim the nation is in danger and that their party can save it from the moral decadence that is coming from the West, and lead the nation towards a renewal.”
Despite their recent rise in the polls, Kotlebovci’s chances of getting into government appear limited, as all other parties categorically refuse the idea of working with them. But even if they are shut out, they will emerge from the election stronger. That’s because under Slovak laws, political parties that gain more than 3% in the election are entitled to a state subsidy. “He will get more money and he will be able to spread the rhetoric further, he’ll have more money to spend on his campaigning,” Balaz said. Balaz added, however, that there is one – not insignificant – upside to Kotleba’s rise. “Roma people in Slovakia are mobilizing, they are coming to Kotleba’s meetings and they are staging peaceful protests against him,” he said.
“They are showing that this is too much and they are finding out that they too can participate in democracy, through the protests, but also by voting in the election.”