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Slovakia: Scandal overshadows pivotal election

September 6, 2023

A scandal has engulfed Slovakia's police and intelligence community just weeks before a key parliamentary election.

Election posters for the OLANO and Smer-SD parties in Slovakia, August 2023
EU and NATO member Slovakia, which is currently led by a caretaker government, is due to elect a new parliament on September 30Image: Vaclav Salek/dpa/picture alliance

Less than four weeks before Slovaks go to the polls to elect a new parliament, the election is being overshadowed by a scandal within the country's police and intelligence community.

Things came to a head on Friday, August 18, when Slovak police took the chief of the counter-intelligence service SIS, Michal Alac, into custody for 48 hours, just a day after announcing that charges were being brought against him.

Although Alac was released two days later, he will face prosecution. The National Crime Agency suspects him of being involved in a criminal conspiracy within the security forces that manipulated corruption investigations into high-profile politicians and other current or former state figures.

President Zuzana Caputova subsequently fired him on the government's recommendation.

Alac is not the only high-ranking intelligence figure accused of abuse of power and criminal conspiracy. So, too, are his predecessor, Vladimir Pcolinsky, and five other police and intelligence officers.

What does this have to do with the election?

The case is highly relevant to Slovakia's election on September 30 because Alac and Pcolinsky are accused of trying to discredit investigators involved in major political corruption investigations into past governments led by the Smer-SD party and its leader, Robert Fico.

Both former three-time PM Robert Fico and former Interior Minister Robert Kalinak (both of Smer) were accused in April 2022 of establishing and supporting criminal groups within state structures.

However, Prosecutor General Maros Zilinka canceled the investigations into both politicians last November, justifying his decision with the controversial Paragraph 363 of the penal code, which allows the prosecutor general to stop any investigation in the country simply by declaring it unreasonable.

Front-runner speaks of 'police coup'

Fico is running for reelection this month, and his party, Smer, is currently ahead in the polls.

Robert Fico surrounded by people in masks, some using smartphones as cameras, 2021
Former three-time PM Robert Fico is running for re-election this month, and his party, Smer, is currently ahead in the pollsImage: Jaroslav Novák/TASR/dpa/picture alliance

"Let's forget about the war within the police and speak very clearly here," he said in a media statement on August 17, when the charges against Alac and the others 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."

He called the arrest of the SIS chief a "police coup" and an attempt to manipulate the elections. According to Fico, parties on the other side of the political spectrum are trying to smear him and Smer.

Will the scandal affect Fico's chances?

"Fico can really use this to his advantage," said political expert Jozef Lenc of the University of St. Cyril and Methodius in Trnava. Lenc told DW that Fico had predicted that the police would go after Smer long before any accusations were brought against him and the former interior minister. "Fico has put himself in the role of a prophet," Lenc said, adding that "some people might really see him as a visionary."

Slovak President Zuzana Caputova (left) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Presidential Palace, Bratislava, Slovakia, July 7, 2023
Under its current and previous governments, Slovakia has been staunchly pro-Ukraine in its stance. This could change if Robert Fico is returned to powerImage: Jaroslav Novak/TASR/AP/picture allaince

Polls confirm this analysis: The latest statistics show Smer as the strongest party, with about 20% of the vote. Progressive Slovakia, the second strongest party, is currently polling between 15 and 17%.

East or West?

Robert Fico is a controversial figure in Slovak politics. Not only is his name still connected to the country's biggest corruption cases, but he is also known for his pro-Russian rhetoric.

Fico disagrees with providing military aid to Ukraine and says that Slovakia should seek to have good relationships with both Russia and America.

He has also accused his political rivals of being American agents and "Soros-paid puppets." This refers to Hungarian-born billionaire and Holocaust survivor George Soros, whom right-wing governments and antisemitic conspiracy theorists routinely defame for his philanthropic activities in favor of liberal causes.

Pro-European party in second place

At the other end of the political spectrum is Progressive Slovakia, established in 2017 and has never been represented in the Slovak parliament. The party's young leader, Michal Simecka, is also a vice-president of the European Parliament.

Michal Simecka at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, September 12, 2022
Michal Simecka is head of Progressive Slovakia, which polls say is currently the second-strongest party in the countryImage: Dwi Anoraganingrum/Geisler-Fotop/picture alliance

Simecka is pro-European and pro-western, and his party is viewed as a centrist-liberal project that is popular mostly among young people.

While many have high hopes for Progressive Slovakia, political expert Jozef Lenc thinks its chances of forming a coalition are relatively slim: "Their chances would be higher if the elections had been scheduled earlier, but right now, Smer is growing rapidly, and Progressive Slovakia has no like-minded partner expect one: Freedom and Solidarity (SaS)."

Fico close to Orban

"Robert Fico is not the Robert Fico of 2016, who was more pro-western," Lenc told DW. "His rhetoric has changed to the point where he's now very close to [Hungary's Prime Minister] Viktor Orban, and that will probably not change much even though Fico during a campaign is different from Fico as prime minister."

Election poster for the Hlas party featuring its leader, Peter Pellegrini, Slovakia, August 2023
Hlas and its leader Peter Pellegrini emerged from the election in 2020 as one of the strongest parties in the country; now it is sliding in the pollsImage: Vaclav Salek/dpa/picture alliance

Although Fico has never publicly said anything about Slovakia leaving the EU or NATO, he has openly criticized many EU decisions, including its support for Ukraine and its environmental goals and the presence of American forces in Slovakia due to its NATO membership. The latest polls suggest he is becoming more popular among pro-Russian voters.

Lenc believes it is unlikely that a coalition can be formed without Smer.

One of the strongest parties in 2020, Hlas, and its leader, Peter Pellegrini, are losing support. Currently polling at about 13%, it is unlikely that Hlas will get enough votes to form a government.

Progressive Slovakia would have to rely on the support of several unlikely political bedfellows — including Hlas — even to consider forming a government. But with Hlas sliding in the polls, the chances of forming a government without Robert Fico as prime minister are slimmer by the day.

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan

A red-haired woman (Sona Otajovicova) stands beside a large shrub and smiles into the camera
Sona Otajovicova Bratislava-based Slovakia correspondent