Robert Fico, the populist who was resurrected when everyone in Slovakia thought him dead | International

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Everyone in Slovakia considered Robert Fico politically dead. It was in 2020, when his party, Smer-SD (Slovak Social Democracy-Direction) lost the elections, after he himself was forced to resign in 2018 due to the massive demonstrations unleashed after the murder of an investigative journalist and the his partner. Just two and a half years later, the populist and nationalist leader, who was prime minister for three terms, returns to power in Slovakia more radical than ever and eager for revenge. This Saturday he won the parliamentary elections, although he will have to look for alliances to be able to govern.

Fico has been able to read the unrest of the Slovaks, stir up their fears and propose himself as their savior. The country has gone through the pandemic and then, through the instability generated by war in its neighbor Ukraine, with a chaotic and ill-matched center-right coalition government. In the face of political instability and economic anxiety due to the rising cost of living, the leader has promised stability and security, and the end of military support for Ukraine.

The nationalist, populist, xenophobic and anti-Ukrainian speech of the 59-year-old veteran politician during the electoral campaign has generated concern in Western capitals about the risk of him becoming a new Viktor Orbán in the European Union and NATO. . Since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year, the Hungarian prime minister has stood out as the EU voice closest to Vladimir Putin. Now, Fico could join his team.

The winner of the Slovak elections opposes, like the conservative governments of Poland and Hungary, the distribution of refugees in the EU, any change in the method of unanimous decision-making in the European Council and the integration of Ukraine into the EU and NATO. “We know that Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and that its government regime is very far from democratic standards,” he responded to Reuters recently about the possible start of talks with Kiev for joining the community club, which he called “delusional”.

The veteran leader, 59 years old, has been in politics since the nineties. He studied in the United States and upon his return, he was vice president of the Democratic Left party, a split from the old Communist Party, in which he also participated. In 1999, he founded Smer, a liberal party where he had no rivals.

Peter Spak, a Slovak political scientist at Masaryk University in the neighboring Czech Republic, remembers how in the beginning Fico refused to associate his new party with the right or the left. “Since it didn't work, he moved towards social democracy,” he explains over Zoom. “But this party has nothing to do with Western social democracy. And he never has. [El nombre] It is nothing more than a tool marketing. His attitude is nationalist and populist,” she warns.

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In 2006, in his first term (2006-2010), he formed a coalition government with a right-wing party. In 2014-2015, he “began to openly and decisively mobilize people on the far right,” according to Spak. “Some of his statements from that time could pass for those of a far-right politician,” he says. And more recently, the political scientist points out, his speeches during the pandemic, with anti-vaccine purposes, or on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in which he blames Kiev for the conflict, are not distinguishable from those of Republika, the far-right party that finally he has not managed to enter Parliament.

His ultra-conservative stance on social issues such as LGTBI rights also distances him from the European social democratic family and brings him closer to leaders such as Orbán or the Polish Jaroslaw Kaczynski. He also shares with them the xenophobic view on migration, with statements such as that the arrival of migrants from Muslim countries poses a risk of the entry of terrorists. In the campaign, Fico has advocated strengthening cooperation in the Visegrad group, where in addition to Hungary and Poland, the Czech Republic sits.

The political careers of Fico and Orbán are also similar in their evolution from a youth with liberal ideas and international studies to a radicalization with nationalist, conservative and anti-Western values. The Slovak's career has two turning points, according to Spac. The first is in 2014, when he lost the presidential elections. The definitive one is 2018, with the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his partner, Martina Kusnirova, when the reporter was investigating connections between people close to Smer and the Italian mafia and about government corruption scandals. The event shook Slovak society, which took to the streets en masse, and Fico was forced to resign. After his departure, Smer fell in the polls and lost in the 2020 elections. After those elections, part of his party left and founded Hlas (Voice). The press and analysts certified his political death.

Some 40 senior officials, police officers, judges, prosecutors, politicians and businessmen related to Smer have been convicted of corruption and other crimes, according to local press cited by Reuters. Another 130 are being investigated or prosecuted. He even faced charges last year for using information from police and tax authorities to discredit political rivals. Now, many expect personal revenge, for what he considers an attack on his own. During the campaign, he threatened to fire special prosecutor Daniel Lipsic, who investigates the most serious crimes and corruption cases. He has also intimidated the president, Zuzana Caputova, whom he accuses of treason and being a US agent.

Fico has always been one for grandiose electoral statements and promises, but in the past he has proven to be more pragmatic than ideological, especially in the relationship with the EU, where Slovakia has never had a strong voice. One of the main milestones of his previous terms was the country's entry into the eurozone in 2008, after having campaigned against it. In Bratislava it is known that he has approached respected people for the position of Foreign Minister, which is interpreted as a good sign. This Sunday, in an appearance after his victory, he assured: “Slovakia's foreign policy is not going to change, but that does not mean that we cannot be critical of the EU on some issues.”

It is foreseeable that if he reaches a coalition agreement to govern with Hlas, his Government will be more moderate than his rallies indicated. Despite everything, Orbán already sees Fico as a possible new ally in his disputes with Brussels. After his victory, the Hungarian was quick to send his congratulations and invite him to cooperate. “It is always good to work alongside a patriot. “We are looking forward to it!” wrote the Hungarian Prime Minister on X (formerly Twitter).

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