When Populists Govern: Economic Policy of the SNS in Slovakia

2021. January 07. 0:00

By Andrej Školkay*

This post attempts to briefly assess the performance, in selected policy indicators, of the Slovak National Party (SNS), a formerly heavily nationalist political party that attempted to transform itself into a moderate conservative people’s party during the four years in which it was part of the government coalition in Slovakia. That’s why we can label the SNS as a transitional party or a light populist party. Similarly, SNS policies may not be seen so “hard populist” in its policy proposals because it was part of a coalition and it had to consider the other coalition parties’ opinions and priorities.

Coalition Form of Government Limits Choices of a Transitional Party

In the previous electoral period (2016-2020), the Slovak government was formed by the social democratic party Smer-SD (Direction-Social Democracy), the (self-defined) national, centre-right conservative Slovak National Party (SNS) and Most-Híd (Now-Bridge), the liberal “civic” party of ethnic minorities, with an emphasis on the Hungarian minority.

It is interesting to observe how the SNS managed to influence and initiate policy initiatives in the economy. In total, SNS claims that it submitted and managed to adopt 77 bills or amendments to laws (41 proposed by its MPs and 36 originated from three ministries governed by the SNS) in the Parliament during the 2016-2020 period. Many of them tackled the economy. Not all of them materialised. 

Indeed, the coalition form of government, and being a minor member of the coalition, limited the choices and power of the SNS. There were two rather competing political parties in the government: social democracy Smer-SD introduced social measures and minimum wage rises mostly through the Cabinet legislative initiatives (which increased public spending) and some long-term pro-business measures such as de-bureaucratisation packages, while the SNS managed to pass tax breaks for SMEs and other short-term and mid-term pro-business measures (which reduced public revenues) as well as competing by proposing policy measures aimed at employees, pensioners and families (which also increased public spending and debt). 

Smer-SD for most of the period was rather conservative in government spending, in an attempt to show fiscal responsibility. Thus, although it showed occasionally some populist rhetoric, features and initiatives (especially before the general elections), it could not be identified as full-blown populist party.

This, however, cannot be said about the SNS which was a rather unusual case as we shall see. Based on expert assessment of the Populism and Political Parties Expert Survey, it showed a rather low populism level (4.43 magnitude on a 10 points scale, key indicators: Manichean, indivisible, general will, people centrism and anti-elitism). In contrast to both Smer-SD and SNS, Most-Híd represented a moderate, clearly anti-populist part of the government. 

Light-Populist Governance and Policy Making

It should be mentioned that some SNS policies were actually not only in line with the Government Manifesto, but were also generally seen as needed and beneficial to a particular industry, sector or stakeholders. In other words, although overall SNS policies could be seen as light populist, a more detailed analysis shows the need for more complex assessment.

The chairman of the SNS party was Andrej Danko who firmly controlled the party; he served as a Speaker of the Parliament at the same time. His sometimes peculiar ideas translated into the party’s economic policy, too.

The substance of criticism of the SNS’s economic policy by the media and other stakeholders, including by the minor coalition partner Most-Híd, was the lack of a conceptual approach to policy, and replacing policy aimed at increasing income with social policy measures. 

The government also gradually adopted measures to reduce administrative burdens for entrepreneurs or to substantially cut levies or taxes. The SNS party in particular claimed to be behind initiatives in this area. In summary, there was not that much ideological heterogeneity and chameleonic flexibility in both the overall government economic policies and SNS economic policies in particular. SNS policies were rather aimed at increasing the income or reducing costs for almost anyone and, as a result, decreasing state budget resources and increasing long-term debt. There were by and large apparently no long-term considerations either about positive or negative impacts of these policy measures. It is true that the SNS supported all key segments of the population and local business in general, with some specific preferences. Moreover, the SNS leader mostly did consult about his policy proposals either with other partners or key actors such as the minister of finance. Perhaps that is the reason why there were no typically heterodox policy elements included — none that could be seen as challenging mainstream policy paradigms.  

Can a Light Populist Party Bring a Good Policy Solution?

It appears that this is possible. We examined context and impact of one policy proposal in detail, showing relative ambiguity in what can be seen by some as a populist measure but at the same time having quite reasonable aims and little, if any negative impact, and overall contributing to general welfare. This can be seen in the policy that led to a compulsory contribution to leisure time/holidays for employees (costs to be reimbursed by employers) and invested locally (Tourism Industry). This proposal was initiated by SNS MPs in 2018. However, originally it had already been introduced in the Governmental Strategy in Support of Tourism and the Hospitality Industry during the Smer-SD government (2012-2016) with planned implementation in 2020. The new SNS plan was to reimburse 55% of real costs (maximum 275 EUR annually) spent on local holidays and related leisure activities by companies with more than 50 employees. The trade unions welcomed this proposal, representatives of employers were against this policy measure. Nonetheless, the Parliament approved this change of law supporting local tourism, coming into effect in January 2019.

