Slovakia’s Critical Crossroads: Elections, Populism, and Geopolitical Shifts
Fabio Turco 24 September 2023

All eyes may be on the October 15 elections in Poland, but the September 30 elections in Slovakia are no less important for the region. Despite its small size, over the past year and a half Slovakia has gained relevance due to its committed support to Ukraine in its war against Russia.

At the same time, the country has spent years seeking internal harmony and governability in the face of great political instability. It has been subjected to the impetuous winds of populism, and these might finally bring about a radical alteration in its geopolitical course.


A Rocky Path


In February 2020, when Slovaks voted to elect a new Parliament, it seemed like the dawn of a new day. Slovakia had suffered two tumultuous years marked by the murder of investigative reporter Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. From the start, it was clear that the killings had to do with Kuciak’s investigation of connections between politics and the criminal world. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets clamoring to “make Slovakia decent again”, to free it once and for all from endemic corruption. This led to the resignation of the government, led at the time by Prime Minister Robert Fico.

In some ways, the 2020 elections really were a turning point. The largest number of seats were won by Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OL’aNO), a conservative party running on a populist anti-corruption platform and led by Igor Matovič, who promised to restore governmental transparency. OL’aNO went on to form a coalition government with conservative party We Are Family (SR), liberal party Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), and liberal-conservative party For the People (Za ľudí).

Despite its lofty promises, the coalition government was marred by quarrels, scandals, and resignations, including that of Prime Minister Matovič himself, replaced by Finance Minister Eduard Heger. After three disastrous years on the edge of collapse, the coalition finally lost a no-confidence vote in December 2022. Even the interim government, still led by Heger, collapsed in May 2023 due to the latest scandal within OL’aNO. Currently, the country is run by a caretaker government led by Ľudovít Ódor.


The War in Ukraine and Fico’s Return


Slovakia has had to face great challenges on top of its political instability. First came the Covid-19 pandemic, then the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which saw the country take a front-line position, providing Kiev with humanitarian and military aid.

These two events polarized Slovak society and favored the return of Robert Fico. Newly at the helm of Direction  –  Socialdemocracy (Smer-SD), at first he gained support by voicing anti-vaccine positions and criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic. Then, following the start of the war, he sided with Russia. As the government in Bratislava, first among Ukraine’s allies, lent the beleaguered country its Mig-29 fighter jets, Fico declared that once elected one of his first actions would be to cease this provision of weapons.

Indeed, the majority of Slovaks are distinctively anti-Western. A Eurobarometer poll conducted a few months ago showed that only 37 percent of Slovaks trust the EU, compared to 53 percent who do not.

As for the war in Ukraine, a poll commissioned by the think tank GLOBSEC and carried out in March this year showed that the majority of Slovaks (51 percent) hold Ukraine and the West responsible. Only 54 percent of Slovaks see Russia as a security threat. At the same time, the portion of those who hold Russia responsible for the war fell from 51 percent in Spring 2022 to 40 percent now. Support for NATO fell from 72 to 58 percent.

According to several political analysts, in the last few years Slovakia has become fertile ground for pro-Russian disinformation, fake news and anti-Ukraine propaganda. This would partly explain the political resurrection of Robert Fico, who only a year and a half ago held on to his parliamentary immunity by a slim margin, despite the serious accusation of involvement in a criminal conspiracy. The government’s diatribes and scandals did the rest.


The Most Likely Scenarios


Though a few weeks ago a victory for Direction  –  Socialdemocracy seemed guaranteed, that is no longer the case. Michal Šimečka‘s liberal, pro-EU party Progressive Slovakia (Progresívne Slovensko) has gained in the polls. The latest results show a gap of a single percentage point  between the two parties (19.4 percent for Direction  –  Socialdemocracy, 18.2 percent for Progressive Slovakia). Either way, the winner will have to form a coalition. Given the country’s fragmented political landscape, and the enmities and rivalries between its parties, it is difficult to predict what such a coalition would look like.

For example, a coalition led by Direction  –  Socialdemocracy  might include Voice  –  Socialdemocracy (Hlas-SD), led by former Primer Minister Peter Pellegrini, polling at 15.1 percent. However, this party originated from a schism within Direction  –  Socialdemocracy, and indeed Fico and Pellegrini are not on friendly terms. Other parties that might join a conservative coalition include the Slovak National Party (SNS) and the far-right party Republika. Again, however, it is unlikely that Pellegrini would agree to side with the latter.

Things do not seem much easier on the other side. In order to govern, Progressive Slovakia would have to find an agreement between Ordinary People and Independent Personalities and Freedom and Solidarity, whose clashes contributed to the collapse of the former government.

Conservative party We Are Family and the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) might join either coalition.


A View on the Future


Everything suggests that the September 30 elections will be the start of a long period of negotiation, possibly followed by another round of elections.

Either way, next year Slovaks will vote for a new President. Without a doubt, they will not be able to re-elect current President Zuzana Čaputová, sole guarantor of the country’s stability over these last years. Čaputová has recently stated that she will not be running again, due to the exhausting effect of the hatred she has received during her mandate. Her poor treatment has been in keeping with the decreasing civility of the public debate in Slovakia. Indeed, Čaputová sued Robert Fico for calling her an “American agent” and referring to the caretaker government she formed earlier this year as “Soros’ government”.

Regardless of the results on September 30, then, there is likely no end in sight for Slovakia’s instability. A victory for Direction  –  Socialdemocracy, resulting in a populist government, would have important repercussions on the region. Viktor Orbán’s Hungrary would no longer be alone in the Visegrád Group, Slovakia would swerve away from its pro-NATO stance, and Ukraine would lose one of its closest allies.

By contrast, a victory for Progressive Slovakia would allow the country to retain its pro-EU, pro-Western stance. However, a government led by Šimečka would face many of the same problems that characterized the preceding government. Above all, it would have to find a solution to an extremely differnt challenge: how to unite a country that has never been more divided.


Cover photo: former prime minister Robert Fico gives a speech during protest against Covid-19 measures, Slovakia on September 1, 2021

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