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Slovakia’s parliamentary election: the leaders and the kingmakers

The race to reach the parliamentary threshold promises to be as nerve-wracking as the race for first place.

September 19, 2023 - Ladislav Charouz - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Shutterstock/Karol Skalnicky

On September 30th, Slovak citizens will head to the polls in a potentially pivotal vote. On the ballot is Slovakia’s continued support for Ukraine but the election has also highlighted issues like the rule of law, women’s reproductive rights and corruption. Leading the pack are former Prime Minister Robert Fico’s SMER (Direction) and Michal Šimečka’s Progressive Slovakia (PS), while erstwhile favourite Peter Pellegrini’s HLAS (Voice) has fallen to a distant third. Significantly, none of the victors in Slovakia’s last elections are projected to be serious contenders for the prime ministership.

Slovakia’s last parliamentary elections held in 2020 exposed deep public resentment against government corruption. Two years previously, the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak was murdered, along with his fiancée Martina Kušnírová, after covering tax evasion and embezzlement at the highest echelons of Slovak politics. Widespread protests eventually led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Robert Fico and his cabinet. A new government was then named by Deputy Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini (who left SMER after the elections to found HLAS). Persistent allegations of corruption related to SMER eventually delivered an electoral win for Igor Matovič’s OĽANO (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities). 

The success of the anti-Fico front was short-lived. Confronted with a global pandemic and cursed by a capricious leader, Matovič’s government collapsed after little more than a year in power. It was succeeded by a minority government led by Matovič’s OĽANO colleague Eduard Heger. However, this government failed to pass a no confidence vote in December 2022 and was succeeded by Ľudovít Ódor’s current caretaker cabinet.   

With yesterday’s corruption fighters discredited amidst bitter infighting, Fico’s SMER is poised to surge once more. However, observers of Slovakia’s political scene note that today’s Fico is a very different man from the one he was in 2018. . In the past, Fico called for the West to lift its sanctions against Russia in the wake of Putin’s occupation of Crimea. Now, he is blaming “Ukrainian fascists” for starting the ongoing conflict and has described Slovakia’s recent DCA agreement with the USA as treason. Fico has stated that if SMER is elected to power, it will ensure that “not a single bullet” will be sent to Ukraine. This would mean a significant reversal of Slovakia’s current policy, which has been to provide Ukraine with military aid. 

To up the stakes even higher, a haze of corruption continues to surround Fico and his SMER colleagues, raising the threat of a return to the old order. In the late days of Pellegrini’s government, over a dozen judges were charged with corruption. This continued under Matovič with the arrest of a supreme court judge. Charged along with them was the man accused of orchestrating Kuciak’s murder, Marian Kočner. Another corruption case has linked him to former Police Chief Tibor Gašpar and Fico himself. Gašpar is now, alongside the former Minister of Interior Robert Kaliňák, one of SMER’s candidates facing corruption charges. Fico has decried these moves as politically motivated attacks.  

Even if SMER wins the elections, however, it will need to find allies among other parties that manage to pass the parliamentary threshold. Its main competitor in this effort will be Progressive Slovakia led by Michal Šimečka, an Oxford graduate and vice president of the European Parliament. A new force in Slovak politics, PS has staked out its position as strongly pro-western, voicing firm support for the EU and NATO. It advocates for Ukraine’s eventual entry into the EU, as well as for Slovakia’s involvement in the country’s post-war reconstruction. Socially liberal, it finds common ground with western progressive movements on  and reproductive rights.  

The likely kingmaker in the post-election showdown between Fico’s SMER and Šimečka’s PS will be Peter Pellegrini’s HLAS. Both SMER and HLAS frame themselves as socially democratic parties, and observers tend to envision a coalition forming between them after the election. Similarly to SMER, HLAS has criticised the sending of Slovak MiG-29 aircraft and the S-300 missile system to Ukraine. However, its opposition has been more qualified than that of SMER, with politicians saying that aid from Slovakia can be provided as long as it does not undercut Slovakia’s own defensive capabilities. These supplies must also form part of collective decision-making at the NATO and EU levels. Pellegrini has also ruled out any coalition that would involve the far-right party Republika (Republic), which is seen as a potential Fico ally.  