It can be argued that this proposal was largely in line with the Government Manifesto.

As per the assessment of the effectiveness of this policy measure, there was a reported increase in accommodation of local tourists by 18.5% in a year-on-year comparison.  However, there was also an increase in foreign tourist accommodation by 9% during the first half of 2019. Moreover, the long-term data show that the year-on-year increase in locally-based tourism is on average about 7%. Thus, it is difficult to separate the direct impact of this policy measure on the domestic tourism industry. Indeed, although experts agreed that there was some positive impact of this policy measure on the tourism industry, it is difficult to assess its exact scope. It may be estimated as a 10% net contribution to the increase in local tourism which is a significant contribution. In general, it seems that this policy measure was quite popular among employees. Moreover, it is difficult to assess it as a purely populist measure. WEF comparison showed that Slovakia was the least competitive country in tourism among EU member states. As a follow up, SNS MPs proposed to expand this policy measure, covering almost all of the economy (full-time, permanently employed workers and all employers). However, this proposal did not pass the third reading in the Parliament in late 2019.

Are radical and Paradigmatic Economic Reforms Typical for a Light Populist Party?  

The answer here is “not necessarily”. No fundamentally radical and paradigmatic policy reforms were proposed by the SNS. Especially early SNS policy proposals could be seen as reaction to ongoing events, and/or of rather symbolic value. These included, e.g. an idea to launch a “national airways” (not adopted), although this promise was included in the Manifesto of the Government, or to label the state railways “national carrier” (adopted, although formally a link between SNS or Danko on the one hand, and the railway company or ministry of transport on the other did not exist).

Commentators and stakeholders actually claimed that the government of which the SNS was part was unwilling to carry out radical but badly needed policy reforms that would increase state income. The key seriously needed policy reforms included keeping consistency of changes in legislation, fight against corruption and the rule of law. Also government´s own analysts saw a room for a more radical economic policies. For example, economy needed reforms of education, job market and efficient public administration. Within this context (radical and paradigmatic), SNS economic proposals could be seen as relatively mild and less significant.

What Was the Role of Economic Policy in the Electoral Failure of the SNS?   

Minor. The SNS fared poorly in the February 2020 General elections, barely passing the 3% threshold that qualified it for state contributions but not winning any seats in the new Parliament. Apparently, the economy and economic policy did not play a key role here — there was the successful economic development, when during all four years of the Smer-SD – SNS – Most-Híd coalition, GDP was growing at an average above 3% yearly and unemployment rates were declining. Rather than the performance of the economy, or economic policy, it was concerns about captured state and corruption that badly lost the general elections (again, neither SNS or Most-Híd even entered the new Parliament, but for different reasons). The loudest critic of this alleged misgovernance and especially of corruption and captured state, the OĽaNO movement (itself with strong populist rhetoric), became the main winner. Moreover, the SNS presented rather blurred policies in its traditional field of nationalism. A soft economic populism did not help here either. One can say that the SNS presented a set of policy proposals of which many were of a populist nature. These policies aimed at increasing income or benefits for almost anyone, and at the same time, as a result, decreasing state budget resources (or increasing state debt). There was apparently no long-term plan either about positive or negative impacts of these policy measures. There were in the end no radical and paradigmatic policy reforms suggested — that were actually very much needed. There were by and large no heterodox policy elements with frequent policy innovations challenging mainstream policy paradigms. Perhaps one exception could be seen in a special sector tax introduced on food retail chains. Also, some socially conservative policies were presented in the criminal justice field. All in all, our findings correlate with those of Pippa Norris who wrote that the SNS endorsed left-wing economic policies but showed conservative social values.

* Dr Andrej Školkay is a research director of School of Communication and Media, Bratislava, Slovakia. He has published widely on media and politics, especially on political communication, but also on ethics, media regulation, populism, and media law, in Slovakia and abroad. His most recent book is Media Law in Slovakia (Kluwer Publishers, 2016). Dr. Školkay has been a leader of national resarch teams under H2020 Projects COMPACT (CSA - 2017-2021), DEMOS (RIA - 2017-2020), FP7 Projects MEDIADEM (2010-2013) and ANTICORRP (2013-2017), as well as Media Plurality Monitor (2015). Dr. Školkay was member of the Press Council of Slovakia in years 2005-2008. He obtained his PhD in 2000 from Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia.