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Slovakia’s Challenge Starts Now

Fico’s Smer Won, but Others Could Lead a Coalition
October 02, 2023
The horse-trading to form Slovakia’s new coalition government is about to begin.

In one of this year’s watershed Central European elections, former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and his Smer party won a comfortable victory this past weekend. Fico, nominally a social democrat, governed from 2006 to 2010 and from 2012 to 2018 with a mixture of left-populist and illiberal nationalist politics.

Domestic and international commentators view Fico’s return as a political earthquake that may disrupt Slovakia’s support for Ukraine, herald a rapprochement with Russia, isolate Slovakia within NATO and the EU, refuel domestic political corruption, and trigger anti-free media and anti-civil society policies. Fico swore during his campaign that no further ammunition would cross the Slovak border into Ukraine and that he would stymie any further EU sanctions against Russia.

Smer garnered 23% of the vote, more than any other party, a devastating judgement of the performance of the OL’ANO-led grand coalition that has governed since 2020 with a strong anti-corruption mandate. Still there is no guarantee that Fico will reassume power. Slovakia’s proportional electoral system and multiparty political culture demands a strong coalition in the 150-seat parliament.

Seven parties won seats in the legislature. Three are large: Smer (42 seats); the left-liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS; 32 seats); and the center-left Hlas party (27 seats) of Peter Pellegrini, also a former Smer prime minister. Four are small: the populist OL’ANO (16 seats); the liberal SaS (11seats); the Christian-democratic KDH 12 seats); and the populist radical-right Slovak National Party SNS (10 seats). The pro-Russian neo-Nazi Republika party, which was seen as one of the biggest threats to Slovak democracy, failed to pass the five-percent threshold needed to enter parliament.

The election was a plebiscite on Fico’s return, but Pellegrini and his Hlas party are in fact the kingmakers. They hold the best cards for choosing the next prime minister—possibly Pellegrini himself. Neither SMER nor PS, given coalition options, can govern without Hlas. While Fico might promise Smer’s support for a Pellegrini candidacy in next year’s year presidential elections, he could demand the post of prime minister in exchange for his cooperation now.

Hlas’ safe bid would be a rather pro-Western Smer-Hlas-KDH coalition. Any PS-led four-party coalition (PS-Hlas and any potential combination of SaS, KDH, and OL’ANO) may be difficult to manage, and a most feared coalition with Smer and SNS could find Hlas easily dominated by their pro-Russian and populist-nationalist stance.

Slovakia’s short-term fate ultimately hinges on Pellegrini’s plans for himself and the party that outbids the others for his support.