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Fico Spooks Europe as the Slovak Strongman Cements Remarkable Return

Populist-nationalist former prime minister Robert Fico sealed a remarkable political return as he won Slovakia’s snap election on Saturday. The government he seeks to now build is widely seen as likely to further fracture EU unity on support for Ukraine and threaten the small Central European state’s fragile democracy.

Fico’s nominally left-leaning Smer party took 22.9 per cent of the vote, which was triggered by the collapse of a pro-Western coalition, whose three incompetent years in office laid the path for the strongman’s remarkable revival after he was deposed in 2020 amid public anger over the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and subsequent revelations of state capture by oligarchs and organised crime.

Russian disinformation and Fico’s increasingly extremist rhetoric also helped fuel the victory. On the campaign trail, Fico promised to end Slovakia’s support for Ukraine – a stance that tallies with the views of around half the country – and block further EU sanctions against Russia.

He has also pledged “revenge” against his political rivals and the reformed criminal justice system that have been busy over the last three years dismantling the corrupt networks that grew up during Smer’s previous rule in 2012-20.

Those promises have stoked fear that a Smer government could push Slovakia into isolation from its partners in the EU and NATO and destroy democracy. That helped boost support for Progressive Slovakia (PS). But despite hopeful early exit polls, the young centrist and pro-Western party ran out of steam, finishing the election second on around 18 per cent.

A further six parties crossed the 5 per cent threshold to enter the 150-seat parliament – the social-democratic Hlas came third with around 15 per cent, the populist but centrist and previous election winner Olano won 9 per cent. The Christian-democrat KDH and libertarian SaS both snuck over the line, as did the radical right Slovak National Party (SNS).

Fico is now expected to launch coalition talks with Hlas, which split from Smer in 2020, and the SNS. There was some relief for the liberal cohort as the neo-Nazi Republika, another potential coalition partner for Smer, fell just short of the threshold.

At home and abroad

The result is viewed as having significant consequences for the Visegrad Group (V4) region and wider Europe.

Fico’s return will boost populist forces in Central Europe and offer Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban support in his efforts to build an illiberal force that can redirect the EU. In particular, Fico is expected to aid his neighbour by further complicating the bloc’s policy on Ukraine.

Fico has pledged not only to halt weapons supplies to Kyiv, but also to oppose its bid to join the EU. Slovakia could also now complicate further EU sanctions against Russia.

In the V4 region, Fico’s election will see Slovakia swap sides once more to jump onto the populist side of the fence. That threatens to isolate Czechia’s centre-right government, which is already under attack at home by populist forces.

It’s little wonder then that Orban was excited at the prospect of Fico’s return. “Guess who’s back!” the Hungarian premier wrote on Twitter. “Congratulations to Robert Fico on his undisputable victory… Always good to work together with a patriot.”

That suggests diplomats in Berlin and Washington will need to act quickly, suggests Milan Nic, at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “The task for Germany and the US now will be to engage constructively with Fico and manage the cracks in EU support for Ukraine,” he told BIRN.

Meanwhile, many Slovaks are wary of what lies in store at home. Fico has also promised to reclaim the country’s sovereignty, which he claims has been sold to US interests, accusing the outgoing government and liberal President Zuzana Caputova of imposing “liberal fascism” on Slovakia.

As evidence he cites a push by the reformed police and justice system to clean up the corrupt networks that were established during his previous rule. Fico was himself accused of running an organised crime gang from the prime minister’s office before the charges were controversially dropped last year.

However, analysts express hope that Slovakia’s desperate need for EU funds and good relations with regional economic powerhouse Germany could temper the extremism Fico used to win the vote, turning him back towards a more pragmatic – albeit it awkward – stance towards Western partners and making him cautious about provoking scrutiny from Brussels over the rule of law.

Some also hope that Hlas, which formed when Smer split in 2020, could also help to moderate any pro-Russian policies. Hlas leader Petr Pellegrini, erstwhile Fico protégé and prime minister, has sought to distance himself from his former mentor’s extremism, and is a keen proponent of Bratislava’s pro-Western orientation.

“Pellegrini has stressed he doesn’t want to see a change in Slovakia’s geopolitical orientation,” points out Tim Haughton, professor of European politics at the University of Birmingham.

However, Grigorij Meseznikov of Bratislava’s Institute of Public Affairs cautions that within a Smer-SNS-Hlas coalition, the former pair is likely to dominate policy.

Source : Balkan Insight