No Liberal Miracle in Slovakia: Prorussian Smer Party Wins the Election

Robert Fico
© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Darko Bandic

The last polls just before the election gave reason for hope. According to the polls, the Liberals could look forward to strong gains and, even more, the chance to take first place. The polls on the election day itself, published after the polling stations closed last Saturday shortly before 11 pm, also predicted a victory for the ALDE member party Progresívne Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia, abbreviated PS). On Sunday morning, however, disappointment prevailed: The left-wing populist Robert Fico, an outspoken sympathiser of Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, won the election with just under 23 per cent. His party, the SMER-SSD (The Direction - Slovak Social Democracy) placed first, with a clear lead over the PS, which still came second with just under 18 per cent. In the last election, SMER-SSD was voted out as the governing party; the Liberals failed to reach the seven-percent threshold for electoral alliances.

Who is Robert Fico?

The election winner Robert Fico is a familiar, although not exactly sympathetic, face for both Slovakia and its European neighbours. The 59-year-old lawyer began his political career in 1986 in the state-supporting Communist Party of the former Czechoslovakia. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, he joined the post-communist party Strana demokratickej ľavice ("Party of the Democratic Left"), and in 1999 he founded the left-oriented party SMER, which he tried to establish as a new progressive force of the centre left. Thanks to his criticism of the unpopular economic reforms that were necessary for the country's accession to the EU, Fico enjoyed a surge in popularity. Since 2006, he has won five out of six parliamentary elections. Now he has the chance to become prime minister again.

The only general election that ended in defeat for SMER was the 2020 parliamentary elections. It was the vote following the brutal murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in 2018. Kuciak revealed the links between organised crime and the upper echelons of Slovak politics at the time, especially SMER representatives. The investigation provided evidence of contacts between Fico, former Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, police chief Tibor Gašpar and numerous judges and prosecutors with organised crime in Slovakia. In addition, Fico's lover and assistant at the time allegedly had direct contacts with the Italian mafia. Shortly before this year's elections, the incumbent liberal president Zuzana Čaputová filed a charge of defamation against Fico.

The winners and the losers

Fico is the first politician in the history of modern Slovakia who has now managed to resurrect from the political dead. He has dominated the country's politics for almost three decades. He is a classic power man. Fico understood the tense mood of society, exhausted by all the recent crises, and was able to read their emotions, exploit them and influence them to the point that they forgot all his previous misdeeds. Fico is a strong leader who was able to maintain power for a long time without any serious political competition. Only in this election campaign, he faced a serious opponent in the person of Michal Šimečka, the leader of the liberal PS.

Šimečka holds a PhD from Oxford University. He is currently an MEP and Vice-President of the European Parliament, and therefore one of the most influential Slovaks at the European level. However, he has little experience in domestic politics. Before he took over the leadership of the PS in 2022, he was barely known in Slovakia. Founded in 2017, the PS party distinguished itself above all through its committed fight for the rights of the LGBTIQ community. According to analysts, the party ran an election campaign that was not only professional and free of resentment, but also showed what future potential Slovakia has. Šimečka also earned recognition as strong party leader, who succeeded in uniting the different streams of the PS. To achieve just under 18 percent and a second place in the parliamentary elections in a still traditionally value-conservative country without populist volte-face can be considered a triumph, even if many would have expected more. The PS is thus both a loser and a winner.

However, smaller parties also won, for example the SNS ("Slovak National Party") and the KDH ("Christian Democratic Movement"). Both failed to reach the five-percent hurdle in the last election. Now they have not only succeeded in entering parliament, they may become kingmakers in the upcoming coalition negotiations. While the return of the KDH should prove to be a gain for Slovakia's pro-democratic and pro-Western orientation, SNS participation in government would be a fatal signal. The SNS entered the election campaign with candidates who question Slovakia's EU and NATO memberships and show clear pro-Russian sympathies.

One positive news from a liberal point of view is the parliamentary exit of the Republika and SME Rodina ("We are one family") parties. The far-right Republika ran with neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers on its candidate list and strongly opposed support for Ukraine and its admission to the EU and NATO. The controversial former President of the Parliament and leader of the SME Rodina party, Boris Kollár, was involved in numerous scandals concerning his dissolute private life as well as contacts with the Slovak criminal underground.

Who can govern

On Monday, President Čaputová mandated the election winner Fico to form a government, for which he has 14 days. SMER needs at least two other parties to unite a parliamentary majority. There are 150 MPs in the Slovak parliament. A government is therefore dependent on at least 76 votes.

