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Slovakia decides: Democracy's future at stake in election

March 21, 2024

In Slovakia's critical election, the democratic path is at stake, with Peter Pellegrini among key figures defining the debate. This vote decides Slovakia's commitment to democratic principles amid regional shifts.

A man walks past election posters of two presidential candidates: Ivan Korcok (left) and Peter Pellegrini (right), Bratislava, Slovakia, March 15, 2024
With just days to go until the first round of the presidential election in Slovakia, polls suggest that Ivan Korcok (left) and Peter Pellegrini (right) are the front-runnersImage: Tomas Tkacik/Sipa/Sopa/picture alliance

Voters in Slovakia head to the polls to vote in the first round of the presidential election on March 23. Should none of the 11 candidates — all of whom are men — win 50% of the vote, then the two leading contenders would face off two weeks later.

The eventual winner will replace Zuzana Caputova. The former civil activist was heralded as a great liberal hope when elected president in 2019, but she has declined to run for a second term.

The presidency in Slovakia is mostly ceremonial, but the country's president can play a significant role if, as has been the case recently, the president and prime minister come from opposing sides of the political spectrum. Caputova has remained non-partisan, stood on the side of democracy and the rule of law and clearly established Slovakia's pro-Western foreign policy, said Radoslav Stefancik from the University of Economics in Bratislava.

The departing president, who has sued the country's Prime Minister Robert Fico for labeling her a traitor, says she does not have the energy to survive another five years of Slovakia's rough-and-tumble politics, citing threats against her family.

Caputova's decision was met with disappointment. It's thought she would have had a good chance of winning thanks to her strong track record and lack of affiliation with any of the country's incessantly warring political parties.


Slovak President Zuzana Caputova attends a commemorative act outside Charles University to honor the victims of the December shooting at the Faculty of Arts, Prague, Czech Republic, March 18, 2024
President Zuzana Caputova is not running for a second term in Saturday's presidential electionImage: Vit Simanek/CTK/IMAGO

Rifts with a close neighbor

In her last major standoff with Fico, a populist and nationalist, Caputova used her presidential powers to challenge legislation that would weaken the country's fight against corruption and organized crime.

Fico returned to power in October after his Smer party won the general election. He resigned in 2018 amid corruption accusations and the murder of a journalist who had been investigating government graft. Fico has been accused of allowing crime networks and corruption to flourish during his tenure between 2012 and 2018, and many figures close to him have been under investigation.

In recent months, Fico's new government's push to amend the penal code has brought thousands onto the streets in protest. Further demonstrations were called in mid-March as plans to seize control of public media emerged.

Protesters in a large crowd hold up their mobile phones and shine lights in the darkness as they take part in an anti-government demonstration, Slovakia, March 15, 2024
The Slovak government's plans for a restructuring of public broadcaster RTVS have brought people out onto the streets in large numbersImage: Jaroslav Novak/dpa/TASR Slovakia/AP/picture alliance

These attacks on democratic institutions have eaten into a previously significant lead in the presidential polls enjoyed by Peter Pellegrini, the current speaker of Slovakia's parliament and Fico's protege. His support has dropped to around 37%, and Pellegrini is now looking over his shoulder as Ivan Korcok, the staunchly pro-Western foreign minister in the last government, gains ground.

Fico's increasingly extreme pro-Russian rhetoric has indirectly helped Korcok, with his poll numbers now around 35%.

This mobilization of moderate voters will likely continue, thanks to an unprecedented spat with the Czech Republic. In early March, the Czech Republic's pro-Ukrainian government suspended intergovernmental consultations with its Slovakian neighbor, canceling joint meetings with the Slovak cabinet over an apparent shift in attitude towards Ukraine.

Slovak PM Robert Fico (left) gesticulates as he and Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala (right) walk alongside each other on the occasion of the meeting of prime ministers of the Visegrad Four V4 countries, Prague, Czech Republic, February 27, 2024
Before the split: Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico (left) and Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala Image: Ondrej Deml/CTK/IMAGO

"The rift with the Czechs, who are seen as our close brothers, is very sensitive and suggests to many that something is very wrong," Tomas Koziak, a political analyst at the University of International Business ISM Slovakia, told DW.

Pellegrini unlikely to stand up to Fico

Yet Korcok, a former foreign minister, is not a trouble-free candidate. He remains tainted by his time in the previous four-party coalition government. Many voters feel the coalition's internal sniping took precedence over guiding Slovakia through the COVID-19 pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis. This saw it unceremoniously dumped by voters last year in favor of Fico.

So although the experienced diplomat looks likely to be swept into a second round by voters aghast at Fico's antics, Korock will then need to mobilize undecided moderates.

Meanwhile, Pellegrini hopes to engage those voters supporting the nationalist and more extremist candidates who are likely to drop out in the first round.

Headshot of Peter Pellegrini attending a ceremony to mark the appointment of a new government in Bratislava, Slovakia, October 25, 2023
If elected, it's unlikely that Pellegrini would attempt to moderate Fico's policiesImage: CTK/dpa/picture alliance

Is Slovakia following in Hungary's footsteps?

The constitution gives the Slovak president little power: The president can veto legislation, but the veto can be overridden by a simple parliamentary majority. However, the president also nominates judges and prosecutors and plays an important role in the functioning of democratic institutions. Perhaps most pertinently, the post is highly symbolic and molds the political tone. 

If Korcok wins, he "would at least seek to delay any controversial reforms and hold Fico accountable in the eyes of the public," said Andrius Tursa, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence, a London-based risk consultancy. "He would be visible in the international arena and mitigate Fico's pro-Russian rhetoric. Hence the country's political polarization would be on full display in the domestic and foreign domains."

If Pellegrini wins, many worry that would hand Fico more control because, analysts say, there's little hope that he would seek to moderate Fico's policies.

According to analyst Stefancik, it would be "dangerous for democracy if all the most important constitutional functions were in the hands of the current governing coalition."

Headshot of presidential candidate Ivan Korcok, Trznice Brno, Slovakia, February 22, 2024
Recent polls put presidential candidate Ivan Korcok in second place behind Peter Pellegrini with only about two percentage points separating the menImage: Vaclav Salek/CTK/IMAGO

"The president should act as a brake to try to prevent the destruction of democracy, but this wouldn't happen under Pellegrini," political analyst Koziak added. "[Pellegrini] has shown he's not able to stand up to his mentor."

Pellegrini has said as much himself, asserting that "the concept of the president serving as a counterweight to the government is absolutely mistaken." Any such conflict would only spread through society, he said, and "that is certainly the last thing Slovakia needs today."

Should Fico manage to rein in the new president, it could free him to push to new extremes, observers suggest.

"It would lead to the criminalization of the opposition and journalists, control of media, the 'Orbanization' of Slovakia," Koziak warns, pointing to developments under Prime Minister Viktor Orban in neighboring Hungary.

In the face of this threat, Koziak continues, Slovakia's weak and fragmented liberal opposition forces need to adapt. "They don't seem to understand the electorate's yearning for a strong leader. They insist on playing nicely," he asserts. "They're in a boxing match but they're trying to play chess."

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan

Headshot of a bearded man (Tim Gosling) with gray hair and glasses in a red rain jacket
Tim Gosling Journalist covering politics, economics and social issues across Central and Eastern Europe