By DPC Senior Associate Sharon Fisher
The results of Slovakia’s parliament election on 30 September attracted a wave of dramatic headlines, indicating that the country will “join Putin sympathizers” and destroy EU unity on aid to Ukraine. With the new government now taking shape, is the outlook really that grim?
On 11 October, the leaders of three parties signed a memorandum of understanding, promising to form a new government. A coalition agreement was signed on 16 October, outlining the division of ministerial and state secretary positions. Smer [Direction] will head six ministries plus the prime minister post, while Hlas [Voice] and the Slovak National Party (SNS) will have seven and three ministerial portfolios, respectively.
Although two of the three parties—Smer and Hlas—have “Social Democracy” in their official party name, the memorandum fails to mention social democratic values, aside from a vague promise to raise living standards. Instead of fighting for civil rights and protecting those who face exploitation and discrimination, the new coalition appears to prioritize the values promoted by the third partner—the right-wing SNS.
Despite being a member of the Party of European Socialists (PES), Smer has views that span the left-right spectrum and has never been a traditional social democratic party. A three-time prime minister, party chairman Robert Fico has criticized military aid to Ukraine, called for a relaxing of sanctions against Russia, spoken out against Muslim immigrants and LGBTQ rights, labeled competing politicians as “American servants,” and openly blasted Slovakia’s independent media and non-governmental organizations. In many ways, Fico’s rhetoric is reminiscent of Vladimír Mečiar’s, who led Slovakia to the brink of economic collapse and international isolation while serving as prime minister during the 1990s.
Although Smer initially came to power in 2006 on an anti-corruption platform, party associates have not escaped accusations of clientelism and abuse of power. The last time he held the post of prime minister, Fico was forced to resign in March 2018 following massive public protests stemming from the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. At the time of his death, Kuciak was writing about alleged corruption connected with Smer and links between the Italian mafia and Fico associates.
Smer’s 2023 electoral success was partly based on a pro-Russian disinformation campaign that has been raging on social media sites, particularly on Facebook. Fico and his associates have eagerly parroted Russian propaganda as a way of winning over disgruntled voters. For example, Fico claimed in late August that the war in Ukraine began when Ukrainian “Nazis and fascists” started murdering Russian citizens in Donbas and Luhansk in 2014.
Hlas, which split from Smer in 2020, was trying to position itself on the democratic left but has apparently been overshadowed by its new partners. At Hlas’s insistence, the memorandum of understanding promises to ensure Slovakia’s foreign policy orientation toward the EU and NATO; however, it adds that this will be done while “fully respecting the sovereignty and national interests of Slovakia and strengthening healthy patriotism.” Despite Smer’s generosity in giving Hlas seven government ministries, Smer took the top foreign policy portfolios—foreign affairs and defense—for itself, in addition to the key positions of finance and justice. Media reports indicate that the new foreign minister will be Juraj Blanár, a loyal Fico ally whose only foreign policy experience came when he served as deputy chairman of the parliamentary foreign relations committee in 2010-12. Hlas did get the interior ministry as well as the deputy prime minister for Eurofunds and the Recovery Plan.
On 12 October, the PES suspended the membership of both Smer and Hlas, which was an associated member of the group. That decision was based on a “clear divergence” from social democratic values and the pending coalition with a “radical-right party.”
Limitations on Smer power
Despite Hlas’s apparent weakness in promoting social democratic values, electoral math will play a role in moderating the emerging government. Smer won just 23.0% of the vote and 42 seats in the 150-member parliament, hardly a decisive victory. Meanwhile, the SNS gained 5.6% and 10 seats. That puts Fico in a far different position from Viktor Orbán, whose Fidesz party won 135 out of 199 seats in Hungary’s April 2022 parliamentary election. A worst-case scenario would have combined Smer-SD and the SNS with the far-right Republika [Republic]; however, that party narrowly failed to pass the 5% threshold needed to enter the parliament, as a radicalization of Fico’s rhetoric led some Republika voters to switch to Smer.
With just 52 seats in the parliament, Smer and SNS will rely on Hlas to secure a parliamentary majority. Led by former Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, Hlas won 27 seats in the election, enough to give Fico a slim majority of 79 seats. Although some Hlas representatives are content to join Smer in government, others were reportedly more reluctant. A shift toward full-blown Orbánism in actual policy could easily result in a collapse of the next government, especially if Slovakia—like Hungary—is blocked from receiving EU transfers. Another reason for caution relates to the potential for falling public support for Hlas. Indeed, all of Smer’s junior coalition partners in previous governments fared poorly in subsequent elections, and several never recovered.
A Fico-led government will not only have to contend with coalition partners and a much slimmer parliamentary majority than Fidesz enjoys in Hungary. President Zuzana Čaputová will also play a role in taming the government, with the power to veto legislation and reject the names of proposed government ministers. Another limitation on Smer’s power is that Slovak civil society is considerably more robust than in Hungary, where the non-profit sector and independent media have been decimated under the Fidesz leadership.
Does the center-right opposition have a chance?
A strong political opposition presents another obstacle for Fico. Four center-right parties won a combined 71 parliamentary seats in the election, putting them well ahead of Smer-SD and the SNS. These include Progressive Slovakia (PS), which gained 32 seats, OĽANO and Friends with 16 seats, the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) with 12 seats, and Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) with 11 seats. PS leader Michal Šimečka—a committed liberal whose Czech grandfather was a prominent dissident—is emerging as the leader of the opposition, and he recently returned to Bratislava, leaving his post as Vice President of the European Parliament.
