The consequences of the early Slovak elections on September 30, 2023 are now evident. On Wednesday, October 25, Robert Fico from Smer-SD (Direction-Social Democracy) was appointed prime minister for the fourth time. One day later, the new Minister of Interior immediately sacked the president of the Slovak police. Smer signed a coalition government with Hlas (Voice) led by Peter Pellegrini, its own splinter party, and with the radical-right Slovak National Party (SNS) which crossed the 5% threshold allowing it to re-enter parliament after failing to do so at the last election. SNS is a well-established party and already served as a loyal junior coalition partner of Smer-SD after the 2006 and 2016 elections.
The coalition will most likely form an illiberal government with some remarkably incompetent ministers that will stall development and reforms. Young Slovaks studying abroad might think twice about returning home. Moreover, Fico’s priority will be revenge, not governance, putting him at odds with voters who expect him to improve their livelihoods, as promised. This might become his undoing in the next election. Thus, while at first glance the return of the pragmatist and contortionist Fico suggests that illiberalism remains strong, or is even gaining strength, in Slovakia – spelling trouble for its liberal elements and institutions – the reality is that the gap between voters’ expectations and the Fico government’s goals, the reliance of the new coalition on incompetent actors, and the underlying tensions between various factions of the coalition suggests that the new illiberal government will be strong, but not impenetrable.
Shake-ups on the illiberal scene
At the election, Fico’s Smer received 22.95% of the vote, yet his main challenger grew over time. The forward-looking, pro-European, and socially liberal Progresívne Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia) secured 17.96%, more than double the 7% it received at the 2020 elections and it is now the second largest party in the Slovak parliament. In 2019, one of the co-founders of Progressive Slovakia, Zuzana Čaputová, was elected as the first female president of Slovakia.
Three illiberal parties, two of which had parliamentary representation in the past, failed to cross the 5% threshold. Two extreme-right parties, Kotleba’s ĽSNS and Republika (filled with political refugees from ĽSNS) will have zero MPs. The socially conservative and illiberal SME-Rodina (We are Family) imploded at least in part because its leader Boris Kollár – an advocate for “traditional families” – fathered thirteen children with eleven women and was caught sexting with a fifteen-year-old girl from a resocialization center for young drug addicts.
While these three parties gained no seats in the parliament, some of the newly elected MPs have close ties to illiberal fringe parties and sympathize with their worldviews. By opening its candidate list to non-party members, SNS siphoned off extremist personalities from the so-called disinformation scene, helping it to cross the electoral threshold with 5.62% of the vote. However, even though independent personalities were put in the lowest positions on the list, preference votes wiped out party cadres. This puts the SNS leader Andrej Danko in a precarious position.
In fact, Danko ended up being the only SNS party member among the ten MPs elected on the SNS list. Andrej Danko, Tomáš Taraba, and Rudolf Huliak received the most preferential votes on SNS’s candidate list, the last of which was placed at the list’s 150th position but skyrocketed to position three. Two of the elected MPs, Martina Šimkovičová and the aforementioned Huliak, were initially nominated for the ministries of culture and environment. After pushback from President Zuzana Čaputová, Huliak was replaced by Taraba. If elected MPs accept executive positions, they lose their parliamentary seats. Hence, the substitution of MPs turned executives might allow for less independent personalities to reassume two vacated posts and for Danko to assert more power in the SNS’s parliamentary club.
Preference votes catapulted famous personalities who ran on SNS’s ticket to the top of the party list, and many have ties to extremists. Martina Šimkovičová (mentioned above) worked as an anchor for TV Slovan, a pro-Russian medium that spreads disinformation. Peter Kotlár, a founder of TV Slovan, also successfully ran on the SNS list. Taraba and Huliak were also elected in 2020 on the party list of Kotleba’s ĽSNS. Two other new SNS MPs, father and son Štefan and Filip Kuffa, were similarly affiliated with ĽSNS. Why do these shifting party affiliations matter? Because they suggest incredibly porous borders between the extreme, or even neo-Nazi, far right and the new governing parties, a fact that should greatly concern Slovaks, Europeans, and others beyond.
