Fateful Elections in Slovakia: Will the Divided Country Break Away From the European Family?

Die Flagge der EU und die slowakische Flagge

The flag of the EU and the Slovakian flag.

© picture alliance / dpa | Rainer Jensen

In September, the SMER-SD ("Direction - Social Democracy") party of the left wing populist and pro-Russian Robert Fico won the Slovak parliamentary elections. Fico was sworn in as Prime Minister in October. He has been the major personal consistency in Slovak politics over the last three decades. He has held the post of head of government three times, with interruptions. Right at the start of his fourth term in office, he launched a package of measures that were primarily intended to consolidate his power.

Robert Fico Ministerpräsident der Slowakei

Robert Fico

© picture alliance / | Jakob Ratz

One woman stood in his way: the liberal head of state Zuzana Čaputová, who has a constitutional right of veto. Her mandate ends in June this year. Her successor is currently being decided. In the first round of the presidential election on 23 March, none of the eleven candidates – and not a single woman this time - achieved the required absolute majority. Fico's candidate Peter Pellegrini was actually considered to be the favourite going into the vote. With 37 per cent he surprisingly only came second. Ivan Korčok, the pro-Western candidate supported by the opposition, including the liberal Progressive Slovakia party, came first with 42.5 per cent. Both will now face each other in the run-off on 6 April. They need to convince the voters of the nine eliminated candidates to side with them. This will not be easy for either of them. However, Pellegrini also goes into the second round as the frontrunner.

Does Slovakia still have a chance of remaining a pro-European and democratic country?

Autumn déjà vu: another election between populism and liberalism

With Pellegrini and Korčok, two candidates are running against each other who symbolise Slovakia's deep divisions: Pellegrini, former prime minister, is speaker of parliament and chairman of the social democratic party Hlas ("The Voice"). In terms of trustworthiness, he was usually leading the polls. As a candidate of the government camp, he supports the goals and measures of Prime Minister Fico. This includes, above all, the pro-Russian rhetoric in the context of the war against Ukraine. Pellegrini is clearly against the supply of further weapons and in favour of entering into peace negotiations with Russia. He accuses his rival Korčok of wanting to drag Slovakia into the war. Pellegrini's election campaign is characterised by disinformation campaigns and conspiracy narratives. Transparency International has also sounded the alarm.

Korčok is a career diplomat and former foreign minister. He is running as an independent candidate who is supported by the entire opposition with the exception of the right-wing conservative Movement Slovakia (earlier Oľano) of former Prime Minister Igot Matovič. Korčok stands for liberalism and democracy and is in favour of a pro-European and pro-Western orientation of his country. He has clearly identified and condemned the attacks on the principles of the rule of law by the Fico government. He repeatedly had to defend himself against disinformation campaigns during the election period. He was running his own campaign with fair means. Korčok only has a chance in the run-off election if he enhances his profile as a non-partisan candidate and, above all, wins over the voters of Štefan Harabín, who is now out of the game.

Ivan Korčok

The independent candidate Ivan Korčok. He is in favour of a pro-European and pro-Western orientation for his country.

© picture alliance / CTK | Vaclav Salek

Harabín, the former president of the Constitutional Court, had staged himself as a representative of a third way and remained equidistant from both Pellegrini and Korčok. In 2019, he had already run in the elections that crowned Čaputová the winner. He had questioned the result, which had caused a general head shaking. This time, five years later, he announced that he would turn Slovakia into a neutral state inspired by the Swiss model if he won the election. With around twelve per cent, the top lawyer ended up in third place. He was not alone in his neutrality fantasies. Half of the candidates had the country's withdrawal from NATO and the EU as well as a stop to military support for Ukraine in their catalogue of demands. This is a reflection of the mood in the country - almost every second Slovak wants something similar.

Štefan Harabín

Štefan Harabín, former Chairman of the Constitutional Court.