There are four scenarios that can be considered realistic. The first, and most likely, is a coalition of SMER, Hlas-SD ("Voice - Social Democracy"), and SNS (79 seats). Other possibilities would be either an alliance of SMER, Hlas-SD and KDH (81 seats) or, in complete contrast, a union of PS, Hlas-SD, SaS (the liberal "Freedom and Solidarity") and KDH (82). A constitutional majority would require ninety MPs. This could only be achieved by a coalition of SMER, Hlas-SD, KDH and SNS (91), but this constellation is considered very unlikely.

However, as expected, the crucial factor will be the decision of the Hlas-SD party led by Peter Pellegrini, which split from SMER in 2020 to step out of the shadow of Robert Fico and his party affairs. It is obvious that due to the low percentage gains of the parties, a government without Hlas-SD will not be possible. Pellegrini did not rule out cooperation with SMER before the elections - nor with the PS. Michal Šimečka said immediately after the election results were counted that they would do everything to get the Hlas-SD party on their side so that Fico could not form the coalition. Pellegrini, meanwhile, said that in terms of programme, his party was closest to the SMER. In terms of foreign policy, however, Pellegrini finds clear agreement with the pro-Western Liberals. However, he wants to negotiate with both parties and take his time to make this decision. Unofficial discussions, also from the PS side, are already taking place.

Peter Pellegrini thus has a unique chance to show that the reason for his separation from Robert Fico was indeed concern for the future of Slovakia. Several analysts are of the opinion that in the end his own career will be more important to him and, should Pellegrini enter into a coalition with the PS, the latter would have to offer him the post of prime minister. Playing into the hands of the Liberals is the fact that the KDH party, Peter Pellegrini's preferred partner, declared before the elections that they would rule out cooperation with Fico after the elections. However, this was mainly announced by its leader - the KDH party meeting could still vote for something else.

What to expect from Fico

Based on the percentage election result and the need to form a coalition, it is clear that Slovakia will not face a Hungarian scenario in the near future. What is certain, however, and Fico himself announced this at his first press conference after the election results were announced, is that the public prosecutor's office and the police will be scrutinised very closely. Investigations of corruption scandals from Robert Fico's earlier times in government are still ongoing, and about 130 people from his entourage are currently awaiting sentencing. Fico's goal will be to stop these investigations.

A government led by Fico would return Slovakia to a time when the so-called "our people" system of the SMER party is once again commonplace, when all decisive positions in the structures of the state were occupied by SMER supporters. This poses a great threat to the functioning of the rule of law. Journalists and freedom of speech would also not have an easy time under Fico. Even in opposition, Fico did not stop verbally attacking journalists and spreading disinformation about them, claiming that the Slovak media was bribed and manipulated by the West. Trust in the media is already quite weakened in Slovak society. Fico also declined invitations to most of the pre-election debates, attending only about two and avoiding journalists during and after election night.

However, what the whole world is concerned about is Slovakia's foreign policy and future support for Ukraine. Many claim that the winner of these elections is also Putin, because Fico and his party supporters have been strongly spreading pro-Russian narratives, disinformation and conspiracy theories for a long time in the run-up to the elections. The concern is that with Fico's election victory, the Kremlin gained another accomplice in the EU alongside Orbán. The influence of the disinformation campaign on the elections cannot be denied, but the real consequences on the foreign policy of the future government are still unclear. One can predict, however, and this is also confirmed by other Slovak experts, that Fico will have to remain pragmatic when it comes to supporting Ukraine and the EU.

We can expect Fico to focus his activity on domestic politics and his power-building rather than on destabilising and isolating Slovakia at the European level. Moreover, it must be noted that Fico's statements to stop supporting Ukraine, while praising the common past with Russia, merely exploited the mood in society to win voters. He will have to satisfy these voters, but this will happen mainly through more or less harsh rhetoric than through actual deeds. After all, Slovakia also lags behind the rest of the EU economically and is therefore dependent on EU funds. The country cannot afford a dispute with the EU, and Fico as an experienced politician knows this very well. Moreover, contracts have been concluded with Slovak companies for the production and supply of ammunition to Ukraine, the cessation of which would mean a loss of jobs and income for the state, which Fico cannot afford. However, it should not be underestimated that Fico, following Orbán's example, will be another critical and problematic voice in the middle of the EU, in which he can force some exceptions for himself through obstruction.