Shifting party affiliations matter because they suggest incredibly porous borders between the extreme, or even neo-Nazi, far right and the new governing parties, a fact that should greatly concern Slovaks, Europeans, and others beyond.
Other new MPs on SNS’s parliamentary list have strong anti-Western views. Former general Ivan Ševčík wants Slovakia to leave NATO. Pavel Ľupták opted to run on the list of SNS because it is a party “that chooses peace over war,” referencing Ukraine. Roman Michelko contributes to disinformation portals and pro-Russian media. Both Michelko and Huliak are highly critical of NATO and the EU, which puts SNS (and the coalition) in conflict with their foreign partners.
The party platforms of SNS, Hlas-SD, and Smer-SD all proclaim a desire to remain in the EU and NATO. However, the coalition’s view is that these institutions need to be reformed (and milked for money), but not abandoned. That said, the independents in SNS do not toe the line and Danko’s position as a reliable coalition partner is therefore weak. Candidates elected via preferential votes wiped out SNS candidates and do not have any party discipline. Thus, it is not just the extreme ideology of these new MPs, imported from other far-right parties like Kotleba’s ĽSNS, that is concerning; it is their role as agents of chaos and instability.
Extremism and unpredictability will not only affect coalition discussions and the dynamics of party rooms, but will leave their mark on the government, its institutions, and its policies.
This extremism and unpredictability will not only affect coalition discussions and the dynamics of party rooms, but will leave their mark on the government, its institutions, and its policies. Šimkovičová and Huliak, substituted by Taraba, exemplify the illiberal nature of Fico’s government in the making. Šimkovičová – formerly a mainstream journalist turned pro-Russian conspiracy theorist – will lead the Ministry of Culture. Huliak, a homophobic climate change denier, has been nominated to run the Ministry of Environment. Huliak also condones violence against environmental activists and suggested that bears are a biological weapon of Brussels.
Campaign tactics: Distractions, abuse, and polarization
The nominations of these candidates who have risen on the list of SNS, as well as some nominations from Smer (especially the nomination of Robert Kaliňák – a former minister of interior who resigned after Kuciak’s murder – for the post of minister of defense) are viewed as questionable and put President Zuzana Čaputová under pressure to oppose them. The president refused to nominate Huliak, which triggered conflict with both Fico and Danko. To avert cabinet formation delays and constitutional crisis, Fico replaced Huliak with Tomáš Taraba, a former member of Kotleba’s far right.
President Čaputová has been the punching bag of Fico’s campaign. Intimidation and name-calling were among the factors that led her to not run for the second term in the March 2024 elections. Her speech summarizes the polarizing toxicity of Slovak politics: “I do not have enough strength for the next mandate… However, please do not take my decision not to seek re-election as evidence that decency in politics cannot lead to success. … I made a personal decision …”
An environmental lawyer by training, she has been called a Soros girl, an “American whore” and a puppet of non-governmental organizations financed from abroad. It seems that Fico will throw his support for the presidential candidacy behind Pellegrini, his prodigal political son.
In addition to verbal abuse, Čaputová received repeated death threats and her daughters have needed security protection. Intimidation of sitting presidents is common in Slovakia. The son of President Michal Kováč was kidnapped to Austria in 1995. The police investigated threats against President Andrej Kiska when he clashed with Fico.
Lies, intimidation, and bullying on social media contribute to polarization and pro-Russian disinformation on social media has been exceptionally effective in Slovakia. According to a broadly publicized study by Globsec, support for NATO in Slovakia dropped from 72% to 58% between 2022 and 2023. In terms of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, only 40% of Slovaks believe that Russia is responsible for the war, 17% blame Ukraine, and 35% believe that Western powers started the war in Ukraine.
