1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Slovakia: Liberals seek to prevent return of firebrand Fico

September 13, 2023

A return to power for former PM Robert Fico in elections on September 30 risks casting Slovakia into EU isolation and weakening its democracy, warns Michal Simecka, leader of the liberal Progressive Slovakia.

Michal Simecka
Michal Simecka is leader of the liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS) party and vice president of the European ParliamentImage: Progressive Slovensko

The Progressive Slovakia party (Progresivne Slovensko, PS) is vying with Robert Fico's Smer-SD party to lead the next government. For now, that makes PS leader Michal Simecka, currently European Parliament vice president, the only contender with a realistic chance of keeping the strongman populist from reclaiming the post of prime minister.

During his last stint in power, from 2012 to 2020, Fico was accused of turning Slovakia into a mafia state. Simecka said it's vital to prevent a repeat.

The specter of Fico's return from the political wasteland into which he was cast by the 2018 murder of journalist Jan Kuciak gives liberal Slovaks nightmares. That has sent support for PS surging as the election approaches.

Robert Fico, leaving a police station, Slovakia, December 16, 2021
Smer leader Robert Fico has promised that if he becomes PM, Kyiv will not receive 'a single bullet'Image: Jaroslav Novák/TASR/dpa/picture alliance

In a highly fragmented field, polls show that the nominally left-leaning Smer has about 20% support. PS is just a couple of percentage points behind. An array of smaller parties, ranging from center-left to far-right, follows — many teetering on the 5% threshold to enter parliament.

Fico's increasingly extremist positions

In the years since his fall, Fico has embraced increasingly extremist positions in order to remain relevant. During the election campaign, he blamed the West for the war in Ukraine and promised to end Slovakia's support for its neighbor.

Reveling in a stance that surveys suggest has majority support in some parts of the country, the Smer leader has pledged that, should he win power, Kyiv will not receive "a single bullet."

Crucial election for Europe, too

This illustrates that the election is important not only for Slovakia but for Central Europe, the EU and the West as a whole, claims 39-year-old Simecka, who hails from a line of Czechoslovak political writers and philosophers.

Election poster for the Progressive Slovakia (PS) Party in Kuty, Slovakia, August 20, 2023
'We create the future together' — an election campaign poster for Michal Simecka's PS partyImage: Vaclav Salek/dpa/CTK/picture alliance

"We offer an alternative in which Slovakia is a proud and constructive member of the EU and NATO," he told DW.

Concern for democracy in Slovakia

But Simecka said he is not only concerned about Slovakia's foreign policy in the event of a Fico victory, he added that the country's democracy and rule of law could be vulnerable.

Fico has suggested he will seek revenge on the police and other institutions that have over the past three years begun dismantling the corrupt networks that flourished during his rule.

"Fico wants to take Slovakia back to a past of corruption and oligarch control. It risks turning Slovakia into another isolated state within the EU like Orban's Hungary," asserted Simecka.

More than just 'anti-Fico'

But the PS leader, who last year became the first Slovak to rise to deputy chair of the European Parliament, said he knows the party must offer more than just an "anti-Fico" stance.

Opposition to the Smer leader was the only glue holding together the disparate four-party coalition that took power at the last election in 2020. Three years of chaos followed as the pandemic, Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis buffeted the country.

The parliament building in Bratislava, Slovakia
Simecka fears that the country's democracy and rule of law could be vulnerable if Fico is re-electedImage: Tim Gosling

That the government, which proved entirely dysfunctional, lasted as long as it did was surprising. But the impact of this period on the health and wealth of Slovaks has been catastrophic, setting the scene for Fico's revival.

Is PS too liberal for some voters?

"We must present an alternative to the past three years of chaos as well as Fico's extremism and polarization," said Simecka. "In the village and the city there are issues that affect all. Everyone wants a healthy economy, schools and hospitals, and to stem the flight of young people from our country."

However, some suggest that the PS party machine needs to do more to push that message, as well as instill discipline on cultural issues, in particular, LGBTQ and women's rights, during the final weeks of the campaign.

"The party approaches a caricature of progressive liberals and is a very easy target for a populist like Fico," Milan Nic, a senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told DW. "The need to expand support outside the urban, liberal cohort brings them up against some very sensitive cultural issues, but many in the party appear unwilling to tone things down."

Election campaign could get dirty

Simecka's political skill will clearly be tested in what is likely to be a dirty campaign in the run-up to the election.

While resisting the bitter cross-party sniping that helped cripple the outgoing government, he must also avoid looking weak, said Andrej Matisak, an editor at the daily newspaper Pravda.

Election posters for Smer (bottom) and the far-right Republika parties (top), Kosice, Slovakia, August 18, 2023
If he wins the election, Fico may be forced to make a deal with the far-right Republika, which is currently polling at around 9%Image: Vaclav Salek/dpa/CTK/picture alliance

"Presenting himself as a strong leader could be very important for attracting the large cohort of undecided voters," he told DW.

Nic cautioned that the PS leader must also take care not to demonize the rest of the democratic field, which consists of myriad center-right parties and the left-leaning Hlas, currently running third with support of around 12%.

Building a coalition will be difficult

Slovakia's fragmented political landscape makes building a government after the election almost as tricky as winning the race in the first place.

Fico's extremism limits his coalition choices and may force him into a deal with the far-right Republika, which is currently polling at around 9%.

Simecka's route to the prime minister's chair would require cooperation with several disparate parties, some of which retain stark differences on core PS policy issues. At the same time, he must hope that his party's surge doesn't drain too much support from the rest of the "anti-Fico" field.

The fewer democratically minded parties that cross the 5% threshold, the greater Fico's chances of getting his hands back on the levers of power.

Simecka is convinced that this would be a disastrous result.

"Fico offers nothing but hatred and extremism, and a return to a past in which the rule of law and democracy were abused," he said. "We are offering a future."

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