Bursting the Bubble

Conservative Socialism: the Curious Case of Slovakia’s Social Democratic Party

11 July 2014 | by

Our human nature is simple: once firmly convinced that something is true, it is difficult, even in light of evidence to change one’s opinion. That is because often the gap between us thinking something to be true and it actually being true is unbridgeable. Relying on ideological shortcuts, we all sometimes befall victim to myths. One of such myths is the existence of Smer in Slovakia. European social democratic parties are parties traditionally associated with economic policies of taxing and spending and policies designed to fighting discrimination. And while most socialists in Europe remain true to these values, especially the latter, Slovakia’s socialists live a comfortable illusion that they too can call themselves social democrats regardless of the policies they pursue.

Riding on a wave of unprecedented support, upon their return to government in 2012, Smer-SD committed to pursue an economic policy centre-piece to rein in the country’s deficit. In 2012 the deficit stood at 4.5% and in two years’ time the government has managed to push it to 2.8%. As a result, the European Commission has removed Slovakia from the list of countries subject to the Procedure of Excessive Deficit. But even more telling about the government’s spending levels than the overall deficit is the structural deficit. Here too, the socialists have achieved their objectives – from 4.4% of GDP in 2012 to 2.9% in 2013. As for the still growing debt of the country (projected to start to fall only in 2016), this is partly attributed to the public investment sustained during the crisis. In turn, this investment has delivered higher GDP growth with the projection of the European Commission for 2015 ranking Slovakia fourth among EU28 and second in the Eurozone. In conjunction with measures to tackle tax evasion, higher GDP has brought more tax revenues into the government’s coffers. And thanks to the current period of growing economy and very low inflation, the average income of people grew in real terms by 4.2% since March last year.

Undoubtedly, these are impressive results. But despite the improving economic situation and growing economy, the priority of the government has so far lied with its fiscal prudence rather than with spending – and that is true regardless of the recent announcement of a series of pre-election spending commitments priced at some quarter of a billion euros. For as long as the country’s government spending is the fifth smallest in Europe (along with that of Bulgaria) and for as long as there is a clear commitment to observe the Stability and Growth Pact, one should find it difficult to argue that Slovakia’s socialists are the party of taxing and spending, and of fiscal incompetence. In fact, and while not neo-liberal in the extreme, the country’s social democrats have found themselves more comfortable in a territory of the centre-right than that of the centre-left.

But economy is not the only area where the socialists have diverged from predecessors of their Western counterparts. It is not the gentle push to the right on economy that should be the social democratic litmus test for Smer. It is in fact the quantum leaps that the party has made on issues such as human rights and equality that should make us wonder about true ideological belonging of Slovak socialists.

One of the most distinguishable features of the European social democratic parties is their strive towards an inclusive society and fight against discrimination on the grounds of gender, nationality, religion, and yes, race and sexuality (here and here). On all issues, but particularly the latter two, Smer has done precious little if anything at all to improve the level of legal protection.

Politically attacking the most vulnerable among us is not something many would associate with Smer. Yet, the leader of the Slovak socialists and the current Prime Minister Robert Fico has attributed to and blamed the higher levels of unemployment on the Roma people who are mostly jobless. Jobless as they may be, they, however, do not disproportionately push the unemployment levels up. That is because, and by the admission of the government’s own Institute of Financial Policy (IFP), they are classed as economically non-active and therefore are not registered as unemployed or seeking work.

Unfortunately, the Roma are not the only minority in the country that has been blessed with attention from the so-called socialists. While issues such as gender equality and separation of Church and state have become taboo (in itself another failure of the socialists), Smer have authored and initiated, along with the Christian Democrats, an insertion into the country’s constitution of a definition of marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman. Moreover, and if this was not enough proof, the national strategy for protection of human rights, including mention of gender equality and LGBT rights, has been upon the insistence of Christian lobby watered down by the socialist government.

Calling oneself a social democrat does not make you so unless one can back up one’s claim with actions. Smer is indeed a party which is simultaneously a member of Smer’s structures at the European Union and international levels, while at the same at home time defying the very tenants that make Smer what it truly is. To be fair, Slovakia’s commitment to uphold the rules of the Eurozone does not leave the government with too much room for manoeuvre; but what is its excuse, except for their cowardly and opportunistic nature, to always ride the wave of populism, in the case of issues concerning minorities? It is naive to think that calling yourself a social democrat makes you a social democrat. Instead of relying on ideological short-cuts and believing its own lie, Smer should come to terms with its own true self.

 

This text was co-published with Visegrad Insight.

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