Lies, intimidation, and bullying on social media contribute to polarization and pro-Russian disinformation on social media has been exceptionally effective in Slovakia.
In Fico’s first public appearance after the ballots were counted with Smer in the lead, he noted that “Slovakia and its people have bigger problems than Ukraine.” He also indicated that Slovakia would advocate for “fast-paced peace negotiations” at the European Union level. Fico’s campaign used social media, especially Facebook, to spur resentment. Social media is an unrestrained environment in which Russian bots, Covid conspiracies, and anti-American propaganda flourish.
In his endless effort to divide the country, Fico associated his main political challenger – the liberal Progressive Slovakia – with the “so-called mainstream media, non-governmental organizations and other sycophants of American foreign policy.” He thanked alternative media for his success because they helped to bring to power those who “love Slovakia and have common sense … not coffee-shop wisdom.”
Smer-SD and Hlas-SD are social democratic parties in name only. In October, the Party of European Socialists (PES) in the European Parliament suspended membership both for Smer-SD and Hlas-SD. PES was concerned that both parties signed a memorandum of understanding and cooperation with SNS. They also cited concerns over corruption, the war in Ukraine, and attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community. This was humiliating for Pellegrini who, by splitting from Smer in 2020 and forming Hlas-SD, hoped to form a Western-style social democratic party without Fico’s reputational baggage.
Although Fico alluded to restoring law and order and prosperity in his campaign, he has no vision for Slovakia other than personal revenge, power aggrandizement and the enrichment of oligarchs who are tied to him.
Although Fico alluded to restoring law and order and prosperity in his campaign, he has no vision for Slovakia other than personal revenge, power aggrandizement and the enrichment of oligarchs who are tied to him. He distracted the electorate with anti-Ukrainian messaging and culture wars. One politician is single-handedly responsible for Fico’s comeback: former Prime Minister and leader of the populist OĽaNO party, Igor Matovič. OĽaNO won elections in Slovakia right before the eruption of the Covid-19 pandemic. Matovič ran on an anti-corruption platform in a country deeply wounded by the murder of an investigative journalist, Ján Kuciak, and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová.
Kuciak and Kušnírová were shot in a murder for hire in 2018. Kuciak worked on uncovering links between the Italian Mafia and Slovak businessmen, some with linkages to Smer. The murders triggered a political crisis and let to the downfall of Fico’s government. It unleashed investigations that touched Fico’s inner circle. In 2020, Matovič won with a vision to release Slovakia from the grip of the mafia. However, what ensued was not a restoration of justice, but a government of utter chaos.
Matovič was forced to resign in 2022 due to his contempt for the rule of law and frivolousness and early elections were called in 2023. It is no surprise that many voters in a country that suffered through very high Covid deaths, double-digit inflation, high food prices, and crumbling health care yearned for the steady hand that Fico promised: he capitalized on the incompetence of the parties that governed after his resignation in 2018.
Fico is also a ruthless politician with prodigal shapeshifting abilities. Once hailed as a pro-European social democrat with a hint of patriotism he now inhabits political gutters. His hateful messaging on migrants, Ukraine, LGBTQ+ groups and women stole headwinds from extremists and helped him to win.
Fico is also a ruthless politician with prodigal shapeshifting abilities. Once hailed as a pro-European social democrat with a hint of patriotism he now inhabits political gutters. His hateful messaging on migrants, Ukraine, LGBTQ+ groups, and women stole headwinds from extremists and helped him to win. He was fighting for his political resurrection but also to avoid liability. Post-2018 investigations revealed that under his leadership, Slovakia became a captured state that served oligarchic interests. Now Fico and his government are ready to purge the courts, police, and prosecutor’s office. This will keep Fico out of the sight of investigators and punish his adversaries.
