For Ukraine and for the EU, Slovakia’s election results offer much cause for concern

Whoever forms Slovakia’s next government, serious questions need to asked as to how a rabidly pro-Moscow politician can be the clear winner of an election in an EU member state. 

That an unambiguously pro-Moscow politician could win an election in any country that neighbours Ukraine—which Russia invaded in February 2022—should be unthinkable. 

And yet on September 30 voters in Slovakia handed a clear victory to Robert Fico, an erstwhile prime minister whose right-wing Smer party took almost 23 per cent of the vote, well ahead of its closest rival Progressive Slovakia (PS) on just under 18 per cent. 

Forced to resign as prime minister in 2018 after widespread protests which followed the murder of an investigative journalist, Ján Kuciak, who had reported on corruption among the country’s elite, including people directly connected to Smer and its leader, Fico now has a chance to return to the PM’s office but must first seek coalition partners. 

Smer’s victory over its closest challenger may have been clear but the party is well short of a parliamentary majority. Fico—and, indeed, any potential prime minister—will need the support of Hlas, a social democratic party led by Peter Pellegrini, who served as foreign minister in Fico’s government. The party won 15 per cent of the vote. 

“Hlas will be a party without which it will be impossible to form any kind of normal, functioning coalition government,” Pellegrini said on October 1, adding that the party will “make the right decision” to become part of a government that will lead Slovakia out of the “decay and crisis that [Slovakia’s current government] got us into.” 

This has already been interpreted by some analysts as a sign that Pellegrini is ready to back his old boss, who spent much of the election campaign promising to end unilateral Slovak military aid to Ukraine and to join Hungary in an awkward squad preventing the EU from offering as much support as it would like.  

Slovakia has been hitherto a key ally to Kyiv, supplying surface-to-air missiles and helicopters, as well as its entire fleet of retired MiG-29 fighter jets. 

Both Pellegrini and his party fudged their positions on Ukraine during the election campaign. Pellegrini has previously suggested Slovakia “has nothing left to donate” to Kyiv, but also said that the country should continue to manufacture ammunition that is shipped to Ukraine. 

Fico meanwhile is on record as claiming that “Ukrainian Nazis and fascists” caused the war. On October 2 he said that he was ready to hold talks with other parties but that his core message had not changed: “We are prepared to help Ukraine in a humanitarian way and we are prepared to help with the reconstruction of the state. But we will not be arming Ukraine. People in Slovakia have more important problems than Ukraine.”  

A stuttering economy

Indeed, Slovakia’s stuttering economy is one of the reasons behind Fico’s victory. While the national unemployment rate averaged 6.1 per cent in 2022, it remains over nine per cent in Slovakia’s eastern regions which border Ukraine and where support for Smer is particularly strong.

Amid high inflation, real wages declined in 2022 and GDP growth amounted to a meagre 1.7 per cent. Growth in 2023 is expected to reach just 0.6 per cent.

Slovakia has been without a proper government since last December, when a broad coalition government led Eduard Heger was ousted in a no-confidence vote following months of political crisis. Heger’s Democrats took less than three per cent of the vote, well short of the five per cent parliamentary threshold.

Unsurprisingly, the first foreign leader to offer Fico congratulations was Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. “Guess who’s back!” he said, in a post on X/Twitter in English, adding that it was, “always good to work with a patriot.” Much of Smer’s campaign mimicked that of Orbán’s Fidesz, attacking migrants (against whom Fico said he was prepared to use force), George Soros and the EU.

Fico was not congratulated by Slovakia’s president, the progressive Zuzana Čaputová, who is taking legal action against the Smer leader after receiving death threats from his supporters. In a short address on October 2, she confirmed that Fico would be given the first opportunity to form a coalition, but that she would also be speaking with Michal Šimeček, the leader of PS, and with Pellegrini.

‘Bad news for Slovakia’

Indeed, should Fico and Pellegrini fail to find enough common ground, it will be Šimečka waiting in the wings. Despite winning fewer seats than Smer, he has insisted that his party can still find a route to forming a ruling coalition.  

“We fully respect Smer’s victory, but at the same time perceive it as bad news and a huge risk for Slovakia,” said Šimečka. “The coming days and negotiations will show how realistic the fulfillment of this risk will be.” 

Progressive Slovakia says it offers a vision of an “open, tolerant, cosmopolitan society” and has advocated following a liberal line within the European Union on issues such as green policies and LGBT+ rights. 

Šimečka was keen to point out that of the 33 female MPs elected, 16 are from his party. “Women have the same talent, diligence and expertise as men. If they want to be in politics, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be given the same chances as men. I am glad they have a home in the PS,” he said. 

While the performance of a such an openly progressive party in emerging Europe is encouraging, Smer’s victory will be viewed by liberals across the region—and beyond—as alarming. 

Whoever forms Slovakia’s next government, serious questions will need to asked as to how—given the current geopolitical situation—a rabidly pro-Moscow party can be the clear winner of an election in an EU member state.

Photo: Robert Fico, then Slovakia’s PM, at a European Council meeting in December 2017. © European Union.

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