The Progressive Post

Slovak 2023 elections: political economy of hope

Editor in Chief at EuractivSK

Robert Fico, leader of the PES-affiliated party Smer-SD, won the elections in Slovakia. For Social Democrats and Progressives, it is bad news. Once back in power, Fico may want to appear nicer, but he offers an old blend of oligarchic power veiled in social-nationalist populism. So, where do we invest our hopes? 

There’s a saying known to every Slovak ice hockey or football fan: ‘we played the way we played, the game ended the way it ended’. Those who want to live in a progressive, socially fair, environmentally sustainable, open, and pro-European Slovakia know that feeling well. It might sound surprising: four out of six elections since 2004 have been won by the nominally Social Democratic party Smer, a member of the PES. Sure, party leader Robert Fico has always been an enfant terrible of the centre-left political family, mixing social populism, nationalism and cultural conservativism. But his governments remained well within the limits of the European political mainstream. The fear is this may change, and Fico will follow the steps of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. What is different now? And do his voters really want? 

In 2020 Fico seemed to be politically dead: in 2018 he was ousted from the prime minister’s office by a wave of protests, mobilised by the cases of corruption, misuse of power and the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his partner Marina Kusnirova. In February 2020, Fico’s party lost the elections, and then split. When Peter Pellegrini formed his own Social Democratic party, Smer dropped in the polls below 10 per centNow Fico is back, after scoring nearly 24 per cent in the elections his party is posed to lead the next coalition government as the Prime Minister. How did he manage such a spectacular return? A part of the answer is the weakness of his opponents and a ruthless campaign built on disinformation and divisive rhetoric. The government that assumed office in 2020 promised to rebuild the state ‘captured by oligarchs’ during the Fico’s rule. They promised to reinstate the trust in public institutions, fight corruption and prosecute those who had misused power. However, little of that has been realised. Instead, we got three years of infighting and chaos. The government had started with a constitutional majority, but this summer it had to resign and call early elections. Of course, they had difficult times, from the pandemic to the Russian attack against Ukraine, high energy prices and inflation. But for many of their voters from 2020, they failed to show any competence to govern.

And Fico used these crises well. He has never shied away from divisive rhetoric, spreading fear and hatred: in 2016 he won the elections on an anti-immigrant, xenophobic ticketAfter 2020, Smer had used this tactic to the extreme, effectively joining forces with extreme-right political parties. It started during the Covid-19 crisis, by organising protests against anti-pandemic measures and spreading anti-vax lies (Facebook has suspended the account of MP Lubos Blaha for pandemic disinformation and hate speech). Following the Russian aggression against Ukraine, party representatives started echoing the Kremlin narrative, labelling the invasion a US proxy war, criticising the European embargo against Putin’s regime and the assistance to Ukraine, or relativising Russian war crimes. In a country with a low level of trust in democratic institutions, low levels of trust in media and a strong impact of Russian propaganda, it proved to be an effective tactic. Still the question remains: why would so many voters buy into it? 

This brings us to the second part of the answer: Fico is a skilled seller of hope. He pulled his old trick, innovating the message. In 2006 and 2012 he was selling hope that Slovakia could be a ‘socially fairer’ country. In 2016 it was ‘security’. He has sold the dream of the ‘good old times’, before all this chaos and uncertainty. The succession of crises after 2020 increased the feelings of insecurity, aggravated by the chaos and mismanagement of Matovic’s and Heger’s governments. Enter Robert Fico: he might have made mistakes, but he is promising – just like Orbán did in spring 2020 in Hungary – to protect the country from crises that are, after all, somebody else’s problems: the Russian war against Ukraine, migration, climate change, you name it.

Selling cheap nationalist promises is easy, ruling is more difficult. Fico will be forming a government coalition with the Hlas-SD and the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS), a motley crew of old-fashioned traditionalist, religious ultra-conservatives, and conspirationists would do anything to get back to power. But it is an unstable conglomerate of smaller parties and individuals (only one of the elected MPs is actually of SNS) that may not hold together. Even worse, cooperation with SNS could spark tensions with the other coalition partner – Hlas-SD, the party that had split from Smer allegedly because they wanted to create a ‘modern Social Democracy’. Of course, power (and money) have a strong attraction, especially if Fico makes concessions. But if Pellegrini, leader of Hlas-SD really plans to build a standard Social Democratic party, it might be difficult to rule with people who want to ‘fight chemtrails’, leave NATO, or organise a referendum on a Slovak exit from the EU (picking up some of the ideas presented by successful SNS candidates). At least some of his voters and supporters were bought into the hope that he would represent a more progressive alternative to Robert Fico. 

Even with other alternatives, for example some form of cooperation with the Christian Democrats in parliament, Fico will be presiding over a fragile coalition with weak majority, torn between competing interests and expectations. To achieve his main goal – to block any criminal cases against people connected to Smer by weakening the independence of the rule-of-law institutions – he needs time and stability. And money, especially EU funding, to boost public spending (in 2004-2022 Slovakia had received 24 billion Euros net from the EU budget, or 240 Euros per person per year; in some areas, the EU budget is a major source of public funding) and to line the pockets of his supporters (admittedly, here we are moving on shaky ground, as most of the criminal cases are still open, but let us, for now, rely on the examples presented herehere, the EP report or the TI reports). To gain time and money, he may pull another of his tricks: assume the role of the ‘peacemaker’. Not only internally, but also towards external partners. Sell them the hope that, after all, he is not so terrible. 

Yes, he did use the word ‘Wehrmacht’ when he talked about a potential deployment of German troops, under the NATO flag, in Slovakia, he did accept cooperation with the far right, or called Ukraine’s political leadership ‘insincere, greedy and rude. But let bygones be bygones, now he is back, and he knows the rules of the game. He will talk tough at home but complying (for a good price) in Brussels. At the beginning, he might be playing hard, risking an open rift with the European Socialists. But that may pass, just like it did in 2006 when Socialists suspended his party for forming a government with the nationalist SNS (only to welcome it back later), or in 2016 when they quietly pardoned Fico’s xenophobic, anti-immigrant stance. As a fallback option, Fico’s government could mimic Orbán, especially now when the EU flinches from Orbán’s blackmail and is about to un-freeze payments to Hungary. 

And what about those Slovaks who hope they could live in a progressive, socially fair, environmentally sustainable, open and pro-European country? Well, we played the way we played, the game ended the way it ended. Some have invested their hopes in Progresivne Slovensko, a relatively new, liberal-affiliated party which offers a brand of social liberalism, moderate environmentalism and technocratic competence. They appeal mostly to middle-class, urban, higher-educated voters. With all good intentions and competence, they will still need to widen their appeal and offer a progressive, open, pro-European alternative to voters of populist parties (including Smer), to change the course of the country. Others hope that this room will be filled by Hlas-SD. Given the background of the party and their decision to join forces with Fico and nationalists, I am rather sceptical about that. One can believe in miracles but one should not count on them.

Photo credits: Shutterstock/ bwagner99

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