© picture alliance/AP Photo | Petr David Josek

Election campaign in the shadow of state capture

The measures taken by the Fico government at breakneck speed were the dominant theme of the election campaign. In his five months in office, the prime minister has managed to manoeuvre Slovakia into a dangerous proximity to Hungary. Hungary's authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is Fico's role model and ally. The aim is to gain absolute power, to decouple himself and his associates from past scandals and prosecutions, to control all key positions in the country and to ensure that this state of affairs lasts as long as possible.

Immediately after the Fico government was sworn in October, the leadership of the Slovak police was replaced. This was followed by a reform of criminal law, which began with a reduction of corruption penalties and the abolition of the special public prosecutor's office responsible for such cases. The Slovak Constitutional Court suspended a part of the law amendment on the initiative of President Čaputová. Nevertheless, the special prosecutor's office was shut down, which the EU considers an interference with the rule of law, leading the European Commission to threaten Slovakia with the suspension of funds from the Cohesion Fund. However, there was also resistance from civil society; tens of thousands of people protested against the law throughout the country for weeks. Neither helped. Meanwhile, Fico's activism continues unabated. At a government meeting recently, the government changed the status of the Slovak secret service and appointed Pavol Gašpar, the son of the former police chief who was prosecuted for corruption, as its head. The change in status meant that the president no longer needed to approve the appointment - a clear victory on points for Fico in his duel with the liberal head of state.

The prime minister's attention quickly turned also to the media landscape. The Fico government has labelled most independent Slovak media as hostile. The government refuses to talk to them. The government is exerting enormous pressure on TV Markiza, the country's most popular private broadcaster in the country. The aim: to completely prevent critical reporting on government policy. The country's public broadcaster, Radio and Television Slovakia (RTVS), is also to be abolished. The aim is to establish a new broadcaster whose management, programme design and political orientation will be under the direct influence of the government. In addition, the government repeatedly demonises the work of NGOs and attacks the LGBTIQ community.

A "sovereign foreign policy" as the main issue

Even before the parliamentary elections in the autumn, Fico announced that he would not send a single bullet to Ukraine if elected head of government. Well-meaning people suspected that this was mainly election rhetoric aimed at keeping his core voters happy. Many believed, once in office, he would once again strike a moderate tone that respected the necessities of European and North Atlantic alliance policy. That was a mistake. Not only had they stopped the official state aid to Ukraine (with the exception of the supply of weapons by private companies). The members of the government, headed by their leader, began to spread pro-Russian narratives, fueling fears of war and advocating an improvement in relations with the Kremlin. Foreign policy took center stage in the election campaign when the Slovak Foreign Minister met with his Russian counterpart Lavrov and agreed on closer cooperation between the two countries. The photo of the handshake between the two chief diplomats went around the world. At the same time, Fico spread a conspiracy theory that NATO wanted to send troops to Ukraine, including Slovak soldiers.

In the final stage of the election campaign, confusing posters appeared in Bratislava and other places, and one can only assume who commissioned them. They portrayed Korčok as a warmonger. His opponent Pellegrini warned that Slovakia would become involved in a third world war provoked by NATO with Korčok as head of state. He himself stood for peace and stability within the framework of a "sovereign foreign policy". The government representatives use this term to defend against a supposed appropriation by the EU. The western neighbour Czech Republic, the closest ally of Slovakia, reacted and suspended the regular joint cabinet meetings indefinitely; Prague perceives the Slovak government as a security risk.

The election battle is likely to escalate once again before the run-off vote on the first Saturday in April. Pellegrini will continue to tighten the aggressive tone, while Korčok is likely to continue trying to win over undecided voters with diplomatic flair and a well-tempered tone. Voter turnout was relatively low at around 52 per cent. Although the Slovak head of state is directly elected, the role is more of a representative one. However, its holder traditionally achieves high popularity ratings and therefore has an influence on shaping public opinion that should not be underestimated. The strongest sword is the right of veto. In Korčok's hands, it could prevent Slovakia from falling completely into the clutches of the left-wing populist prime minister. However, if Pellegrini wins, he is likely to become the stooge of a head of government who is seeking absolute power for himself.

The Slovaks are used to choosing a counterweight to the government as head of state. It would be desirable for the EU and the West as a whole if they remained true to themselves on this point on the day of the run-off.