Although the PS courted Hlas as a coalition partner, Pellegrini’s decision to join Fico stems from the experience of the last two center-right governments (from 2010-12 and 2020-23), which were plagued by internal squabbles and policy battles. Both of those governments lost support after the liberal SaS party pulled out, triggering early elections. Despite performing well in the 2019 European Parliament elections, PS did not play a role in the last government, having narrowly failed to make it to the Slovak parliament in 2020.
A government combining the center-right and Hlas may not currently find much common ground; however, Hlas could eventually decide that it is closer to the center-right than to Fico and the SNS, especially if the new government leads Slovakia away from democratic values and toward international isolation. Forcing the election winner into opposition is not uncommon in Slovakia’s post-communist history, as smaller parties have banded together three times to keep the victor out of office. This happened in 1998 and 2002 to Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and in 2010 to Smer.
The fact that Slovakia’s center-right parties performed as well as they did in the election is somewhat surprising, given the economic struggles of recent years associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The country was highly dependent on imports of Russian natural gas and fuel, and surging prices have hurt many households since the start of the war in February 2022. Eurostat data indicate that as a share of the EU average, Slovakia’s GDP per capita in purchasing power terms slipped to just 68% in 2022, tied with Greece for second-to-last place, with only Bulgaria trailing behind. That figure is down from a high of 79% in 2015, when Slovakia was ahead of most former Communist countries (aside from Czechia and Slovenia), as well as Portugal and Greece.
Slovakia’s economy is heavily dependent on the automotive industry, and policy makers will have to take steps to ensure that the country remains attractive for car manufacturers, especially given the shift toward electric vehicles. Diversification will be crucial. Although the country has the opportunity to take advantage of EU transfers for the shift toward green energy and digitalization, Slovakia has been a laggard in absorbing those funds, presenting a missed opportunity.
Investing in education and human capital development will also be an urgent priority. Although Slovak unemployment rates are higher than elsewhere in the Visegrad region, the country faces skilled labor shortages in certain sectors. Moreover, an ongoing brain drain presents risks for the country’s future development, a problem that is likely to worsen if young Slovaks are concerned about the direction that Fico is taking the country.
Another challenge will be promote more balanced economic growth across regions, a goal that would also benefit from EU funding. Eurostat data from 2021 indicate that while Bratislava’s GDP per capita in purchasing power terms stands well above the EU average (at 149%), the rest of the country is much poorer, with shares of just 51% for Eastern Slovakia, 57% for Central Slovakia, and 63% for Western Slovakia. In contrast, the poorest of neighboring Czechia’s eight regions is 61% of the EU average, while most others (outside Prague) are in the 72-79% range.
Lower living standards and reduced economic opportunities outside of the capital city have clearly fostered resentment and limited potential support for liberal parties. While the PS won the country’s largest cities (Bratislava, Košice), as well as the votes of Slovaks living abroad (which accounted for about 2% of the total), the electoral map indicates that Smer-SD prevailed in most of Slovakia’s 79 districts. Serving in opposition will give the center-right parties time to focus on strengthening regional and local structures and shoring up support in Slovakia’s smaller towns.
While many of Fico’s recent statements are alarming, Smer’s pre-election public discourse may differ from actual policy. Given the EU’s importance as a trade partner and source of transfers, Slovakia’s foreign policy is likely to remain broadly pro-European. After all, it was under Fico that the country adopted the euro in January 2009, a move that made Slovakia more integrated with the EU core than its Visegrad neighbors (Poland, Czechia, and Hungary).
There is more uncertainty about NATO and Russia, given that Fico has questioned Slovakia’s willingness to provide arms to Ukraine. Even so, economic interests are likely to prevail, as it is hard to imagine Fico telling the country’s weapons manufacturers—which have seen significant gains since the war began—that they can no longer sell arms to Ukraine, especially since many of these companies are based in smaller towns.
On the domestic front, efforts to fight endemic corruption and tackle disinformation are expected to suffer under a Fico-led government. While Slovakia’s Interior Ministry has been monitoring disinformation and taking steps against it, these efforts may end if the Fico government sees itself as benefiting from the spread of Russian propaganda. On the corruption front, the previous government named former justice and interior minister Daniel Lipšic as Special Prosecutor in December 2020, with the aim of fighting corruption and organized crime. The parliament approved Lipšic’s nomination for a seven-year term in February 2021. Viewing Lipšic as a threat, Fico has said that he wants to replace him as well as police chief Štefan Hamran, a move that would likely stall key corruption investigations, especially when related to associates of the new ruling parties. Although the coalition parties have vowed to reform the criminal justice system, that is understood by critics to mean protecting those allies who have been subject to investigations.
For long-term observers of Slovak politics, the latest election results may have been disappointing, but they were not catastrophic. Fico’s power will be limited by a number of factors, including a slim parliamentary majority, dependence on coalition partners, the strength of civil society and political opposition, as well as the need to ensure continued inflows of EU funds. Given the carrot of EU transfers, Brussels could play an important role in guaranteeing that the next government maintains the spirit of democracy and rule of law, ensuring that Slovakia does not go the way of Hungary. Also notable is the victory of opposition forces in Poland’s 15 October election, a result that is expected to bring Warsaw firmly back on a pro-EU path.