4th Dec 2023

Resurgent Fico hopes for Slovak comeback at Saturday's election

  • Ex-PM Robert Fico — accused of abuse of power but acquitted without trial for procedural reasons — has vehemently denounced the criminal prosecutions carried out since 2020 as part of a political in-fight (Photo: Lucia Virostkova)
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Political parties facing multiple corruption charges are hoping for a grand comeback at Saturday's (30 September) snap elections in Slovakia —which could also lead to a reversal of the central European country's position on Ukraine and Russia.

The vote comes after almost three years of chaotic rule and wrangling within the four-party centre-right government, during the difficult times of the Covid-19 pandemic and outbreak of war in neighbouring Ukraine.

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  • Election posters on the streets of Bratislava. Voice-SD leader Peter Pellegrini is polling third, with around 15 percent of the vote (Photo: Lucia Virostkova)

In 2020, the OLANO party of Igor Matovic won elections on an anti-corruption platform and promised to allow prosecution of any top-level bribery and EU funding fraud under his — or previous — administrations.

The subsequent 'untie the hands of police' strategy promoted by Matovic resulted in the prosecution of numerous ex-officials and nominees of the Smer-Social Democrats party of former PM Robert Fico.

Smer-SD ruled between 2012 and 2020 and currently tops most pre-election polling, on around 20 percent.

Fico — himself accused of abuse of power but acquitted without trial for procedural reasons — has vehemently denounced the criminal prosecutions carried out since 2020 as part of a political in-fight.

This so-far successful tactic is one of his key achievements, according to Martin Slosiarik, sociologist and director of the Focus polling agency. "Smer-SD voters a priori refuse to trust the police investigators, and view the criminal proceedings as an attack on the opposition," Slosiarik told EUobserver.

Some 40 people have been convicted so far, mostly on corruption charges with several more still to stand trial, including ex-senior officials and Smer-SD nominees who testified to the practices of the previous regime.

However, Fico's new-found popularity can be primarily explained by his political skills — exploiting citizens' frustrations over the past three years and the government's pandemic restrictions, vaccination campaigns, and robustly pro-EU and Nato geopolitical stance, according to Slosiarik.

"All these events allowed Smer-SD to define itself as strongly [critical] and it corresponded with the views of their traditional voters, but also with Slovaks who had previously rejected the party because of corruption. Fico managed to win them over," Slosiarik commented.

As a result, along with fatigue over the media-exposed quarrels within the OLANO-led coalition, the polls show a steadily-growing support for politicians with authoritarian tendencies, according to Slosiarik.

"We can see demand for a strong order and end to chaos and it was strongly reflected in the election campaign, especially among opposition parties," Slosiarik added.

Russia and Ukraine

One of the most recent police operations, on 19 September, concerned alleged tender manipulations exceeding €74m to public coffers and involved ex-nominees and associates of the Slovak National Party (SNS) of the former parliament speaker Andrej Danko.

SNS, in power with Smer-SD between 2016 and 2020, has also managed to bounce back from the bottom in polling (to around six percent) mainly down to its pro-Russia and anti-EU rhetoric. There is also the newly-formed far-right Republika (on around nine percent).

As with Smer-SD, both parties campaign against the EU's military aid to Ukraine, Slovakia's alignment with the US, and sanctions against Russia.

The Republika leader, Milan Uhrik, currently a non-attached MEP, recently outlined plans for a referendum on Slovakia's exit from Nato. At the latest, he would initiate it on the day of any possible Ukraine admission to the alliance, Uhrik said.

Hungary/Poland/Slovakia alliance?

Former prime minister Fico has a track record of doublespeak on Europe and geopolitics depending on whether he was in Brussels, Washington or Bratislava, media commentators point out — and some reckon he may try it again.

However, especially any coalition governent or support deal with Uhrik and Danko would push him toward harsher EU and Nato positions, the political scientist Aneta Vilagi, vice-dean of the faculty of arts at Comenius University in Bratislava, told EUobserver.

"Fico is reportedly reassuring Western diplomats behind the doors that he would not be as radical a PM as an opposition politician. But his rhetoric has turned too extreme this time, and its reversal would be hard to push forward if he wants to keep his voters," warned Vilagi.

"In Brussels, a PM Fico would be more likely to join forces with Hungary or Poland in controversial issues and apply Viktor Orban-like rhetoric when needed," Vilagi added.

A less extreme post-election scenario involves a Smer-SD deal with its ex-members in the Voice-SD party, who are polling third with up to 15 percent of votes.

Voice-SD leader Peter Pellegrini took over the cabinet chair from Fico during mass protests following the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak in 2018. After the election debacle in 2020, he broke away, along with several prominent members of Smer-SD.

LGBTI backlash

But Pellegrini could still become a potential ally for another emerging heavyweight, the Progressive Slovakia (PS) of the European Parliament's vice-president Michal Simecka, a member of the Renew Europe group.

The party entered the Slovak political arena with the successful presidential candidate Zuzana Caputova in 2019, and now polls second with up to 18 percent as a key competitor to Fico's Smer-SD.

In one of the final pre-election polls on Tuesday (26 September), Progressive Slovakia scored marginally higher (19.7 percent ) than Smer-SD (19.4 percent) — making it the frontrunner for the first time, according to SME daily.

However, due to its ambitious manifesto on the rights of LGBTI people and equality, the party has seen a strong backlash from most corners of the political spectrum and sparked an expressive debate on social media.

Catholic and Protestant bishops have called on people to reject advocates of registered partnerships and abortion access, clearly referring to the PS without actually naming it.

For his part, Simecka argues that the current fragmentation of Slovak society can be overcome by a shift toward more humane political dialogue and behaviour, rather than compromises on policy goals.

"Liberals in Slovakia have previously surrendered too often and too easily," he told EUobserver, adding: "We are not drawing red lines but preparing for cooperation in seeking the best solutions for the country and its people."

Vilagi considers it still possible that pro-democracy and pro-EU parties could join forces after Saturday's election, despite their current divisions over social issues.

But they would have to "sacrifice" some of their manifesto priorities and focus on areas where cooperation is possible, she said.

"And the opposition led by Fico and far-right parties would do all they could to re-introduce the sensitive debates to make the liberal-conservative rule ever more difficult," Vilagi added.

Author bio

Lucia Virostkova is a freelance journalist and assistant professor at the department of journalism of Comenius University in Bratislava. She has worked for the public TV and radio and published with several Slovak newspapers.

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