Slovakia, one of the staunchest supporters of Ukraine since the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February last year, is poised to take a more Kremlin-friendly direction.
Results following the September 30 general election gave the populist Smer party more votes (23%) than any other. A splinter group, Hlas, led by a former Smer prime minister, Peter Pellegrini, came third, with almost 15%. Together with the Slovak National Party, an extremist pro-Russian group that scraped into parliament with just over 5%, the three parties have enough seats to form a slim majority, provided Pellegrini and Smer leader Robert Fico (another former prime minister) are able to overcome their personal animus and strike a deal.
How long any coalition might last is another matter. The country has had four prime ministers in the last four years; Fico would need all of his prodigious management skills to hold this one together for a full term.
Aid to Ukraine is very likely among the first targets if the three agree on a deal. That marks a major change from the past 19 months of war, during which Slovakia, an EU and NATO member, has supplied its eastern neighbor with significant military and humanitarian aid – as well as arms and munitions under commercial contracts that have flooded the order books of its defense industries.
President Zuzana Čaputová said she would ask Fico to form the new government. He has previously described her as an American agent and made the evidence-free claim that she appoints ministers at the behest of the Holocaust survivor, George Soros. She is currently engaged in legal action against her likely next prime minister.
After assuming the podium at his first post-election press conference, Fico began shaping expectations. Asked about his attitude towards Ukraine, he said Slovakia has more pressing problems. Military aid would almost certainly cease, given his party’s electoral slogan of “Not a single bullet.”
More significantly, Slovakia under Fico would offer little or no political support to Kyiv (he has openly repeated Russian talking points about supposed “Nazis” in Ukraine, claims which he appears to believe).
The vote followed a rancorous campaign in which culture war topics like LGBT+ rights and illegal migrants (of which Slovakia attracts a tiny number) featured prominently. At one point, Smer, which was founded as a social democratic party but has veered rightward over the past decade, accused its main rival, Progressive Slovakia, of “liberal fascism” for pursuing pro-European policies. Similarly, the Slovak National Party declared on billboards nationwide that it would “stop liberalism.”
Progressive Slovakia, despite late polling that suggested it might vie for first place, ended up second, with just under 18%.
The parties of the outgoing coalition, which was riven by infighting and collapsed in March, suffered a drubbing. Ordinary People, another conservative-populist outfit that unexpectedly swept to victory in 2020 on an anti-corruption ticket, saw its support fall from over 25% to less than 9%.
The erratic performance of its leader, Igor Matovič — who was forced to stand down as prime minister in 2021 after buying Russian Covid vaccines without cabinet approval, and who has spent much of the two years since lashing out at allies and opponents alike on social media — means that he is unlikely to form part of any new coalition.
A new party led by former prime minister Eduard Heger, who governed Slovakia during most of the war in Ukraine, scored less than 3%, failing to pass the 5% threshold and therefore winning no seats.
Perhaps ironically, given all the claims of “fascism” being traded back and forth, the explicitly neo-fascist parties did worse than expected and were ejected from parliament.
The reason for this appears to be that far-right voters found what they needed among the mainstream parties.
In particular, leading Smer figures, including Fico himself and his unapologetically pro-Russian lieutenant Ľuboš Blaha, have been trafficking heavily in recent years in anti-Western and anti-Soros conspiracy theories. The latter, common in Hungary too, are a common means to encourage and legitimize antisemitic ideas in the wider political discourse.
Fico came out ahead by reconnecting – in part via his recent, more extremist messaging – with his core voter base: those Slovaks (a reliable majority) who prefer the firm smack of government. In almost every single district of the country outside the extraordinarily and atypically wealthy capital, Bratislava, a combination of Smer and its prettified progeny Hlas, won a plurality of the vote.
Hlas leader Pellegrini is now the ostensible kingmaker: his party’s votes are required to make any coalition work. But his project was basically a play to assume Fico’s crown, and now that has clearly failed, many around him are pushing hard to join Smer in a coalition, which would likely presage Hlas’s reabsorption.
The alternative – an intellectually incoherent four-party coalition including Progressive Slovakia – would require the kind of ambition and determination that Pellegrini showed little sign of during a lackluster campaign.
However, Fico has always sheltered behind his more firebrand counterparts in Hungary and Poland when opposing EU and transatlantic policy, and seems unlikely to change this approach. Allies can expect to hear anti-NATO rhetoric (at least domestically) – while Slovakia continues to accept new, NATO-standard hardware and training to replace its dilapidated Soviet-era materiel. NATO’s Slovakia battlegroup, which contains Czech and German troops, was not an electoral issue.
In fact, the problems of Slovakia to which Fico alluded are primarily his own: his main promise at the October 1 press conference was to immediately sack the national police chief and special prosecutor who have pursued investigations and laid charges against him and his allies over the last three years for an array of corrupt schemes that, prosecutors allege, thrived under his previous administrations.
The vote from Slovakia’s well-educated diaspora was larger than ever at this election, and was overwhelmingly liberal (more than 70%). Among this group, Smer attracted only 6%, and Hlas barely registered. Recent programs to encourage some of these people to return, in order to help revitalize Slovakia’s economy, would probably be dialed back under a Smer-Hlas coalition.
Economic issues, aside from unfocused grievances like the supposed cost of accepting Ukrainian refugees (never mind that EU support will probably make this a profitable venture, in simple financial terms), featured surprisingly little.
Near-record high employment, rising foreign investment and wages, and the prevalence of culture war themes in the election campaign suggest that, although it still lags the EU average in terms of income, many Slovaks were not feeling especially hard-pressed.
Sex inequality in positions of leadership also attracted little attention. Although the representation of women in parliament hit a record high, that is only because the number rose by one at this election – from 32 MPs to 33 out of 150 (i.e. 22%.)
President Čaputová, Slovakia’s most prominent female leader, will stand down next year. Explaining her decision not to run for re-election in 2024, she alluded to the increasingly toxic political atmosphere.
James Thomson is a columnist for The Slovak Spectator, the Bratislava-based English-language newspaper and website.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.