Text resize: A A
Change contrast

Democratic backsliding and democratic resilience in Slovakia

As Slovaks head to the polls to vote in the second round of their country’s presidential election there is more at stake than the appointment of a new head of state. With the opposition and civil society united, Fico’s government could face a serious setback to its plans to capture more of the state.

April 5, 2024 - Roman Hlatky - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

An election billboard with presidential candidate Peter Pellegrini in Zvolen, Slovakia. Photo: LuFilu / Shutterstock

On March 15th, over 15,000 people demonstrated in Bratislava. Protesters opposed the government’s efforts to restructure – and thereby curtail the independence of – the state-funded public broadcaster, Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS). While these protests likely played a role in the government’s decision to wait with its proposal, the multiple, sustained demonstrations against Prime Minister Robert Fico and his government’s efforts to systematically undermine the rule of law in Slovakia have seen few other successes.

Much has been written about the government’s autocratizing efforts – for example, here, here, and here. They range from petty – like removing former chief of police Štefan Hamran from office a couple of days before his retirement and relocating him to a regional headquarters far away from his home and family – to unapologetically consequential – like the dissolution of the Office of the Special Prosecutor, the institution responsible for investigating and prosecuting the highest cases of political corruption.

To understand these developments and to predict their future course, three questions need to be answered. First, what explains the motivations of the current government? Second, why does Robert Fico’s party, Smer-SD, continue to top the public opinion polls? And, finally, what are the prospects for democratic resilience?

Threats to the rule of law in Slovakia

Above all, Fico is a pragmatist whose decisions can be explained by two mutually reinforcing goals: staying in power and staying out of jail. To understand why Slovakia no longer has a special prosecutor or why the Slovak president has lost the power to nominate the heads of independent state offices, we need to go back to February 29th, 2020. On that day, Smer lost an election. This loss paved the way for the anti-corruption, populist OĽaNO and its leader, Igor Matovič, to take power. And for all of its faults – and there were many – the OĽaNO led government started to effectively unravel the system of corruption built over a decade plus of Smer-led rule.

Matovič’s promise (and favorite slogan) was that he would “free up the hands of the police.” And that he did – between 2020 and 2023, more than 40 current and former officials and politicians associated with Smer rule were tried for corruption and other related charges. The investigations even got close to Fico and other top party members, like current defense minister, Robert Kaliňák. If it was not for the general prosecutor’s liberal use of Article 363 – which allows the General Prosecutor’s Office to annul charges if any part of the related investigation was carried out illegally – it is possible that Fico would have stood trial.

This possibility motivated Smer’s conservative shift in the run up to the 2023 election. The shift was not only a vote-seeking strategy intended to capitalize on anti-Ukraine and socioculturally conservative sentiments amongst segments of the Slovak electorate; it was also a way to differentiate Smer from its closest competitor: Hlas – the splinter party led by former prime minister and high-ranking member of Smer, Peter Pellegrini. After the 2020 election, Pellegrini, reassured by his own popularity and seeing Smer as a potentially sinking ship, formed a more moderate social democratic alternative. For a while, it looked as if the move would lead to electoral victory.

However, rising anti-Ukraine sentiment, phantom migrants, and the increasing cost of living combined with the disorder and inefficiency of the OĽaNO-led government made Smer’s victory in the September 2023 election possible. Pellegrini, faced with the choice of governing with his old colleagues in Smer or with second-place Progressive Slovakia, chose the former. We can only speculate as to what exactly motivated Pellegrini’s decision. However, the promise of Smer’s support in the presidential election may have played a role, just like the fact that Hlas party members were once Smer party members and helped build the system that tolerated and facilitated corruption.

And so, the stage was set. Smer and its coalition partners could now put a stop to the anti-corruption efforts. More importantly, they could ensure that, even if they once again lost power, they would not have to fear investigations, charges, or trials. First, the most prominent investigators – even those under official whistleblower protection – were removed from duty. Then, the government decided that police officers should not get whistleblower protection at all. Fortunately, public opposition led to the tabling of that proposal. Second, the government replaced some potentially unfriendly judges. Third, they attempted to lower the statutes of limitations and the punishments for economic-related crimes like bribery. Although the Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic stopped these changes, it did not stop, fourth, the dissolution of the biggest thorn in the government’s side: the Office of the Special Prosecutor. The government also made sure to pass these reforms as quickly as possible, often bypassing the standard legislative procedure.

The government’s choices follow a clear pattern. Democratic backsliding can occur across a range of institutions and policy areas. The current government has few qualms about attacking the media, threatening unfriendly NGOs, and politicizing minoritized communities. Yet, these are not priorities; nor are changes to the electoral system or to the laws that govern the opposition’s ability to mobilize. Instead, threats to the rule of law have taken the form of self-serving, instrumental changes that protect Smer and its allies from future prosecution. Fico’s Slovakia is not Orbán’s Hungary – at least not yet.

What explains the government’s popularity?

Despite these threats to the rule of law, Smer remains popular. In public opinion polls, the party consistently finishes ahead of its biggest rival, Progressive Slovakia. The same polls indicate that support for Pellegrini’s Hlas has increased since the election. Three factors underpin this popularity.

First – and most importantly – both parties promised a strong social state and stability. To voters, these promises were all the more appealing given the disorder and turmoil of the preceding governments and the rising cost of living in Slovakia. Smer and Hlas prioritized lowering the prices of groceries, increasing pension payments, and helping those struggling with mortgage payments.

For the most part, the government has taken the steps necessary to convince voters that they are living up to these promises. Since coming to power, the government has benefited from falling prices, even if they may have had little to do with them. Likewise, expanded pension payments have also been a priority – often at the expense of long-term fiscal stability. And, at the start of the year and with some difficulties, the government started a mortgage payment assistance program.

