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Slovakia election: Strongman Robert Fico's return to power

October 1, 2023

Elections in Slovakia saw former Prime Minister Robert Fico secure the most votes. His victory threatens to turn the small Central European country away from Western partners.

Former Prime Minister Robert Fico speaking on election night while outside a polling station
Robert Fico's Smer party won Slovakia's parliamentary election convincinglyImage: Darko Bandic/AP Photo/picture alliance

Former strongman Prime Minster Robert Fico returned to power on September 30 when he won parliamentary elections in Slovakia, defeating his liberal rivals by some margin.

With almost all the votes counted, Fico's Smer-SD party took 23.3%, beating the liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS) party that garnered just below 18%.

Five other parties crossed the 5% threshold to enter parliament following a high-profile race driven by Fico's unlikely political resurrection. The turnout of 68.5% was the highest in 20 years.

His victory has many ramifications for the Central European country and will likely weaken Western unity regarding Ukraine.

How Fico returned to power in Slovakia

As head of the nominally left-leaning Smer, Fico ruled Slovakia for much of the last decade despite regular accusations that he had turned the country into a "Mafia state." After his resignation following the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak, he embraced extremist and far-right rhetoric to remain relevant.

Slovakia's former Prime Minister Robert Fico standing at a police station
Robert Fico's resignation as Prime Minister was accepted in 2018Image: Jaroslav Novák/dpa/TASR/picture alliance

He was also helped by a chaotic three years since Smer was ousted from office. Incompetence and backbiting meant that the center-right coalition that emerged from the 2020 elections could not cope with the coronavirus pandemic, war in Ukraine and cost-of-living crisis. A no-confidence vote in December 2022 ultimately doomed the coalition government, leading to this year's early election.

Fico persuaded Slovaks that Smer was capable of stable governance despite the corruption and lawlessness that flourished under his previous rule.

His promise to end military support for Ukraine fits with public opinion polls that say around half of Slovaks support Russia in their war in Ukraine. Pledging that not a single bullet will cross Slovakia's eastern border, the populist politician has also suggested he may seek to block any further European Union sanctions against Russia.

Worries that a Smer victory would lead to the isolation of Slovakia from Western partners and damage its fragile democracy saw support for the PS surge as the election approached. Early exit polls had suggested the liberal party had won, but as counting continued through the night, the margin of Smer's victory became clearer.

The disappointment among the country's liberals was palpable, with many devastated at Fico's return.

"Fico won, and after 12 years of criminal rule and almost 200 suspicious people from his surroundings, he was able to convince the majority of voters that his vision of Slovakia is better than anything else," wrote Matus Kostolny, editor-in-chief of Dennik N, a liberal newspaper in Slovakia.

The one silver lining for democracy advocates was that the neo-Nazi Republika failed to cross the 5% threshold to enter parliament.

Peter Pellegrini standing in a dark room wearing a blue blazer with a Slovakia flag on his lapel
The Hlas party, lead by former Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, has a key role to playImage: Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty Images

Can Fico build a coalition?

President Zuzana Caputova, a founder of the PS, said ahead of the election that she would task the winner with forming a new government, assuming they can organize a majority in the 150-seat parliament.

Although talks will likely be longwinded, the results suggest that Fico should find building a coalition reasonably straightforward. The radical-right Slovak National Party (SNS) just managed to cross the threshold and is seen as a natural partner for Smer. The same can be said of Hlas, a party that split from Smer in 2020.

Hlas came third with around 15% of the vote, handing it the role of kingmaker. Smer is set to clinch 42 seats in parliament, making the 27 seats that Hlas looks set to take crucial to forming any government. However, Hlas leader Peter Pellegrini, a former prime minister and Fico protege who has tried to distance himself from his erstwhile mentor's extremism, is likely to make significant demands.

"Talks have not started yet, but the probability that Slovakia will have a Smer-Hlas-SNS government is very high," said Grigorij Meseznikov, head of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava, the nation's capital.

Hopes for moderation

Hope remains that the pro-Europe Pellegrini could help moderate policy in the next government. Fico's pledge to halt support for Ukraine has spooked some Western partners. PS leader Michal Simecka also told DW the concern that a Smer-led government could isolate Slovakia within the EU, similarly to its neighbor, Hungary.

Fico has also threatened to purge Slovakia's police and justice system, which has spent the last three years attempting to dismantle corrupt networks that flourished during his previous tenure.

Some think Fico may moderate his outlook, having secured his return to office.

"He knows it's vital that Slovakia can access EU funds and won't want to invite scrutiny," said Milan Nic, a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

However, Meseznikov warns that although Pellegrini "could try to moderate some policy, Smer and SNS will be dominant."

Edited by: Davis VanOpdorp

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