Strongman Robert Fico’s return to power in Slovakia

Strongman Robert Fico's return to power in Slovakia

Strongman Robert Fico’s return to power in Slovakia. Robert Fico, Slovakia’s former strongman prime minister, won parliamentary elections on September 30 and returned to power, defeating his liberal opponents by a significant margin.

Fico’s Smer-SD party won 23.3% of the vote, surpassing the liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS) party, which received just over 18%.

Following a high-profile campaign sparked by Fico’s improbable political resurgence, five additional parties surpassed the 5% threshold to enter parliament. The 68.5% participation rate was the highest in twenty years.

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His victory has numerous repercussions for the Central European country and will likely erode Western unity regarding Ukraine.

How Fico returned to Slovakia’s leadership

As leader of the nominally left-leaning Smer, Fico governed Slovakia for most of the past decade despite frequent accusations that he had transformed the nation into a “Mafia state.” To maintain relevance following his resignation following the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak, he adopted extremist and far-right rhetoric.

He was also aided by the three years of chaos that followed Smer’s ouster from office. The center-right coalition that emerged from the 2020 elections due to incompetence and infighting was incapable of handling the coronavirus pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine, and the cost-of-living crisis. A motion of no confidence in the coalition government in December 2022 led to this year’s early election.

Fico persuaded Slovaks that despite the corruption and lawlessness that flourished during his previous tenure, Smer was capable of stable governance.

According to public opinion polls, roughly half of Slovaks support Russia’s war in Ukraine. His promise to halt military support for Ukraine is consistent with these results. The populist politician has pledged that no bullet will cross Slovakia’s eastern border and hinted that he may seek to prevent additional European Union sanctions against Russia.

As the election neared, support for the PS increased due to fears that a Smer victory would lead to Slovakia’s isolation from its Western allies and damage its fragile democracy. Early exit polls indicated that the liberal party had triumphed, but as the night progressed, the margin of Smer’s victory became evident.

There was perceptible disappointment among the country’s liberals, with many utterly devastated by Fico’s return.

“Fico won, and after 12 years of criminal rule and almost 200 suspicious people from his surroundings, he was able to convince the majority of voters that his vision of Slovakia is better than anything else,” wrote Matus Kostolny, editor-in-chief of Dennik N, a liberal newspaper in Slovakia.

The only silver lining for proponents of democracy was that the neo-Nazi Republika failed to reach the 5% threshold required to enter parliament.

Could Fico form a coalition?

President Zuzana Caputova, a founder of the PS, stated before the election that she would charge the victor with forming a new government, presuming the victor could form a majority in the 150-member parliament.

Although negotiations are likely lengthy, the results indicate that Fico should have little difficulty forming a coalition. The Slovak National Party (SNS) narrowly passed the electoral threshold and is viewed as a natural ally for Smer. The same can be said about Hlas, which split from Smer in 2020.

Hlas received approximately 15% of the vote, placing it as kingmaker. Smer is projected to win 42 seats in the legislature, making the 27 seats that Hlas is projected to win crucial to the formation of any government. Hlas leader Peter Pellegrini, a former prime minister and protégé of Fico who has attempted to distance himself from his former mentor’s extremism, will likely make significant demands.

“Talks have not started yet, but the probability that Slovakia will have a Smer-Hlas-SNS government is very high,” said Grigorij Meseznikov, head of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava, the nation’s capital.

Optimism about moderation

There is still hope that the pro-European Pellegrini could assist the next government in moderating its policies. Some Western partners have been alarmed by Fico’s promise to suspend support for Ukraine. PS leader Michal Simecka expressed concern to DW that a Smer-led government could marginalize Slovakia within the EU, similar to Hungary.

Additionally, Fico has threatened to purge Slovakia’s police and justice system, which has spent the last three years attempting to dismantle corrupt networks that flourished during his previous administration.

Some believe Fico may moderate his views after securing his return to office.

Milan Nic, a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, remarked, “He understands how important it is for Slovakia to have access to EU funds and won’t want to invite scrutiny.”

Meseznikov cautions, however, that although Pellegrini “could try to moderate some policy, Smer and SNS will be dominant.”

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