Slovakia rarely attracts international media attention. But the prospect of Robert Fico returning to power after this month’s election has generated a series of articles in high profile newspapers like The Guardian and The New York Times. Slovakia, it seems, could shift overnight from a vocal member of the pro-Ukraine camp to supporting Putin.
Fico looked a broken man in the spring of 2020. Not only had his party Smer (‘Direction’) been removed from power after the 2020 elections, but a bunch of his erstwhile close lieutenants broke away to form a new party Hlas (‘Voice’) which quickly overtook Smer in the polls.
Three and a half years on, however, Fico appears to be in pole position to become prime minister for the third time. But in a party system whose only stable characteristic is its instability and where the last few days of the campaign could prove decisive, five factors look set to determine whether Fico returns as prime minister and Slovakia changes direction again.
The War in Ukraine
Slovakia’s government has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies, offering unwavering support and military hardware. But Fico and his bombastic side-kick Lubos Blaha have been vocal opponents of the war. Fico frequently fulminates against the West, points the finger of blame at the US, and labels president Zuzana Caputova as an American agent. At a recent event commemorating the anniversary of the 1944 Slovak National Uprising against the Nazis, Blaha was keen to stress that peace comes from the East.
Fuelled by a sophisticated Russian disinformation campaign on Facebook, and the even less regulated Telegram, Fico and Blaha’s anti-West rhetoric has struck a chord with a sizeable section of the Slovak electorate. This is not surprising. A poll from early 2023 showed that Slovaks were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the government’s support of Ukrainians fleeing the war: 44 per cent of respondents believed that Ukrainians were making life in Slovakia worse.
The impending election has seen the return of a popular theme: migration. Whether Fico’s ally, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, has deliberately helped stoke the fires by a laxer approach to border controls or not, Slovakia’s Ministry of Interior has recorded a one thousand per cent increase in the number of migrants from Syria crossing into Slovakia in 2023, leading to a notable spike in news coverage.
Three parties that all look set to win seats in parliament, Smer, Hlas and the neofascists of Republika, have all jumped on the theme of immigration in recent days. Fico has used the theme not just to burnish his national credentials, but also to stress it is part of his promise to bring order to the country. Meanwhile, in rhetoric eerily reminiscent of Orban’s anti-liberal conspiracies, Blaha has used Telegram to accuse Caputova and her allies of working with George Soros to flood Slovakia with migrants.
Chaos, Covid and the Cost of Living
Fico’s Smer lost power at the 2020 election in part as a product of the widespread revulsion to the murder of a journalist and his fiancée. Those tragic events and subsequent investigations helped expose murky links between politicians, businessmen and organized crime and led to the biggest demonstrations since the fall of the Communist regime.
The Smer-led government was replaced by a four-party coalition led by Igor Matovic promising to battle against corruption. But despite beginning with a three-fifths constitutional majority in parliament, the coalition failed to last, losing a no confidence vote in December last year.
Dealing with the pandemic was a tough ask for most governments around the globe, but disagreements over policy priorities and Matovic’s governing style generated friction between the coalition partners. Matovic’s predilection for stunts and blunt rhetoric is well suited for campaigning and opposition politics, but not for guiding a country through a pandemic. Initial voter optimism was soon replaced by bitter disappointment with the lack of progress and constant chaos that characterised Slovak politics for almost three years. Despite engineering a job swap with the finance minister, Eduard Heger, the personal spats between coalition partners persisted, particularly between Matovic and the leader of the liberal Freedom and Solidarity party, Richard Sulik.
While the pantomime of politics was playing out in parliament and cabinet, ordinary Slovaks were confronted first by the pandemic, followed swiftly by inflation and a cost-of-living crisis after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. If Fico does return to power after the elections on 30 September, the chaotic nature of politics in the past three and a half years tied to a promise to provide stability will be a major factor, not least as some of the voters who backed anti-Fico parties in 2020 may choose to stay at home.
Electoral System Effects
The mechanics of Slovakia’s proportional representation electoral system could play a decisive role. The 5% electoral threshold for parties (and 7% for coalitions) could yield a post-election parliament with as few as four or as many as ten parties. At the last election over a quarter of votes were cast for parties that did not cross the threshold. Recent polls suggest in 2023 nearly 20% of the electorate will vote for those who will fail to achieve parliamentary representation.
A strong dislike and fear of the return of Fico might encourage voters to switch towards those parties that stand a better chance of crossing the threshold. There might also be a bandwagon effect similar to 2020 when Matovic’s Ordinary People party saw its vote share increase substantially in the final few weeks of the campaign. The most likely beneficiary of a bandwagon effect is Progressive Slovakia which failed to cross the electoral threshold in 2020. Its package of economic reforms and social liberalism is popular in the capital Bratislava and amongst the young, but has limited appeal among older and rural voters.
Even if the electoral threshold produces a parliament with only a handful of parties Fico is highly unlikely to be in a position to form a single party government as he did in 2012. Smer will need coalition allies. Two parties look set to play a pivotal role.
Peter Pellegrini’s Hlas has offered voters a moderate version of Smer. He has sought to project his European and social democratic credentials and pointed to his own experience of being prime minister from 2018-2020. He has ruled out any coalition with Republika, a likely ally for Fico. But Pellegrini’s previous proximity to Fico makes him a less than palatable option for many anti-Fico politicians in the country.
Hlas includes many former close allies of Fico. Their decision to follow Pellegrini and join Hlas appeared driven more by personal ambition than a strong commitment to an ideological cause. Once elected, if the prospect of power is on offer to those who defect, their commitment to Hlas could be tested.
The other pivotal party is likely to be Boris Kollar’s We are Family. Although best known for his colourful private life (having fathered a dozen children with ten different women), during the Matovic and Heger governments Kollar appeared as one of the few adults in the room trying to ensure the coalition dealt with the problems facing Slovak citizens rather than bickering amongst themselves. On his recent TV appearances Kollar has been keen to rule out forming a coalition with Fico or joining a coalition with Progressive Slovakia if its leader Michal Simecka were to be prime minister. But Kollar is a shrewd businessman and the kind of politician who is willing to do deals with anyone. The question may be what would Fico offer Kollar to tempt him to join a Smer-led government.
In an election where no fewer than five former prime ministers are running on different party lists, the prospect of Fico returning seems to underline that Slovakia is in need of fresh ideas and fresh faces. Robert Fico launched his party in 1999 with a promise of new faces and a new direction for Slovakia. A quarter of a century on, Fico offers the prospect of a change of direction, but whether he takes Slovakia down a pro-Russian, anti-liberal path remains in the balance. There is much to play for in the coming fortnight.
Authors - Tim Haughton and Petra Alderman
Tim Haughton is Professor of Comparative and European Politics and a Deputy Director of the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation (CEDAR) at the University of Birmingham.
Petra Alderman is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the International Development Department and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham.