Hundreds of Slovaks are standing on the platform of the main railway station in Prague half an hour after noon on Friday waiting for the arrival of the “extraordinary train”.
Some are gripping the handles of their suitcases, others have backpacks on their backs. Their goal is clear – participation in the parliamentary elections. Looking at the composition of passengers, students are the most common.
Miriam Garajová is one of them. She was born in the south of Slovakia, but moved to Prague to study. “I wanted to taste such an ‘unknown fruit’, but still be at home, which the Czech Republic perfectly fulfills,” she says, adding that she is very satisfied here so far.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet new people, but above all to travel to Slovakia without having to draw on my finances, which are not many at the moment, because I’m currently looking for a part-time job,” laughs the 22-year-old student of the Faculty of Science at Charles University. She learned about the possibility of traveling home by special train on Instagram, where she also follows the election campaign.
Event organizers in yellow t-shirts handing out badges, which, in addition to checking in the ticket, are key to allowing entry to the train, make their way through the crowd of passengers before departure.
Those interested could register until the last moment before departure. The capacity of the two scheduled connections – one from Prague, the other from Brno – has a total of about 1,400 seats, the expected number of checked-in passengers is just under a thousand.
After a half-hour delay, an estimated four hundred people board the train from Prague.
Some are sleeping while driving, others have headphones in their ears or an open book, and sometimes Slovak is heard in a friendly conversation.
The luggage compartment is filled to bursting in some carriages. On the unoccupied seats you can sometimes see flowers, but also pathology textbooks.
Don’t lose any voice
Four organizations are organizationally and financially responsible for the Volebny vlak initiative: Mladí proti fašismu, Globsec, Sebavedomé Slovensko and O Žemy.
“The idea came up during a joint meeting, where we agreed that it makes sense for us to organize something like this. And that’s mainly because for many Slovaks who study in the Czech Republic, the winter semester starts a week before the Slovak elections, and especially if they study in Prague, getting back home is not exactly cheap for them,” explains the chairman of the Mladí organization for Nauzal against fascism Marek Mach.
At the same time, he emphasizes that the goal is primarily to get as many people as possible to the polls, not to influence someone on how to vote. One of the conditions of the organizers was that no promotional materials of any of the candidate political parties may be brought into the train.
“Our main goal is to increase voter turnout as much as possible. No one tells anyone who to vote for. What is most important to us is the number of people we manage to get to the polls, and we appreciate that such a large number of students have decided to return home,” emphasizes Mach.
Parliamentary elections await Slovaks already on Saturday. Those who wanted to vote by mail from abroad had to apply for it in the first half of August at the latest. Slovakia does not allow voting at embassies abroad, which is one of the reasons why many students return home.
Waiting for the result
Approximately 20,000 Slovaks study in the Czech Republic. Among the most common reasons for moving to Prague to study are more options in choosing a school and better quality of education.
However, some of them express their concerns before the upcoming elections, also because they do not know whether they will want to return to Slovakia at all. “I always had a tendency to leave because I was drawn to the world, but in the end it will probably be very, very related to what will happen in the next four years, when I will be in Prague, in Slovakia. So I will carefully observe what is happening, and I will decide accordingly whether I will return or not,” Miriam describes her feelings about the election campaign.
“I know that the party I will vote for will get one hundred percent, but the problem is that our politics is no longer purely about what can be done for the people, but it is mainly a struggle of egos and an internal struggle of political parties that go against each other,” says the student.
At the same time, he adds that he sees great sense in motivating young people to vote, for example by allowing them to travel to the polls for free – for example on the election train.
“You need to motivate young people, give them some impetus, and that will start a snowball effect. Young people in Slovakia were absent in the last elections, but we have the opportunity and the power to change something, which I also saw in your elections, when the communists did not get into the parliament. At that moment, I thought to myself that maybe we should be able to prove something similar here,” adds student Miriam.
“Slovakia needs young people”
Twenty-year-old Adrien, who studies mechanical engineering in the Czech Republic at the Czech University of Technology (ČVUT), shares similar concerns. Like Miriam, he found out about the election train through social networks, but he would use his vote in any case.
Apart from the big green backpack, he has mixed feelings on the way home. “There are probably always worries at such times. I think it will be interesting this weekend, but I have very mixed feelings. Each result will probably be bad in its own way, but at least for me one will definitely be less bad than the other,” he says, adding that he is still considering whether he will eventually return to Slovakia permanently.
On the other hand, Tatiana, who completed her studies at UMPRUM in the fashion design studio in the Czech Republic, has already decided to return. “I definitely want to go back soon, I see it within a year. I think Slovakia needs young people,” he says.
At the same time, she adds that the fear of the election results is shared by everyone – at least in her generation – but she still maintains a positive outlook. “There is a very high hope that this time a lot of people, even those who live abroad, realize that it is important to vote, because bread will be broken. And I believe that it will turn out well,” he adds.