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The Slovaks Opted for Stability and Peace - Will It Work ?

The Slovaks Opted for Stability and Peace - Will It Work ?
 Kinga Brudzińska
Research Associate at Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe in Vienna

For months, Slovaks have been worried about the chaos and confusion affecting their country. Three and a half years after the last parliamentary elections, Slovakia stands at a pivotal juncture in its political journey. 

Here is what you need to know about the political situation in Slovakia, its likely foreign policy orientation and the repercussions on the forthcoming European elections.

Slovakia is a polarized country. Until the very last moment, Slovak experts and commentators were split on who would be the big winner of the snap election. Would it be the left-wing populist SMER-SSD party (Direction), under the leadership of Robert Fico (Prime Minister from 2006-2010 and 2012-2018) or the liberal Progresivne Slovensko party (Progressive Slovakia, PS), led by Michal Šimečka, a vice president of the European Parliament and a newbie in national politics ? Both parties ran successful campaigns and this perfectly demonstrates the political polarization within this Central European country. 

Robert Ficocampaigned on a pro-Russian and anti-American platform, promising to bring political stability and peace to the country by, among other things, discontinuing military assistance to Ukraine. Many Slovaks see the war as the primary cause of instability in their country. They want the war to end, and for peace to return to the country. On the other side, Michal Šimečka ran on a pro-European and pro-NATO platform and in support of the rights of the LGBT+ community. His party’s electoral promise was to build a better future rooted in the rule of law and strong democratic principles for the next Slovak generation. 

Robert Fico campaigned on a pro-Russian and anti-American platform, promising to bring political stability and peace.

The political scene in Slovakia is fragmented. For a country of roughly 5 million people (with 4.4 million people eligible to vote), there are roughly 23-25 political entities that nominate candidates to parliament. This makes it incredibly complicated to form a governing coalition.

Slovakia is also vulnerable to hybrid threats. There is deep distrust in state institutions. As an illustration, 73% of people lack trust in the national government and 75% in the national parliament. Slovaks look for a strong leader - much more than citizens in other Central European states. Parts of Slovak society have strong pro-Russian sentiment: only 40% of Slovaks hold Russia responsible for the war in Ukraine, while 34% attribute blame to the West for provoking Russia, according to the opinion polls. What’s more, only 54% of Slovaks see Russia as a security threat. The number of people who attribute the blame to Russia, as opposed to Ukraine or the West, also decreased from 51% to 40% between 2022 and today. This makes Slovakia a key target for Russian influence and hybrid threats.

The drivers of the political campaign

First, the rule of law. The murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée in 2018 galvanized talks about strengthening anti-corruption measures and bringing the people behind the murder to justice. In the 2020 election, the ruling coalition parties pledged to combat corruption and brought many cases against business leaders, judges, the police and politicians. Robert Fico himself faced charges for allegedly using information from law enforcement and tax authorities to smear his political opponents - although the charges were later dropped.

Second, the economic situation. Slovakia has one of the highest inflation rates in the EU (9.6% which is far above the EU average of 4.2% or France at 5.7%) and tackling inflation was a key feature of the campaign and a priority for many voters - with many arguing that the previous governing coalition had simply not done enough to shield Slovakia from rising energy prices. The healthcare system and education system were also a feature in the campaigns.

Third, Russia and Ukraine. Robert Fico campaigned on the promise to stop military aid to Ukraine and shipments of allied military aid through Slovakia. He has opposed sanctions against Russia and has called for the restoration of relations with Russia. Slovak society is divided on how to tackle Ukraine. In general, they support providing humanitarian aid, welcoming Ukrainian refugees and imposing sanctions - but are ambivalent about military donations to Ukraine, partly because they fear this will prolong the war and instability in the region.

Slovaks support providing humanitarian aid [...] - but are ambivalent about military donations to Ukraine.

What happens next

There are two scenarios in play now. The first and most likely is a three-party coalition of SMER-Hlas-SNS. They’ve worked together before and have never excluded one another from forming a governing coalition. Their stances differ, notably on the EU and NATO (and even military donations to Ukraine) - so we could see continued support to Ukraine even with Fico as Prime Minister. Together they have 79 out of 150 seats in the parliament (76 seats are required to secure a majority in a parliament), which means it would not necessarily be a perfect and stable coalition.

The second, more unlikely scenario, is a four-party coalition between PS, Hlas, SaS, and KDH. This scenario would only materialize if Robert Fico failed to form a coalition. Together, they hold 81 seats and would form a stable pro-European government coalition, with continued support for Ukraine. However, there would be a lack of consensus on how to promote and defend core values, such as LGBTQ+ rights and the fight against corruption. 

The million-dollar question is: what future for Ukraine can we expect from Slovakia?

Robert Fico has shown himself in the past to be a pragmatic player on the European and transatlantic stages. For example, he was critical of NATO and the EU, but never took Slovakia out of them. Fico’s government focus will likely mostly be national politics. Third, Slovakia has already sent most of its military equipment to Ukraine, so there aren’t many munitions left to give. Coalition talks to form a government may lead to the signing a joint statement on the priorities of the membership in the EU and NATO, like we saw in 2017. This would imply the unequivocal continuation in a pro-European and pro-Atlantic direction in the strategic interest of the Slovak Republic. 

There is no doubt that the results of this election will resonate in the upcoming European elections in June 2024.

Europe’s elections in 2024. There is no doubt that the results of this election will resonate in the upcoming European elections in June 2024. According to numerous polls, Slovaks like the European Union (EU). Only 25% of people agree that Slovakia would face a better future outside the EU, according to the latest Eurobarometer poll. But election turnout for the European Parliament elections is low (in 2019, the turnout was still 23%). 

To conclude, the election campaign was marked by intense emotions and contentious issues - with Slovaks seeking unity and stability above all. The crucial question is whether the next governing coalition can provide the stability the country so deeply craves. If it fails, the consequences could be significant, not only for Slovakia but also for the broader region and the EU.

Image Copyright : VLADIMIR SIMICEK / AFP

Slovak President Zuzana Caputova arrives for a meeting with the Chairman of Smer-Social Democracy party Robert Fico (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace in Bratislava, Slovakia on October 2, 2023. Slovakia's president on October 2 tapped the leader of the left-wing populist Smer-SD party Robert Fico to form a new government in the NATO and European Union member state.

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