Slovakia is set to hold a key parliamentary vote that is expected to see the far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) which rails against Muslims, Jews, Roma and the European Union, make significant gains.
Saturday’s election in the central European country of 5.5 million is seen as a battle between populists, far-right radicals and a new crop of liberal politicians over 150 seats in the legislature.
The final opinion survey showed the LSNS, which entered Parliament in 2016, surge to third position in the race with 10.3 percent of support (or 18 seats), behind the long-ruling populist leftist Direction – Social Democracy (SMER) party (16.9 percent or 30 seats) and the centrist Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLANO) party (15.5 percent or 27 seats).
Eight parties are expected to reach the five percent threshold needed for entering Parliament, including six opposition groups who could gather 93 seats between them.
The growth of the far-right in the conservative Roman Catholic country comes a year after Slovakia elected its first female president, Zuzana Caputova, who ran on a progressive platform of tolerance and who has acted on it in the top office by defending human rights and various national minorities.
“Slovakia is the last country of central Europe where at least officially we are full-fledged liberal democracy. Now we either confirm it… or Slovaks will join others in a region in backsliding in some sort of soft authoritarianism, illiberal democracies at best,” Michal Vasecka, director of the Bratislava Policy Institute, an independent think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
“In this sense, these are the most important parliamentary elections in the last 20 years,” he said.
Vasecka also said that the rise of “the neo-Nazi” LSNS, led by Marian Kotleba – who is on trial for spreading hate – could be partly linked to the Slovak people’s “loss of hope in democracy” two years after the murder of a journalist investigating high-level corruption plunged Slovakia into crisis.
The probe into Jan Kuciak’s killing in February 2018 revealed a nebulous web of ministers, police and judges all connected to Marian Kocner – a mafia-linked oligarch charged with his ordering his murder.
“In the last 20 years, Slovakia became an oligarchic state. Basically, several people are ruling the country from the shadows and people got tired of it,” Vasecka said.
Slovak disillusionment has helped the LSNS broaden its range of supporters beyond first time voters, who won them 14 parliamentary seats in 2016, without offering a full political programme.
“Kotleba’s party is supported by mainly men, younger men, who don’t have a high level of education,” Marian Sekerak, a Slovak political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
The main target of the LSNS are the Roma people, he said, referring to the ethnic minority that have been dubbed “parasites” by the party that claims them to be at the root of many problems.
“In Slovakia, there is a large minority of Roma people. It counts tens of thousands of people and many of them are in social need, which has been a problem for almost all governments since independence in 1993,” Sekerak said.
“It is a social problem, not a racial issue, but it became part of a rhetoric of the far-right, Kotleba’s party,” he said.
Almost 80 percent of respondents in a poll conducted by the Slovak Academy of Sciences said the Roma enjoy undeserved advantages and benefit from the country’s social system.
“Almost two-thirds of the respondents – 64 percent – were more likely to identify with openly negative stereotypes about the Roma, for example: ‘There are very few decent or reasonable Roma'”, the report published earlier this month said.
At least 51 percent consider the ethnic minority a threat to national identity, the survey found.
Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs, Bratislava, and fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) of Europe’s Future programme in Vienna, told Al Jazeera that the roots of racist sentiment ran deep in the country.
During the Second World War, Slovakia was an ally of Nazi Germany and the government at the time took part in the Holocaust.
“Almost all Jews were deported and killed. So literally there are only a few thousand Jews in Slovakia – but still this [anti-Semitic] feeling survives. This party [LSNS] is openly adoring this Slovak state of the Second World War. This means that they are inheriting this legacy of domestic fascism,” he said.
Meseznikov also said the far-right – and some mainstream parties – were using xenophobic rhetoric against Muslim migrants, particularly since the influx of Syrian refugees to Europe in 2015.
“Few people got the status of refugees in the country, but this fear that migrants, Muslims, are coming to Europe is there,” he said, adding that “very rude” remarks of the LSNS attracted the largest audience, as they seemed “more authentic”.
Meseznikov said “the image of the country is deteriorating” but it was unlikely to see the LSNS included in a future coalition government.
Both the ruling and the opposition parties have said they would not cooperate with the far-right, however, some analysts Al Jazeera spoke to suggested that it was remained a possibility.
“Yes, the chance is still on the table, but it is diminishing every day. But politics is sometimes weird,” said Vasecka.
He said if Kotleba’s party had a direct influence on governance, “it would be a fundamental threat to the Euro-Atlantic direction of Slovakia”.
“On the other hand, the threat to the EU may be to the extent that this type of political party would begin to dominate more in central and eastern European countries. This would threaten disintegration and weaken the EU as a whole.”
Follow Al Jazeera’s Tamila Varshalomidze on Twitter @tamila87v