Second, Smer has successfully politicized the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. In Brussels, Fico may still play the role of a hesitant, but ultimately willing, partner; at home, however, his rhetoric has been anti-War at best and anti-Ukraine at worst. Smer capitalizes on underlying pro-Russian, anti-NATO sentiments amongst segments of the Slovak electorate to push a message of “peace”. Digging a little deeper, it is not hard to see that by “peace”, Smer means Ukraine’s capitulation. Even Pellegrini, who long promised that he and Hlas would guarantee Slovakia’s Euro-Atlantic commitments, has adopted similar rhetoric. The possibility of losing the presidential election may explain the shift. Reaffirming that Slovakia’s foreign policy looks towards the West and the East plays well with many Slovaks.

Third, compared to their Central European neighbors, Slovaks are more likely to believe conspiracy theories and are more skeptical of the mainstream media. Given these dynamics, Slovakia consistently ranks at the top of disinformation-vulnerability indices. Thus, “alternative” media sources – many of which also directly promote Kremlin-linked disinformation – have proliferated and are popular amongst Slovaks. Smer and Hlas have effectively used these “alternative” media channels to appeal to their supporters.

In the run-up to the first round of the presidential election, the “alternative” news source Extra Plus, printed an issue that praised Pellegrini and his campaign. Normally, the circulation of the magazine is around 150,000 issues. The issue covering Pellegrini was printed over 450,000 times and reached every fifth household. Perhaps most controversially, Matúš Šutaj Eštok, minister of the interior and one of Pellegrini’s closest allies, appeared on the talk show of Danny Kollár (né Daniel Bombic). Kollár, one of the “stars” of the Slovak disinformation scene, currently resides in the United Kingdom, and has three warrants out for his arrest in Slovakia. Šutaj Eštok’s visit was preceded by visits from Fico, Kaliňák, and other high-ranking members of the current government. These visits not only legitimize these media, but they also allow members of the government to appeal to a different audience.

This audience – anti-EU, pro-Russian, and socioculturally conservative – now forms a core constituency of the current government, and will be key to determining whether Pellegrini walks away with a victory in the second round of presidential elections.

Prospects for democratic resilience

Alongside slowing down the implementation of some laws, anti-government demonstrations have also mobilized the voters of presidential hopeful, Ivan Korčok. The protests have given Korčok the platform to present his vision – a Slovakia where politicians respect the rule of law and maintain its Euro-Atlantic commitments. Most importantly, the parties that compose the Slovak opposition – ranging from the conservative Christian Democratic Movement to the liberal Progressive Slovakia – have stood by his side. Even the wildcard, Igor Matovič, has largely avoided disparaging Korčok’s campaign. The opposition’s unified support and sustained mobilization against the government helped contribute to Korčok’s surprising – and convincing – victory in the first round of the presidential election.

The Office of the President has limited powers in Slovakia. As such, Korčok’s victory against Pellegrini in the second round would not stop or reverse the trajectory of autocratization. However, the head of state can slow and frustrate the government’s plans. This is exactly what happened when the current president, Zuzana Čaputová, referred the controversial changes to Slovakia’s criminal code to the Constitutional Court. The court went on to rule portions of the law unconstitutional. These are the types of actions Korčok promised his voters: unlike Pellegrini, he will not simply follow the government’s orders.

These dynamics highlight a larger point: institutions that protect against democratic backsliding remain largely independent in Slovakia. This includes the courts, the media, NGOs, and the Office of the President (at least for now). Moreover, a united opposition has successfully mobilized a significant portion of the electorate in the defence of democracy. Whether these mobilizations will translate to electoral success in the second round of the presidential election and in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections remains to be seen. Regardless of electoral results, the symbolic importance of the strong societal response should not be understated.

Thus far, the EU has played the role of wary bystander. Letters of concern from the European Commission and the European Prosecutor’s Office, as well as the European Parliament’s resolution questioning Slovakia’s trajectory, have given weight to the opposition’s claims. Yet, these steps have had limited impact on the government’s actions. The most important lever the EU can pull is financial. Slovakia is heavily dependent on EU structural funds, and anything that puts that funding at risk would be deeply unpopular and lead to electoral consequences for the government. And as the commission’s letter warned, stopping funding is a real possibility. Hopefully, if push comes to shove, the EU will not be afraid to pull the lever.

Nonetheless, the real source of democratic resilience is domestic. If the opposition continues to present a unified alternative and if society continues to mobilize in defence of the rule of law, these actions will influence results at the ballot-box. They certainly did in the first round of the presidential election. And they certainly will on Saturday when Slovaks choose their next president – whether it will be enough remains to be seen.

Roman Hlatky is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas

Please support New Eastern Europe's crowdfunding campaign. Donate by clicking on the button below.


, , , , ,


Terms of Use | Cookie policy | Copyryight 2024 Kolegium Europy Wschodniej im. Jana Nowaka-Jeziorańskiego 31-153 Kraków
Agencja digital: hauerpower studio krakow.
We use cookies to personalise content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyse our traffic. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. View more
Cookies settings
Privacy & Cookie policy
Privacy & Cookies policy
Cookie name Active
Poniższa Polityka Prywatności – klauzule informacyjne dotyczące przetwarzania danych osobowych w związku z korzystaniem z serwisu internetowego https://neweasterneurope.eu/ lub usług dostępnych za jego pośrednictwem Polityka Prywatności zawiera informacje wymagane przez przepisy Rozporządzenia Parlamentu Europejskiego i Rady 2016/679 w sprawie ochrony osób fizycznych w związku z przetwarzaniem danych osobowych i w sprawie swobodnego przepływu takich danych oraz uchylenia dyrektywy 95/46/WE (RODO). Całość do przeczytania pod tym linkiem
Save settings
Cookies settings