Former Prime Minister Robert Fico’s leftist-populist Smer party won Saturday’s election in Slovakia after promising to stop sending weapons to Ukraine, to block Kyiv’s potential NATO membership and to oppose sanctions on Russia.
With 98 percent of ballots counted in the country of 5.5 million people, Smer had 23.4 percent of the vote, ahead of the liberal, Western-oriented Progressive Slovakia by nearly seven percentage points and almost 200,000 votes. The election winner gets the first chance to form a majority in the 150-seat parliament.
Fico’s campaign has raised alarm across the Continent amid fears that he will shift Slovakia to the anti-Ukraine camp alongside Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Fico has taken a very pro-Moscow stance, vowing to end arms deliveries to Kyiv and opposing sanctions even as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine continues after a year and a half.
Despite Slovakia’s profound polarization, Fico is in a strong position to return to power with the support of Hlas (Voice), a social-democratic party that split from Smer. Hlas finished third with 15 percent in Saturday’s vote.
Hlas is led by Peter Pellegrini, who took over from Fico as Slovakia’s leader in 2018 during the political crisis that followed the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fianceé, Martina Kušnírová. Following Smer’s 2020 election defeat, Pellegrini turned his back on the party, and on Fico, to form Hlas with 10 defecting Smer MPs.
As recently as February, Pellegrini was still dismissing Fico as “a politician from the past” and one who “can no longer offer Slovakia any hope or vision for the 21st century.” But Fico clearly wants to think about the future, not the past.
“This has been a trauma for all of us,” Fico told a political rally in his hometown of Topoľčany on August 30. “We have two parties here with the same social program, who come from the same roots in Smer, and who know each other. So I think the basis for a successful, stable, sovereign socially-oriented government should be cooperation between Smer and Hlas.”
After the election result was called at 4 a.m. Sunday morning, Pellegrini said he expected he would receive an offer of cooperation from Fico, and that “nothing prevents the creation of such a coalition” — even though having “two former prime ministers in the same government is not an optimal solution.”
Another potential coalition partner for Fico could be the Slovak National Party (SNS), which drew 5.7 percent support. SNS partnered with Smer in government from 2006-2010 and 2016-2020. SNS leader Andrej Danko said there was hope the country’s next government would be “pro-nation, pro-social.”
Based on their election results, the three parties would control 81 seats in the legislature, good for a six-seat majority.
The final result may leave Michal Šimečka, leader of the Progressive Slovakia, feeling that he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Early exit polls following the close of voting Saturday evening had given PS a slim lead over Smer, encouraging the former journalist, Oxford PhD and member of the European Parliament to believe he might win his first term as prime minister.
Also securing representation in parliament were the grassroots OĽaNO party (9.2 percent); the Christian Democrats (7 percent); and the liberal Freedom and Solidarity (5.9 percent). No other party topped 5 percent, the cut-off level for parliamentary representation. The far-right Republika narrowly missed out with 4.9 percent.
Saturday’s ballot has been viewed as pivotal to Slovakia’s future, not only due to Fico’s vows to abandon aid to Ukraine, but more generally given his pro-Moscow sympathies in a NATO member country. Fico told his Topoľčany audience in August, for example, that “the war in Ukraine didn’t start a year ago, it started in 2014, when Ukrainian Nazis and fascists started murdering Russian citizens in the Donbas and Luhansk.”
Fico also eulogized the Soviet Union for having allegedly liberated the Czech and Slovak lands from Nazi Germany at the end of World War II. “For God’s sake, they liberated us, we should show some respect,” he admonished his listeners. “We need to tell the whole world, freedom came from the East, war always comes from the West,” he said.
“It was unequivocally a victory of the Red Army, and Smer will recall this history every day, every hour, every second,” Fico told his supporters at the August rally.
Rastislav Kačer, a career diplomat and former Slovak foreign minister, said he suspected Fico wasn’t as pro-Russian as he made out on the campaign trail, but that his populism was nevertheless a danger to the country. It’s not so much that Fico is pro-Russian or anti-Western, he said: “This is a conflict between corrupt authoritarianism versus the democratic, liberal order.”
“Mr. Fico finds great inspiration in the Orbán style of rule, which is Putin’s model of politics,” Kačer said. “He may even not mean to do everything he is saying. He still probably thinks he can fool everyone again by whipping up populist anti-Western emotions at home, pretending rebellious courage against the EU and NATO — and then acting as if nothing happened.”
“But this time he is going too far. He is reformatting society, flowing into Russian and Orbán [style] propaganda,”Kačer said. “It is a very dangerous path he is walking now.”