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Could Slovakia go rogue after the elections?

The victory of Robert Fico and his Smer party in the recent Slovak elections has caused fears that the country may adopt a more pro-Russian foreign policy. Despite such rhetoric during the vote, it is important to remember that Fico remains a pragmatic actor who understands how the game is played.

October 13, 2023 - Jozef Hrabina - Articles and Commentary

Slovak parliamentary elections

Wooden coat of arms Slovakia in its parliament in Bratislava. Photo: Ventura / Shutterstock

Robert Fico‘s textbook comeback signals his ability to overcome a reputation as a corrupt politician. He has been able to revive his Smer party, which had been on a declining course since the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée. Not only that, but Smer also surpassed Hlas, the party created by former Smer members led by former PM Peter Pellegrini, whose party led the polls for most of the past three years. Interestingly enough, Smer and Hlas received roughly 40 per cent of the total vote, indicating a high degree of nostalgia among the general population.

The Progressive Slovakia party, surprisingly, emerged as the main challenger to Smer for much of the past month before the parliamentary elections. However, reality differed significantly from the polls, as the group fell roughly five percentage points short of Smer. The winner of the 2020 elections, the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities movement, ran in a coalition with its former government partners and received eight per cent of the total vote.

Regarding likely coalitions, it is most probable that Smer will form a government with Hlas and the Slovak National Party. The Christian Democratic Movement is likely to refrain from joining coalitions led by Smer and the Slovak National Party due to various controversies, while Progressive Slovakia is too liberal for the centre-right Christian Democrats.

With that said, it is unlikely that Progressive Slovakia would be able to form a government, as former coalition partners Ordinary People and the liberal SaS party have already declared their unwillingness to be part of the same government. This is due to the fact that their disputes have been a source of political instability in Slovakia for the past three years. Therefore, it would be impossible to form a government without the Christian Democrats and with the aforementioned two parties on an equal footing.

With the Democrats party, led by former PM Eduard Heger, and other parties with former government members not able to pass the threshold, the message is clear. A majority of the people are willing to return to Smer to avoid experiments with fresh but inexperienced faces. Does this mean that Slovakia will become a second Hungary? Despite the pro-Russian messaging, this is unlikely, just as it is unlikely that Smer or the Slovak National Party will have enough power to undermine media freedom or the rule of law.

Nostalgia for challenging times

Apart from concerns about democracy in Slovakia, the country has not been very attractive to international journalism. However, the automotive powerhouse is facing multiple crises, some of which were co-created or directly caused by the incapability of the pro-democratic forces that ruled the country for the past three years.

Slovakia’s healthcare system is on the verge of collapse due to a lack of personnel, and the Slovak capital, Bratislava, lacks a contemporary state-owned hospital. The educational system is also in an alarming state, with Slovak high school students scoring increasingly poorly compared to their European peers. The lack of educational concepts and long-term strategies, as well as the education system’s lack of interoperability with the labour market, reflect poorly on Slovak universities, which score below the EU’s average. That said, Slovak youth are leaving the country en masse, causing a shortage of highly skilled labour.

While Slovakia was considered one of the EU’s economic tigers fifteen years ago, today the country has gradually become one of its poorest states, sharing this position with Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia. The lack of long-term economic development strategies, one of the lowest research and development spending rates in the OECD, and over-reliance on Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs), combined with one of the highest costs of living in the EU, paints a stark picture of an underperforming nation in search of leadership to reverse its downward trajectory.

International versus national

While the Slovak working class perceives the election through these aforementioned issues, the international community focuses on Smer’s pro-Russian sentiments. Some of Smer’s members, such as Luboš Blaha, have long advocated pro-Russian policies, although the party itself always maintained a pro-EU/NATO foreign policy.

The most frequent question is about aiding Ukraine. Slovakia does not have any military equipment left to aid the war-torn country, and it is extremely unlikely that Slovakia would stop contributing to the EU’s financial mechanisms that provide financial assistance to Ukraine, given the EU consensus on doing so, which includes Hungary.

How far can the Smer-led coalition go in the anti-system direction?

Fico’s party faces multiple challenges. Firstly, the party adopted an overly anti-system stance in its election campaign. Smer’s radical wing, led by communist Luboš Blaha, has always been fond of Kremlin narratives. However, highlighting that peace always comes from the East while war always arrives from the West, and making other claims, have caught the attention of many international observers and put the West on alert.

Furthermore, the most likely coalition partner for Smer is the Slovak National Party, whose leader, Andrej Danko, claimed that he envies Russians for their passports and gained notoriety for bowing to Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Victory Day Parade in Moscow in 2019. At the same time, Danko admitted former MPs to the party who ran with the far-right ĽSNS in the 2020 elections. Given these factors, it is no wonder that Slovakia’s western partners are concerned about the prospect of having Smer and SNS as cornerstones of the future Slovak government.

However, there is little evidence pointing to Slovak resentment or to the truly pro-Russian course of Robert Fico or even Andrej Danko. Both have a clear history of following Brussels’ playbook, and it was not too long ago that Andrej Danko vocally supported the EU during his trips to Brussels as parliamentary speaker.

At the same time, while Slovakia is too economically dependent on Germany and France to shift its foreign policy orientation, Robert Fico has proven numerous times that he is a rational actor that understands the politics playbook like no other politician in the modern history of the country. As a result, he is unlikely to endanger the stability of the country.

However, it is very likely that domestic messaging will remain anti-Ukrainian or critical towards Brussels, which may strain relations between Brussels and Slovakia. It is also likely that Slovakia might align with Poland and Hungary on conservative agendas or criticisms of the Green Deal and its implementation. Yet, the real implications of the recent election are going to be revealed in the subsequent months when the newly formed coalition starts managing the country.

Moreover, multiple voices in the country are pressing Hlas to form a coalition with progressives and liberals, which shows a misunderstanding of Slovak politics. Such a coalition would mean political disaster for Pellegrini’s party. Most Hlas voters prefer to govern with Smer, as it was their second choice, and the same goes for the party members. Therefore, Pellegrini would not only risk an exodus of voters but also see his membership base thin out.

In contrast, Hlas can become a counterbalance to anti-system narratives within the Smer-led coalition. Needless to say, there are no good choices for centre-left social democrats like Pellegrini today, even if he gets the prime minister’s seat as he demands. Nevertheless, there is a good chance that Hlas will counterbalance any anti-system agendas in the future Slovak government.

On the other hand, Smer and SNS were not elected with anti-system messaging by chance; they tapped into the prevailing moods in society. The results of the Slovak elections and the messaging seen in Poland’s election campaign should serve as a wake-up call for the EU. The current situation is not just about “bad populists” or “Kremlin propaganda”, but rather a manifestation of anti-system sentiments within the general population in Central and Eastern Europe.

Jozef Hrabina is a lifelong devotee of international relations. His research focuses on strategic security, great power relations in the 21st century, multipolar systems stability, Eurasia, geopolitics, geoeconomics and interconnection between geopolitics and trade. Holding PhDs, he is studying international relations on both academic and commercial levels. Jozef now runs his own consultancy, GeopoLytics, dealing with geopolitical, macroeconomic and political risks intelligence.

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