It was one of the biggest surprises of election night in Slovakia on September 30.
When the first results began popping up on television screens, the green of Slovakia's OLANO and Friends coalition kept appearing alongside the red of Robert Fico's victorious Smer party and the blue of the second-placed pro-EU Progressive Slovakia.
Before the election, the anti-corruption OLANO party of former Prime Minister Igor Matovic had joined forces with a number of smaller parties to form the OLANO and Friends coalition.
When all the votes were counted, it had come away with almost 9% of the vote and was the fourth-largest grouping in parliament. This was far more than most polls had predicted in the run-up to the election.
Another surprise was that a record six Roma had been elected to the 150-seat Slovak parliament. Four of the six belong to OLANO and Friends; two to the largest opposition party, Progressive Slovakia.
Overwhelmingly high support among Roma
OLANO was particularly successful in the east of the country, where a large number of Roma live. Indeed, both politicians and media alike were surprised at the level of support for the party within the country's second-largest ethnic minority after the Hungarians.
"Matovic won by a huge majority in the Roma settlements. In some places, he got more than 90% of the vote," wrote the eastern Slovak daily Korzar.
In Lomnicka, a settlement in central Slovakia which is home to over 3,000 Romani people, "over 92% voted for OLANO," wrote Korzar. "Every other party got 3% of the vote at most."
According to the news portal Aktuality.sk, "OLANO triumphed in over 40 communities with a Roma majority."
No evidence of fraud
Straight after the election, the Slovak police investigated whether electoral fraud or bribes had been behind the phenomenal results. There have in the past been attempts to buy Roma votes.
However, over two weeks after the election, no evidence of such fraud has been presented.
Matovic called the allegations absurd. "We just ran a good campaign," he told Slovak media.
Roma settlements and relocation
OLANO's campaign was well received in Strelnice, a Roma settlement built by the Slovak state ten years ago for the resettlement of Roma from Letanovsky Mlyn, a village situated right beside the Slovak Paradise National Park. Local politicians felt the village was hampering economic development in the region.
Although living conditions in the brick bungalow settlement of Strelnice are poor by Slovak standards, there are asphalt sidewalks, two shops, a playground and a church. A community center is under construction and a bus stops here three times a day.
Forced settlement; recent improvements
When the Communist regime forced the Roma to settle permanently after World War II, many were settled in this region. Indeed, most of Slovakia's approx. 500,000 Roma live in these parts.
The majority live in slum-like settlements at a distance from villages and towns populated by non-Roma Slovaks.
Nevertheless, says Valerie, a Romani nurse who moved from Letanovsky Mlyn to Strelnice ten years ago, "We were lucky. It's much better here. There is water, electricity, sanitation. We live like people here."
Igor Matovic and OLANO are extremely popular in Strelnice. "Matovic was the only prime minister who did anything for us Roma over the last ten years," 30-year-old Martin told DW before the election.
Support for Slovakia's poorest
"It's not just a feeling, it's a fact that Igor Matovic's government helped the poorest population groups, most of whom are Roma," Slovak sociologist Michal Vasecka told DW. "The increase in child benefit from €30 to €60 per child starting this year will definitely make a difference to Roma families," he added.
Valerie confirms this: "Child benefit was increased. That's an important source of income."
A marginalized community
As in many other European countries, there are hardly any opportunities for Slovak Roma to break out of the cycle of poverty into which they have been forced by centuries of systematic marginalization and neglect. In early 2023, the European Commission concluded that Slovakia does far too little for the integration of Roma.
In no other country in the EU is segregation in the school system so marked. Entire schools are attended by Roma children only. In many cases, these schools are more poorly equipped than those for Slovak children who do not come from a Romani background. Many Roma children are put in classes for children with learning difficulties or disabilities.
Without the education they need, these Roma have even fewer chances as adults to find work on the labor market, where they are already at a disadvantage due to their ethnicity.
Attitudes to Roma in Slovak politics
But support for OLANO is not just a matter of money and benefits. Another reason for his party's popularity is the fact that unlike other Slovak politicians, Matovic never spoke ill of the Roma community.
Stirring up anti-Roma sentiment was long seen in populist circles as a surefire way of attracting votes. Politicians from the ultra-right People's Party — Our Slovakia (LSNS), for example, once described Roma as "parasites" and "monkeys."
In 2019, Robert Fico, who won this year's election, publicly sprang to the defense of an LSNS politician who was fined for making antiziganist statements during a radio interview.
"Are we now supposed to be afraid of openly saying that the Roma are exploiting our social welfare system?" Fico asked in a video posted on Facebook.
Under Fico's leadership, social welfare payments were drastically cut.
Increased political activity among Roma
Even though the Roma community was not one of the central election campaign issues in 2023, Roma are still seen above all as a problem. Politicians in general, however, tend not to see them as potential supporters — even though they make up about 9% of the population.
Pacivale Roma is a Roma organization that is active within OLANO and Friends. It uses slogans like "Roma: Slovakia's unused potential" — something that even those politicians who focus on the interests of the Roma community rarely say.
OLANO was also the first party to have a Roma member of parliament, Peter Pollack in 2012.
According to Michal Vasecka, Slovakia's Roma have started to recognize the power of votes over the past ten years. "We now have Roma mayors in over 40 Slovak villages," he says.
Adapted from the German by Aingeal Flanagan.