Tim Haughton and Darina Malova explain the political dynamics of the upcoming and consequential elections in Slovakia, which take place on 30 September.
The search for clean government and competent leadership continues. Slovakia goes to the polls on 30 September in potentially highly consequential parliamentary elections. Much discussion has focused on the geopolitical ramifications, especially whether Slovakia will continue to be a staunch ally of Ukraine. But domestic politics will largely determine the outcome.
Robert Fico and his party Smer (‘Direction’) lead in the opinion polls. Fico fulminates against the West, NATO, and what he portrays as America’s proxy war against Russia, labelling Slovakia’s president Zuzana Caputova as an American agent. Leading figures in Smer laud Russia for its role in defeating fascism in World War Two and promise to halt the supply of weapons to Ukraine. They call for peace, but a compromise peace-settlement likely to involve Ukraine having to accept the loss of territory, indicating a Fico led government would take a distinctly pro-Putin position.
However, conscious of the flow of EU-funds and the heavy dependency of Slovakia’s economy on European markets his criticisms of the European Union focus more on the EU being in the wrong hands.
Thanks to Russian disinformation, blaming the West for the war is popular with significant slices of the Slovak electorate. But despite the foreign policy implications of the election, the seeds of Smer’s success were sown long before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Three-time prime minister Robert Fico is a perennial of Slovak politics. Prominent since the mid-1990s, Fico formed his party Smer in 1999 promising fresh faces and a new direction. The party’s transformation over the years is epitomized by its name changes. In a nod to the politics of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder, the suffix ‘Third Way’ was added in the mid-1990s which was replaced by ‘Social Democracy’ in the mid-2000s, and amended to Slovak Social Democracy in recent years to underline the ‘national’ as well as the ‘socialist’ appeal.
Smer lost power in 2020 thanks to the widespread revulsion of the murder of a journalist and his fiancée. Those events and the subsequent investigations exposed links between politicians, shady businessmen and organs of the state. The winner of those elections, Igor Matovic’s Ordinary People, stormed to victory riding a wave of discontent with Fico and promises to root out corruption.
Despite some successes in battling corruption, the high hopes associated with the new coalition government quickly faded. Covid, inflation linked to the Ukraine war, and a cost of living crisis would have been tough challenges for any government. But spats between leading figures from different parties over policy differences and governing style eroded support for the government and led to the disintegration of the coalition.
Matovic, who served first as prime minister and then finance minister, is a politician whose stunts and crude rhetoric are better suited to being an opposition campaigner than leading a country through a pandemic and hard economic times. Some other prominent politicians in the coalition also seemed keener on the personal battles and playing pantomime politics in parliament than tackling the tough challenges facing ordinary Slovaks.
Fico makes much of the chaotic nature of government in the past few years. Smer’s simple message is to promise stability and ‘poriadok’ (‘order’). Pointing to his record as prime minister, Fico argues he is the man to give the country the leadership it needs to tackle challenges in sectors like healthcare and infrastructure.
In a campaign speech in the central Slovak town of Ziar nad Hronom two weeks ahead of polling day Fico returned to an old well-worn message, depicting the choice as being a government led by Smer or the chaos of a ‘zlepenec’ (‘a glued-together hack job’).
Although Smer’s 20% in the opinion polls mean any Fico-led government will have glued-together characteristics, the alternative to a Smer-led government would be a multi-party coalition with some uncomfortable bedfellows. The latter would involve some combination of former Fico lieutenants from the left-leaning party Hlas, Boris Kollar’s We Are Family which blends pragmatic, traditionalist and populist appeals, and the market liberals from Freedom and Solidarity whose departure led to the collapse of Slovakia’s last two reformist coalition governments.
The party most likely to be at the helm of a non-Fico government is Progressive Slovakia (PS). Keen to burnish their expertise and know-how the party launched a detailed programme of policy solutions to the problems facing Slovakia under the strap line, ‘plan for the future’.
PS’s socially-liberal and economically reformist ideological stance has limited appeal, particularly among older and conservative voters in the poorer rural areas. However, thanks to Slovakia’s 5% electoral threshold for parties (and 7% for electoral coalitions) PS may benefit from a bandwagon effect, as anti-Fico voters tempted to vote for parties running below 5% in the polls seek the electoral vehicle best placed to defeat Smer. The party’s relative newness and the absence of any major corruption scandals may attract voters beyond its core of younger and Bratislava-based voters.
Given that half a dozen parties are hovering around the electoral threshold and partisan attachments are weak, the outcome of the election remains in the balance, not least as a slice of voters have not decided whether and for whom to cast their ballots.
A desire to prevent Fico returning to power may be a strong enough glue for PS to put together a coalition, but the history of reformist governments in Slovakia highlight their tendency to come unstuck thanks to inflated egos, personality clashes, and an unwillingness to understand the need for compromise and deal making.
Thanks to the complicated electoral arithmetic there is a strong chance neither Smer nor PS will be in a position to form a government. Like the inconclusive outcomes of recent elections in Bulgaria and Spain, Slovakia may be faced with a set of early elections next year. On 30 September voters will have a significant decision, but the outcome may ultimately not be decisive.
By Tim Haughton Professor of Comparative and European Politics and a Deputy Director of the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation (CEDAR), University of Birmingham and Darina Malova, Professor of Political Science, Comenius University in Bratislava.