In Slovakia, the left-wing populist Robert Fico will return to power and form a coalition with leftist and nationalist parties. Fico was removed from power by the Slovak people in 2018. However, from 2020 to 2023, Slovakia experienced a high level of chaos. There were frequent government crises and prime ministers changed frequently. After so much instability, many Slovak voters now yearn for some stability.
As a result, Fico’s corruption scandals seem to have been pushed into the background. The return of a politician like Fico in Bratislava, who maintains strong ties with the Hungarian Viktor Orbán, can have significant implications for Central Europe and the European Union (EU).
To understand the importance of Fico, we have to go back to 2018. In the wake of the cold-blooded murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kušnírová, protests are taking place across Slovakia. The public demanded an explanation of and political accountability for the cases revealed by Ján Kuciak. These involved the network between the members of the ruling party SMER — slovenská sociálna demokracia (DIRECTION – Slovak Social Democracy) and controversial businessmen considered to be part of organized crime that has conducted massive financial frauds.
Protests led Fico to resign. There were other personnel reshuffles in the government coalition. Fresh parliamentary elections followed in 2020. Capitalizing on a strong anti-SMER political agenda and establishing his election campaign as a fight against Fico and his network, Igor Matovič led his Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OL’aNO) party to a decisive victory. Considered the gravedigger of Fico’s political career in 2020, the former prime minister Matovič has now become its resurrector.
Resurrection of Robert Fico
October 1 turned out to be a sobering morning for liberal Slovaks. With a relatively strong mandate of 23%, the SMER party won the early elections, consequently forming a government coalition. The party has partnered with SMER-defectors who formed the HLAS party led by Peter Pellegrini. He replaced Fico as prime minister and was prime minister from 2018 to 2020. The right-wing Slovak National Party (SNS) is also a coalition partner
Despite both Fico and Pellegrini categorizing their parties as “social democratic”, their memberships in the European Socialist Party were suspended. This happened due not only to the recent radical rhetoric and political positions of SMER, but also to the party’s willingness to form a coalition with the SNS. Many EU Social Democrats consider the SNS to be a far-right entity with an extremist ideology.
For the past three years, Fico or Pellegrini have been in opposition. They harshly criticized not only Matovič’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the inter-coalition conflicts that ultimately led to the fall of Matovič’s government.
Fico’s and Pellegrini’s criticism and the promise of “stability and order” after years of political turmoil ultimately materialized in an electoral victory. Paradoxically, Fico can thank Matovič for his political comeback. Matovič built his political program on the anti-Fico premise but failed to deliver.
Despite losing more than half of his supporters, Matovič managed to retain his place in the parliament. Throughout the campaign, Matovič was the most radical critic of the “mafia,” a term he used to describe Fico’s people. He went so far as to getting into physical confrontations with politicians from the SMER-party. Yet Fico’s populism trumped Matovič’s anti-Fico populism.
The promise of stability to those suffering from poverty
How is it possible that Fico is coming back? Did everyone forget the 2018 protests?
The election results have put influential groups of controversial businessmen that run clientelistic networks involving government officials and the police, prosecutors, judiciary, financial administration and secret services back into focus. The connection of SMER members to persons involved in organized crime, which was revealed five years ago, seems to play no role anymore.
Instead of criminal prosecution, Fico and his party fellows now will be protected with political immunity. Promising professionalism, expertise, experience and stability, Fico has risen to the top of the political ladder once again. Slovak voters dissatisfied with the previous government and declining living standards have helped Fico to climb this ladder.
Slovakia has one of the worst public finances in the EU. It is also the second poorest country in the EU. Segments of Slovak society are currently on the verge of extreme poverty. They were fed up with the chaotic government of the past years and yearned for strong leadership.
Fico´s political narrative about the struggle between liberalism and conservatism, gender ideology and traditional values was another clever political tool to win the support of overwhelmingly conservative Slovak voters. Using pro-Russian disinformation tactics and blaming the war in Ukraine for declining living standards helped Fico win as well. Fico made the argument that the role of his government is to place the interests of Slovakia and Slovakians first, which is not what many European countries are doing.
Fico has declared: “The protection of the sovereignty and national-state interests of the Slovak Republic will be the government’s priority.” This declaration during the signing of a memorandum of understanding with future coalition partners resonates with voters.
Will Slovakia become the second Hungary and will Central Europe turn illiberal?
Slovakia will now follow a “policy of many azimuths.” Simply put, Fico will prioritize nationalism and protectionism. His thesis is that this would improve living conditions of Slovakian citizens at home. Hence, Slovak political, military and diplomatic support for Ukraine will no longer continue. Fico has also been blunt in his criticism of EU sanctions against Russia. Now, the EU will have to deal with another blackmailer like Hungary’s Orbán within its institutions.
Fico will emulate Orbán in domestic policy too. He is highly unlikely to build a decent and matter-of-fact political culture or a positive relationship and trust in state institutions. Instead, the erosion of democratic institutions, the continued departure from the rule of law, oppression of minorities and the shrinking of the civil society environment will become the new political reality.
The question on everyone’s lips is simple: Will Slovakia become the second Hungary? Fico would like that. However, it is up in the air whether he can establish an “illiberal democracy” as easily as Orbán did in Hungary. Orbán has been in power for 13 years with a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament. This allowed him to rewrite the constitution and the election laws. Institutions are fully controlled by Orbán’s Fidesz party, while Fidesz-affiliated oligarchs have taken hold of the economy. The free press is weak, the opposition is divided, and change seems unlikely in Hungary.
Even under Fico, Slovakia presents a different picture. He will govern with a coalition in which Pellegrini will represent a pro-European, values-based approach. Fico’s coalition will prove to be unstable. The SNS with many independent MPs is not bound by party discipline. An “illiberal democracy” of the Hungarian variety is not an imminent threat in Slovakia. However, there is a big risk that key institutions, especially the police and the prosecution, may once again be filled with Fico loyalists, benefiting corruption, clientelism and oligarchy.
In the foreign policy debates within the EU, Fico is likely to espouse positions similar to Orbán’s. The Slovakian leader will oppose migration, resist further European federalization and favor a more friendly approach towards Russia. Hungary can also anticipate that potential sanctions against Budapest, related to rule of law violations and corruption, might be blocked by vetoes from Bratislava.
The former unity of the Visegrád-Group states stands shattered. Prague and Warsaw have pro-European and pro-Ukrainian governments, while Budapest and Bratislava are more critical of the EU and lean more towards Russia.
The EU has a new test in preventing how far Fico can go with his illiberal plans in Slovakia. It remains to be seen if Brussels can assert its values and principles in Bratislava. Fico presents an existential challenge for Slovak civil society, which once successfully ousted him from office.
[The Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe produced this piece and is a partner of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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