The populist’s party topped the poll once more in the elections in Slovakia. Yet green political shoots emerged too.
In April 2019, the victory of Zuzana Čaputová in the presidential election in Slovakia was hailed as a step away from populist and nationalist politics. It was however clear then that her victory did not signal a new political future for the country.
It came a year after a young journalist, Ján Kuciak—who had investigated what turned out to be a high-profile fraud case—and his fiancée, Martina Kušnerová, were murdered. This triggered massive demonstrations, under the banner ‘Movement for decent Slovakia’, demanding the resignations of the then prime minister, Robert Fico, and the interior minister, Robert Kaliňák.
Both men resigned and five people were charged with Kuciak’s murder, which came to symbolise the corruption in Slovak politics after a decade of domination by Fico’s leftist, national-populist, ruling party, Smer (Direction). Fico was replaced by Peter Pellegrini—although nominally rather than in substance—until 2020 elections issued in an anti-corruption coalition of quarrelsome parties. A caretaker government carried the country into early elections a week ago.
The winner was again the three-time prime minister, Fico (2006, 2012 and 2016), with Smer gaining just under 23 per cent of the vote, which translated into 42 seats in the 150-seat parliament. As is customary in Slovakia, Fico—as chair of the winning party—has the first chance to form a governing coalition within 14 days.
In second place was Progresívné Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia), led by Michal Šimečka (a vice-president of the European Parliament). PS, a pro-European Union, liberal-democratic party, ran a very successful campaign promoting green policies, human rights, the rule of law and support for Ukraine, securing 18 per cent and 32 seats. Third came Hlas (Voice), a social-democratic, pro-EU splinter from Smer led by the former prime minister Pellegrini, with 14.7 per cent and 27 seats.
Only seven parties made it past the 5 per cent threshold to sit in the parliament. The other four were: the coalition of parties led by OĽaNO (Ordinary people and independent personalities—8.9 per cent, 16 seats) which presided over the post-2020 government, Kresťanskodemokratické hnutie (KDH, Christian Democratic Movement—6.8 per cent, 12 seats), Sloboda and Solidarity (SAS, Freedom and Solidarity—6.3 per cent, 11 seats) and finally Slovenská Národná Strana (SNS, Slovak National Party—5.6 per cent, ten seats).
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At time of writing, coalition talks were continuing and it was not certain, though likely, that Fico would be the new prime minister.
What accounts for Fico’s comeback, despite being forced out of office in the wake of a huge political crisis and having faced serious criminal charges? The political chaos and uncertainty generated by the previous administration was a factor. But Fico’s national-populist rhetoric conceals his efforts to influence public institutions—the judiciary, the media and the police—to keep his friends out of prison and him in power.
His voter base, while shrinking, seems less bothered by his illiberal tendencies when presented in the language of ‘the people’, the nation and its sovereignty. Slovakia is a small (5.5 million population), recently established (1992), post-communist state with a historical experience of domination, including by the Soviet Union, and isolation from the west. This can partially explain its insecure national identity.
Fico has exploited identity in every election campaign he has fought (this was his fifth). In 2016 it was an anti-immigration agenda. In 2023, on top of protection of borders against ‘illegal’ immigrants via Hungary, he added fear of the war in neighbouring Ukraine—Fico pledged ‘not one more round of ammunition’ under his leadership. Themes such as defence of national sovereignty and identity, Ukraine-war fatigue, disinformation and curbs on migration resonate not only in Slovakia but across Europe.
The concern in the western press that Fico’s victory will weaken support for Ukraine in an already strained and divided EU is real. Slovakia, a member state too of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has not only welcomed tens of thousands Ukrainian refugees but also donated arms—including its fleet of Soviet-era, MiG-29 fighter jets. A crack in that support however appeared this week, when it was reported that Čaputová had suspended a new package of military aid, approved by the caretaker government, while coalition talks continued.
Yet despite Fico’s aggressive rhetoric, when in government he has tended to be more pragmatic and toe the EU line. Even very recently, after joining Hungary and Poland in vowing to ban import of cheaper Ukrainian grain to protect Slovak farmers, he dropped this commitment within a couple of days.
Last Sunday, in his first televised press conference after the election, Fico said Slovakia had ‘other problems than Ukraine’ and that, while he might have ‘different thoughts’ about the war, Slovakia was ‘firmly embedded in the EU and NATO’, being ‘rational and pragmatic’. He reminded everyone that under him Slovakia had adopted the euro (one of the first two eastern-enlargement countries to do so).
Slovakia lacks independent influence and, unlike its neighbours, is a eurozone country which cannot afford to drift away from the EU. While there is some war fatigue, most Slovaks do not want to be seen as anti-western and are certainly not anti-EU.
In the wake of the elections, two realistic scenarios are emerging. The party decisive for formation of the new government is Hlas, without which no coalition is possible. This is the most power Pellegrini has wielded—including his time as prime minister.
Until about a couple of days ago, the most likely coalition appeared to be Smer, Hlas and the SNS. It would command 79 seats—not a convincing majority, but manageable. If the KDH were to join without SNS it would have 81 but, so far, the KDH has refused to entertain coalition with Smer.
Fico indicated in his press conference that he would be willing to cede the premiership to Pellegrini, but with Fico remaining chair of Smer no decision could be made without his approval—as when Pellegrini replaced Fico in 2018. Members of Hlas who were not members of Smer would prefer the party to develop independently, and fear a coalition with Smer would be shortsighted, but many who were so affiliated consider Smer their natural ally. In government Smer would pose a challenge to the rule of law in Slovakia and likely cause some disruption in the EU, with Hlas unlikely to control it.
Another option is the PS, Hlas, the SAS and the KDH—with 82 seats, commanding a comfortable majority. Again, it depends on Hlas and what the PS offers in current ‘constructive talks’. Many members of the PS are not sure about Hlas and its true commitment to cut free of its Smer past. It may make more sense for PS to be in the opposition, gaining more experience and waiting to see if Smer can govern for a full term. Some members of Hlas would also prefer to await the post-Fico era in opposition. This scenario would be the least challenging for democracy in Slovakia and least disruptive of the EU and the international community.
Free and fair
Whatever the coalition outcome, these elections were free and fair and the fundamentals of representative democracy in Slovakia remain firmly in place. Fico does not have a constitutional majority—he will depend on other parties to govern and he will face fierce opposition in the parliament.
Except for the SNS, the populist, nationalist, far-right parties were crushed. The success of the PS is very encouraging because it is supported by younger voters who no longer care about the past and are very comfortable with being part of wider European society. And there will be more women in the new parliament than ever before.
All in all, even if he becomes prime minister once more, it does feel, paradoxically, as if the Fico era is coming to an end.
Erika Harris is a professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and director of the Europe and the World Centre. She specialises in nations and nationalism and democratisation in central Europe, post-Soviet space and the Balkans.