9th Dec 2023


Slovak's 'illiberal' Fico victory boosts Orbán, but faces checks

  • Ukraine will lose one of its close allies after the victory of the populist Smer-SD party led by former prime minister Robert Fico (Photo: European Parliament)
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The fresh wave of populism in Slovakia and its potential impact on EU-Nato relations has raised concerns among European countries — and the results of Saturday's parliamentary elections with the victory of the populist Smer-SD party led by former prime minister Robert Fico have drawn attention to his history of expressing anti-American sentiments and pro-Russian rhetoric.

It is also essential to consider the election implications extend beyond geopolitics — and affect policies in the ongoing fight against internal corruption.

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The outcome of the 150-seat parliament election is crucial in determining whether the country will maintain an alignment with EU values or drift closer to Russia. With Fico, Ukraine will likely lose one of its close allies.

Scenario 1: Slovakia as Putin ally

Fico has made domestic political gains by taking advantage of frustration towards the outgoing governing coalition. During this campaign, he did the same but with an added anti-West narrative. His platform was based on conspiracy theories, mixed with pro-Russian and anti-American rhetoric that echoed Kremlin propaganda.

Based on Sunday's (1 October) results, Smer-SD emerged as the leading party, with 22.94 percent of the vote. Fico's views resonate with that segment of Slovaks who hold sympathetic feelings to Russia, that have only grown stronger through social media platforms since the onset of the war in Ukraine.

Fico has promised to halt assistance to Ukraine if he regains power. He blamed "Ukrainian Nazis" throughout the campaign for initiating the war.

But these stances could potentially create disagreements with allies in the EU and Nato who have been supporters of Ukraine. Fico stated that his future government would not continue sending aid.

And while most Slovak political parties support providing weapons, opinion polls suggest that most citizens oppose such military assistance. "Observe how attitudes towards Ukrainian president [Volodmyr] Zelensky are changing as he begins to bore the world," commented Fico recently.

Scenario 2: Slovakia as Orban's ally

The election outcome could also reinforce Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban's EU position, and undermine unity within the bloc against Russia's invasion.

Frequently, Fico and one of his potential coalition partners, Andrej Danko, leader of the Slovak nationalist party, admired Orban's 'illiberal democracy' national-conservative governing style, and often unilateral opposition to Brussels' 'dictates'.

Under Fico's leadership, Slovakia might therefore join Hungary in opposing EU sanctions on Russia, which could weaken the EU's stance.

Perhaps the worst-case scenario, taking Slovakia out of the democratic orbit, will not pass. However, there is a high probability that Fico's leadership will change the geopolitical dynamic inside Europe, increasing the existing 'east vs west' tension among member states, and add heft to those countries for a more vital and active nation state.

Looking at his campaign narratives, slogans and messages, there is a concern that Fico could undermine the EU institutions and checks on power by following the same aggressive approach as Hungary's Orban.

If Fico and Orban do join their illiberal forces, it would have the potential to challenge the values of the European Union. But on the other hand, it could also lead to divisions within the central and east European region.

And there is even a solid potential to reinforce Orban's overriding concept of "an alternative to liberal democracy," casting these autocrats as defenders of a supposed Christian homeland against migrants, the so-called 'gay agenda', and radical liberal experiments.

Fico has the potential to shift Slovakia from the West and jeopardise the unity of Europe in its stance against Russia's incursion into Ukraine. His victory could also have the potential for a domino effect in the central European region and empower other European far-right and populist movements.

Scenario 3: Show me the money?

Yet the dependency of Slovakia on the European Union could potentially stop any wild, apocalyptic scenarios about future democratic backlashing.

Fico has promised more social spending.

But after the Covid pandemic and economic crisis, he has few options, and these promises are only possible with EU money. He knows it, so he will likely try to modify his position and maintain good relations with the Brussels institutions.

Scenario 4: Tamed by citizens and media?

While Fico's future government creates authentic concerns, his ability to undermine Slovak democracy fortunately faces limitations.

His past spell as prime minister showed his tendency to attack journalists, but the Slovak media has become more resilient in the past years and won't be easy to intimidate.

Slovakia also has a vibrant and engaged civic culture and well-established civic organisations and grassroots movements with the potential to mobilise citizens.

The third factor that will make it challenging is the Slovak business sector, which is heavily pro-EU, and not just for economic reasons.

While the election outcome poses risks, Slovakia's pro-democratic institutions and the engaged public have proven able to oppose extremism in the past.

Thus, Fico faces more significant domestic checks than Orban in Hungary. And lastly, as historian Timothy Snyder points out, Slovakia is undergoing a generational political shift.

Younger Slovaks mostly abandoned old political parties and backed the new, modern, liberal, political force — Progressive Slovakia. That energy alone gives hope for Slovakia's democratic future.

Author bio

Viera Žúborová is head of research at the Bratislava Policy Institute. Her work focuses on populism, extremism, societal intolerance and hate speech.

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