The more parties make it above the parliamentary threshold, the more difficult any post-election coalition-building will become. Among the parties most likely to cross the threshold and ally with Fico are the aforementioned Republika, SNS (Slovak National Party) and potentially Sme rodina (We Are Family). Seen as a breakaway from the neo-Nazi ĽSNS (People’s Party Our Slovakia), Republika is no stranger to accusations of antisemitism and . Frequently spreading Russian talking points, it frames the war in Ukraine as a consequence of American aggression and criticises Slovak aid to Ukraine as treason. Its politicians have voiced support for a referendum on NATO membership, though this may be a bridge too far even for Fico. 

The SNS is another nationalist party with a history of racist political campaigns and a host of controversies regarding its attitudes towards Slovakia’s Roma and Hungarian minorities. The party opposes immigration but voices this opposition within the framework of EU decision-making. Nevertheless, its Chairman Andrej Danko has blamed the war in Ukraine on EU expansion and US involvement. He has also called on President Zuzana Čaputová to stop Slovaks from fighting for Ukraine. According to former Defence Minister Jaroslav Naď, Danko impeded attempts to reach a defence agreement with the US and shielded Russian spies during his tenure under Pellegrini’s government. 

As for Sme rodina, the party played junior partner to OĽANO in previous governments but has not ruled out joining a coalition government with SMER. A recent news report has also found significant convergence in voting patterns between Sme rodina and three parties currently in opposition: SMER, HLAS and Republika. On social issues, Sme rodina is much closer to conservative parties like SMER, Republika and SNS than to Progressive Slovakia. At the same time, Sme rodina has supported Slovakia’s donation of arms to Ukraine. Its Chairman Boris Kollár has warned that Putin might even help Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán “parcel out” Slovakia if he succeeds in Ukraine. This is despite his almost simultaneous support for using roubles to pay for Russian gas.  

Other parties that might break above the parliamentary threshold are mostly seen as potential allies to PS, or at least as enemies to Fico and his pro-Russian agenda. OĽANO, of course, won Slovakia’s previous elections on a promise to end SMER-sponsored corruption, and is unlikely to reverse course. Its commitment on the Ukraine issue is admittedly somewhat spotty. While Matovič generally voices support for Ukraine, he has tried to avoid taking responsibility for Slovakia’s arms supplies by, unusually, asking the president for the final green light. Also, Ukraine’s most prominent supporters in OĽaNO, Eduard Heger and Jaroslav Naď, have since left for the newly revitalised party Demokrati (Democrats), while some of the rank and file have voiced preferences for Slovak neutrality. The new party, although a potential ally in an anti-Fico coalition, is not faring particularly well in the polls.   

Notwithstanding, OĽaNO’s coalition partners Za ľudí (For the People) and Kresťanská únia (Christian Union) are likely to support the coalition’s pro-western course should the grouping enter parliament. Za ľudí supported the sending of MiG-29 aircraft to Ukraine, as well as Ukraine’s candidacy to join the EU. Along with KÚ it has supported signing a defence agreement with the US. What might impede a potential coalition between PS and the OĽaNO–KÚ–ZĽ bloc are their radically different social policies. Both OĽaNO’s Matovič and the KÚ strongly oppose the progressive agenda, especially where it comes to same-sex parenting and trans issues.   

Two other parties whose leap across the parliamentary threshold might help Ukraine are SASKA (Freedom and Solidarity) and KDH (Christian Democratic Movement). SASKA has voiced support for Ukraine’s candidate status with regards to EU accession, while KDH politicians have spoken favourably about laying out a clear roadmap for Ukraine’s accession into NATO. Both PS and KDH have welcomed Slovakia’s pro-western foreign policy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

All that said, little can be predicted with confidence of Slovakia’s political landscape after the election. If Fico wins, he will have a shot at cobbling together a nationalist coalition, which will most likely require a hesitant HLAS to be viable. While Republika and Sme rodina look poised to remain in the National Council, the chances of SNS returning for the first time since the 2016 election are uncertain. Of Šimečka’s potential allies, the numbers are looking good for SASKA and KDH but less so for OĽaNO and Demokrati (while HLAS and Sme Rodina remain potential partners). In the end, however, the struggle to cross the parliamentary threshold will probably only be a prelude to complicated coalition negotiations, no matter who oversees them.   

Ladislav Charouz is a commentator on international affairs and a former junior analyst at the European Values Center for Security Policy. He received his BA in English and a combined BA/MA in history from Yale, as well as an MPhil in International Relations from Oxford.

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