Is the new illiberal government socialist, populist, or far-right? The coalition is dominated by two social democratic parties but did not put forward a comprehensive social policy plan. It is led by the political establishment, yet two former prime ministers and a former head of the parliament pledged to fight for the “true Slovaks.” The campaign’s tactics were spiteful and targeted migrants, refugees, minorities, and vulnerable groups, but, on the surface, the parties distance themselves from extremists.
In a recent working paper I coauthored with Steven Saxonberg, Oľga Gyárfášová, and Pavol Frič, we show that the categories of left, and right are not useful in the Slovak case. Rather, Slovakia has a full range of populist as well as non-populist parties that play on different forms of resentment and prejudice. Exclusionary ethnic appeals and cultural protectionism, such as “family values” are represented by different sets of parties, ranging from left to right, radical to non-radical. However, Smer does have an electoral advantage. Parties that were not founded on nationalism, such as Smer, switched from reliance on instrumental ethnonationalism to gaining support based on resentment toward sexual minorities and feminism. Such fluid parties are not ideologically constrained and can easily expand their voting pool, hence Smer’s (and OĽaNO’s) electoral success.
An uphill battle for Slovakian illiberalism
Despite the “advantage of fluidity” and spinelessness, there are three limits to illiberalism in Slovakia. First, the Slovak National Party is a weak coalition partner because its MPs are not rank-and-file party members and are undisciplined. The coalition has 79 out of 150 seats and ten unreliable SNS votes can deprive them of that majority.
Second, Pellegrini, in his potential bid for Presidency in 2024 might want to re-assert his independence from Fico and Smer to reach out to a broader set of voters. He broke from Smer once to form a modern left-wing party and his relationship with Fico is frosty. Without Pellegrini’s support, the coalition will collapse. However, whether the moderate wing in Hlas will be subdued by Smer is yet to be seen.
If Pellegrini becomes President next year, I expect that he will abandon Hlas and leave it to be taken over by Smer. After all, Hlas still has deep ties with Smer. Hlas split from Smer only in 2020 and many of his current MPs were in Smer. Its voter base is similar and many formerly voted for Fico and SMER. Pellegrini was a kingmaker of the coalition building. By refusing an offer from Progresivne Slovensko to become prime minister and form a coalition, he might have sealed the fate of Hlas as a short-lived revolt.
Third, governing in the post-Covid era and with war raging next door is difficult. Voters expect new hospitals, more nurses, lower food prices, cheaper housing, better schools, and higher pensions, which will be difficult to provide. Voter frustration will ensue, and coalition governance will be rocky. Fico does not have enough power to obliterate the parliament, independent media, and the Constitutional Court. Furthermore, Orbán is the only illiberal leader left in the Visegrad Four countries for Fico to lean on. Czechia is ruled by a fragile liberal coalition and Poland is now following.
While the new Slovak government will be unquestionably more extreme than its predecessors (even previous Fico governments) and will have willingly mainstreamed some of the country’s most egregious far-right actors, it will also be characterized by instability rather than hegemony, tension rather than cohesion, and contradiction rather than direction.
In the meantime, the opposition can flex its 71 mandates and start exploring weak spots of Fico’s coalition. Thus, while the new Slovak government will be unquestionably more extreme than its predecessors (even previous Fico governments) and will have willingly mainstreamed some of the country’s most egregious far-right actors, it will also be characterized by instability rather than hegemony, tension rather than cohesion, and contradiction rather than direction. In other words, illiberalism in Slovakia today is potentially strong but penetrable. Whether or not these contradictions reach their breaking point, and whether more mainstream actors can exploit those breaks, remains to be seen.
Lenka Buštíková grew up in Prague. She currently teaches at the University of Florida, and previously taught at the University of Oxford and at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on polarization, party politics and democratic erosion. Her book, Extreme Reactions: Radical Right Mobilization in Eastern Europe, received the Davis Center Book Prize in political and social studies. She currently serves as editor of the journal East European Politics. She is also an editor of Cambridge Elements on Politics and Society from Central Europe to Central Asia and Routledge Studies on Political Parties and Party Systems.
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