Slovakia in shock over far-right party's election success

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Slovakia was haunted by ghosts of its past on Sunday after far-right militants who have donned uniforms modeled on a World War Two Nazi puppet state won seats in parliament for the first time.

A voter checks the list of candidates before casting his ballot at a polling station during the country's parliamentary election in the village of Ruzindol, Slovakia, March 5, 2016. REUTERS/David W Cerny

The People’s Party-Our Slovakia group led by Marian Kotleba, the governor of central Slovakia who has organized marches against the Roma minority, took eight percent of the vote, nearly three times more than polls had predicted.

As the European Union faces the worst refugee crisis since World War Two from war-torn Syria and beyond, support for far-right politicians in central Europe has been on the rise.

In Hungary, the Jobbik party, known for its Hungarian Guard uniforms and anti-Roma marches, is the second largest party in the parliament.

Analysts say the far right capitalized on the anti-immigration rhetoric from most mainstream parties including Prime Minister Robert Fico, who won the election but may find it very hard if not impossible to form a new government.

“Robert Fico has taken one of the toughest attitudes to the migration crisis among the EU politicians but the result was not extremists under control but extremists in the parliament,” Dalibor Rohac from the American Enterprise Institute said.

Kotleba’s success comes as a shock for the media and mainstream politicians.

“Kotleba ran openly fascist candidates on his slate,” said Igor Matovic, chairman of the third-strongest party.

Members of Kotleba’s former ‘Slovak brotherhood’ party, dressed in black uniforms reminiscent of the Nazi-era Hlinka guard, first appeared at rallies commemorating the 1939-45 Slovak State led by a Catholic priest Jozef Tiso, who allowed for tens of thousands of Slovak Jews to be deported to Nazi death camps. The party was disbanded for spreading hatred in 2006.

Kotleba, sporting a thin black mustache, has since founded a new party, changed his uniform for a blazer and replaced war rallies with anti-Roma, anti-immigration and anti-corruption rhetoric.

Today, his party rejects any links with Nazi ideology and focuses on criticism of the European Union and NATO.

“We are not fascists nor neo-Nazis although we might appear extremist compared to other lukewarm parties,” one of its newly elected lawmakers, Milan Uhrik, said. “We will stay in opposition for now, but I believe that if there’s a snap election we will win by a landslide,” he added.

Opinion surveys show Kotleba’s party was the most popular party among first-time voters, winning 23 percent support among them.

His criticism of same-sex partnerships courts social conservatives, while his frequent visits to poor regions far from the glitzy capital Bratislava wins local votes.

The former high school teacher has been charged several times with disseminating racist propaganda but has been acquitted or had the charges dismissed.

Kotleba won a surprising landslide victory two years ago and became regional governor of Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia.

With 14 lawmakers in a 150-seat parliament, the People’s Party won’t have much say in national politics -- other parties say they will not cooperate with them -- but they will gain much more visibility on the national stage.

“They will pose a much bigger threat in the next election,” Rohac said.

Reporting By Tatiana Jancarikova; Editing by Stephen Powell