The snap election that will take place in Slovakia on September 30 was triggered by the collapse of a disparate coalition of center-right parties that delivered three years of chaos and backbiting in this small Central European state.
Leading the polls with support of around 20% is the nominally left-leaning Smer, led by Robert Fico. Although slender, this lead has the former PM hoping for a remarkable return. Fico was accused of turning Slovakia into a Mafia state before the fallout from the murder of a journalist saw him forced out of office in 2018.
Having adopted increasingly extremist and far-right rhetoric to remain visible in the interim, Fico has pledged during the campaign to halt Bratislava's enthusiastic support for Ukraine. That has sparked concern that he could plunge Slovakia into isolation within the EU, in a similar fashion to Viktor Orban's illiberal regime next door in Hungary.
It's a stance carefully calculated to resonate with the 50% or so of Slovaks who, encouraged by intense pro-Russian disinformation campaigns, oppose sending financial or military support over the country's eastern border.
Fico bolstered by ineptitude of outgoing government
The outgoing government's inept handling of the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis has also contributed to the populist strongman's rehabilitation, which comes despite his suggestions that he will take revenge on the democratic institutions that have been dismantling the corrupt networks built during his previous stint in office.
"Voters know Smer allowed corruption to flourish," says Milan Nic at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "But at least it governed competently."
Fico's anti-Ukraine stance mobilizes voters
This lack of trust in their competence and willingness to cooperate is perhaps the biggest obstacle facing the plethora of parties in the race.
Yet the prospect of Fico's return and his promises that he will not send "a single bullet" to Kyiv and to block new EU sanctions have also helped to mobilize voters who are wary of the threat to Slovakia's fragile democracy and Western orientation.
That has helped support for the liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS) to surge. As the vote approaches, polls suggest that PS had closed the gap on Smer and might even secure a marginal lead.
Pro-Western PS touts its reform credentials
PS leader Michal Simecka, currently vice-president of the European Parliament, says that his party is pushing not only an "anti-Fico" message to the urban electorate, but also policies that seek to attract those across the country struggling with economic and social conditions.
PS will spur economic development, reform the dysfunctional health and education systems and stem the outflow of young and educated Slovaks, Simecka told DW.
Fico accuses his liberal rivals of serving US interests and organizing a "police coup."
However, the vote is just the first hurdle facing the frontrunners. Building a government in Slovakia's highly fragmented political landscape is often as taxing as winning at the polls.
An increasingly bitter campaign, which has even seen a former interior minister trading blows with a former PM, suggests there will be no exception this year.
"Coalition-building in a fragmented parliament will be challenging and time-consuming," says Andrius Tursa, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence.
Hlas could be kingmaker
Polls suggest Hlas could end up as kingmaker. The center-left party, formed by Fico's former protégé Peter Pellegrini, is running third with around 13%.
While the Hlas rank and file has strong ties with Smer — having only split from the party three years ago — Pellegrini himself is not thought to be enthusiastic to get back into bed with his radicalized erstwhile mentor.
But at the same time, Hlas has made it clear it would make significant demands to work with PS. Simecka said he "doesn't know" Pellegrini's thinking. However, the liberal party leader may have few options.
Disparate field of small parties
The rest of the democratic field consists of small parties teetering on the brink of the 5% threshold to enter parliament. PS would likely need several parties to make the grade if it is to cobble together an "anti-Fico" coalition.
Even if it does succeed, it is likely that such a government would be plagued by instability. The gaggle of progressives, libertarians, social democrats and populists would find few points of agreement other than a pro-Western approach, particularly on issues such as LGBTQ+ rights or climate change.
"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 highlights their tendency to come unstuck thanks to inflated egos, personality clashes and an unwillingness to understand the need for compromise and deal making," political scientists Tim Haughton and Darina Malova, wrote for UK in a Changing Europe.
The role of the far-right
But the alternative could offer an even dimmer vision of Slovakia's future.
Exploiting widespread disappointment with the efforts of politicians and democracy to raise living standards, tackle corruption and eliminate socio-economic inequalities, far-right parties are also vying for a role in the next government.
Fico is fully aware of the urgent need to secure EU funds and would prefer to avoid ruling alongside Republika — which is polling at around 8% — but he hasn't ruled it out.
"Republika retains neo-Nazi characteristics," warns Grigorij Meseznikov, director of the Slovak Institute of Public Affairs. "But Fico is likely to strike a deal if it's his only option to return to power."
However, with Smer and PS neck and neck in the polls, the likelihood that neither will be able to put together a viable coalition appears to be growing. Another election could be just around the corner.
Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan