Why Slovakia’s election threatens to put the country on a Hungarian-like path to illiberalism

Slovakia has had three governments in as many years and will soon have another, with elections just over three weeks away. But this time, the country’s democracy and geopolitical alignment could be at stake.

Slovakia was the first country to send Ukraine air-defence missiles and fighter jets after Russia invaded in February 2022. Now, however, with a pro-Russia populist, former prime minister Robert Fico of the Smer party, leading in polls ahead of this month’s elections, the NATO member could also be the first of Kyiv’s supporters in the EU to end its support, joining Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán in opposition to further arms shipments and sanctions. 

The September 30 elections come after years of political turmoil and resignations. Fico (pictured above) served as prime minister from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2012 until he resigned in 2018 in the aftermath of the targeted murder of 27-year-old investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée in their home.

Kuciak had been investigating business ties between the Italian mafia and two of Fico’s senior advisers at the time of his assassination. Kuciak was also researching a deal between the Slovak government and the country’s biggest privately-owned security firm, owned a relative of then-police president Tibor Gašpar. 

The killing was alleged to have been organised by an entrepreneur, Marián Kočner, who had previously confronted Kuciak over his investigations and hired former intelligence agents and police officers to spy on Kuciak and other journalists who threatened his business deals. Kočner was later acquitted of ordering Kuciak’s killing, but was sentenced to 19 years in prison for financial crimes.

When mass protests in Slovakia demanded accountability and resignations, Fico claimed Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros was behind the demonstrations in an attempt discredit them but was nonetheless eventually forced to resign along with Gašpar and longtime Smer interior minister Róbert Kaliňák. 

A series of three fragile and short-lived coalition governments in as many years has followed. The current technocratic caretaker government was appointed by president Zuzana Čaputová this May after the previous government was engulfed by a corruption scandal involving the agriculture ministry. Čaputová, a progressive, beat a Smer candidate in the second round of the 2019 presidential election but earlier this year said she would not be seeking a second term in office.

In April 2022, Fico and Kaliňák were charged with establishing organised crime groups within state structures—running a so-called “mafia state” from office—and using classified tax files to smear political rivals. However, Prosecutor General Maros Zilinka canceled the investigations into both Fico and Kaliňák in November 2022, on the grounds they were “unreasonable”.  

Russian nesting doll of corruption 

It had been hoped that the early elections called for this month would deliver a mandate to a new government, but another corruption scandal involving the chief of the counter-intelligence service (SIS) is being used by Fico to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the results. 

Gašpar—first arrested in 2020 in connection with Kuciak’s murder—was again arrested in August this year, this time for alleged corruption. Nevertheless, he is standing as a Smer candidate for parliament. 

On August 17, Slovakian police president Stefan Hamran said SIS director Michal Aláč, former SIS head Vladimír Pčolinský, and director of the National Security Authority, Roman Konečný, were involved in a criminal conspiracy within the security forces that manipulated corruption investigations into current and former high-profile politicians—with several former police and intelligence officers also implicated. On August 18, Alac was taken into custody and subsequently fired by Čaputová. 

Among the investigations Aláč and Pčolinský stand accused on manipulating are those into Fico and various members of his past Smer governments. 

Fico has called the arrests a “police coup.”  

“Let’s forget about the war within the police and speak very clearly here,” Fico said shortly after the charges were made public. “Representatives of the government, the president and the progressive part of the political spectrum in Slovakia are trying to gain control of all state forces.” 

A new face for continuity? 

Since resigning as prime minister in 2018, Fico has become increasingly radical and heterodox. A vocal critic of anti-Covid measures and vaccines, he was arrested in 2021 amid a surge of infections in Slovakia as he tried to stage a protest that violated restrictions on crowd sizes. He is a vocal admirer of self-styled “illiberal” Orbán and has pledged to end military aid to Ukraine and improve relations with Russia.  

Smer maintains a lead in the polls, but no party is on track to win a majority. Smer polls at roughly 20 per cent while liberal Progresívne Slovensko (PS) comes in second with roughly 16 per cent of support. To secure a governing coalition, Fico would likely need to partner with the neo-fascist Republika party, currently polling in fourth place with around nine per cent. 

“Fico’s campaign of hate and extremism illustrates just how much is riding on this election for the region and the whole EU, as well as Slovak democracy,” says Vice-President of the European Parliament and leader of PS, Michal Šimečka. 

PS is running on a campaign for same-sex marriage and support for Ukraine. Šimečka says PS would refuse to partner with Smer or far-right parties but is otherwise open to partner with any party that will allow it to keep Fico out of power.  

“The inability of centrist parties to work together is the core problem in Slovak politics,” Šimečka says. “We’re trying to reduce conflict during the campaign and to concentrate on the broad consensus with the others on core democratic values.” 

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