Slovakia chooses between a pro-Russian nationalist and a young liberal MEP close to kyiv | International
The Slovaks will have to choose this Saturday between two opposing models. The citizens of this country of barely 5.5 million are called to vote in legislative elections that have become symbolic for the EU. With their ballot they will decide between a Government that remains in the European and NATO consensus, with Ukraine, its eastern neighbor, at war, or whether they return the populist and nationalist Robert Fico to power.
The former three-time prime minister – who everyone left for dead politically when he lost in 2020 after being forced to resign in the face of massive protests over the murder of an investigative journalist and his partner in 2018 – has returned as a favorite in the polls. . During the campaign, Fico, 59, has promised to stop military aid to Kiev and has denounced sanctions on Russia, in line with the EU leader closest to Moscow, the Hungarian ultra-conservative Viktor Orbán. He faces Michal Simecka, a 39-year-old liberal, pro-European and pro-Ukrainian MEP. The leader of Progresívne Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia, PS) arrives at the electoral meeting very evenly matched with Fico, but with fewer possibilities of forming a government.
Slovakia is one of the most pro-Russian societies in central and eastern Europe, for historical reasons. According to a study by think tank international Globsec, only 40% of Slovaks believe that Russia is primarily responsible for the invasion of Ukraine, compared to 85% of Poles. Robert Vass, president of this organization in Bratislava, explains that Russia has found fertile ground for propaganda in the country, with a large disinformation network that has been reinforced during the war. In spring, authorities detained a journalist who was recorded receiving money from a Russian Embassy employee, a fake news machine. “Slovak society believes disinformation and conspiracy theories,” says Vass in a video call.
Pro-Russian propaganda spreads on social networks, especially Facebook, and conspiracy websites, but also at the rallies of the extreme right and of a candidate seeking a fourth term. “I will say it loud and clear: the war in Ukraine did not start yesterday or last year. It started in 2014, when Ukrainian Nazis and fascists began murdering Russian citizens in Donbas,” said Fico, leader of Smer-SD (Slovak Social Democracy-Direction), at an election rally in Topolcany, his hometown, in August.
The Slovak political landscape is deeply fragmented and has seen four prime ministers pass in five years. The country is emerging from a turbulent legislature of the center-right coalition government led by OLáNo (Normal People and Independent Personalities), marked by chaos and internal struggles while the crises of the pandemic and war unfolded. In these elections – brought forward after the motion of censure that overthrew the Executive in December and the resignation of the Prime Minister in May – up to six new parties and several former heads of Government are presented. Some of these formations will be decisive in forming the Executive, but the latest polls place five of the first 10 that compete only touching the threshold of 5% of minimum votes (7% for coalitions) to achieve parliamentary representation.
A violent campaign
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The campaign has been “the most violent” that Viera Zuborova, analyst and research director at the Bratislava Institute of Politics, has seen. “The amount of hate speech, fake news and misinformation has been tremendous. It had never happened.” And there have not only been verbal attacks. In the middle of the month, former Prime Minister Igor Matovic – who held office between 2020 and 2021, until his resignation over the purchase of Russian vaccines – attended a Smer event with a megaphone and called the party mafia-like. Former Interior Minister Robert Kalinak confronted him. The scuffle led to a fight involving punches and kicks. In the face of chaos and uncertainty, Fico promises his voters security and stability.
Erik Szedely, an analyst at the consulting firm Fipra, explains that the extremely long campaign has revolved around issues as disparate as bear attacks; mortgages and bank profits; migrants and LGTBI rights. Migration, which is not usually a problem in Slovakia because it is a transit country, has become a central issue in the last month due to the increase in arrivals from Hungary, after which some see Orbán's hand in promoting Fico. After Germany announced controls on the border with Poland this week, Warsaw said it would do the same with the Slovak border.
Foreign policy does not usually decide an election, but the parties have presented it as a cause and solution to internal problems, as he writes for the think tank Carnegie Europe analyst Alena Kudzko. Pro-Europeans, such as PS and the technocratic government in office, argue that Slovakia would be in a dangerous and unstable situation if Ukraine loses the war. Smer and his potential allies blame the conflict and sanctions on Russia for inflation (which is around 10%) and the cost of living crisis.
Although Smer defines himself as a social democrat and defends the economic intervention of the State and the rights of workers or pensioners, his social policies are conservative and restrictive of civil rights. “He has no ideology, he is pragmatic and manages to break taboos such as anti-globalism and anti-liberalism,” says Zuborova. In the classic search for enemies and rivals of the populists, Fico's party has focused on the EU, NATO, the philanthropist George Soros, migrants, the LGTBI collective and even the president, Zuzana Caputova, “progressive, liberal, pro-European and woman”, as the analyst defines her. The leader, subject to harassment and threats, has announced that she will not run for re-election and has denounced Fico for defamation, for accusing her of treason and of being a United States agent.
Detractors of the Smer leader believe that he is returning to politics to take over the Ministries of the Interior and Justice, which would put the rule of law at risk. Jan Kuciak, the journalist whose murder caused the fall of Fico's Government, was investigating the Executive's connections with the Italian mafia. According to Slovak press cited by Reuters, 40 people close to Smer have been convicted of corruption and other crimes and another 130 are under investigation or on trial. Fico even faced charges last year for using police and prosecutor information to discredit his political rivals.
Smer and PS go to the polls practically tied, with around 20% voting intention, according to the latest polls, which even place the second slightly ahead. To govern, Fico's party could reach agreements with Hlas (Voice), a split from his party led by former Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, more moderate and pro-European, and third in the polls (15%). But it could also try to reach an agreement with the nationalists of SNS and the extreme right of Republika, which advocates holding referendums to remove Slovakia from NATO and the EU.
Progressive Slovakia, which has campaigned to continue aid to Ukraine, improve the health and education system and stop the brain drain, would have to convince Hlas, who is too close to Smer. Other possible partners would be the OLáNo coalition, associated with the chaos of the failed Government, or smaller parties, if they manage to enter Parliament.
Simecka, who was a journalist before being an MEP, has warned that if Fico wins, there could be another country in the EU governed in the style of Orbán, with the consequences that could have on support for Ukraine. Consultant Szedely emphasizes that everything will depend on the partners who enter the Government, and who occupies the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And he sees very possible friendly relations between Fico and the Hungarian leader, “with whom he shares very close ties and opinions.”
The president of Globsec recalls that Smer “has proven to be responsible in the past.” “If they move from rhetoric to action, it will be dangerous for the EU and for Ukraine, but it is not clear to what extent they will do so,” says Vass, who sees limited scope for a major shift in Slovak attitude in Europe. “The cost of vetoes is very high, and we need EU money,” he adds. Zuborova warns that a Smer victory “can create a domino effect, breaking taboos and giving strength to extremists in other countries.” Slovaks choose where they want to take the country 15 days before Poles also vote, at a critical moment in support for Ukraine among Eastern countries. This Sunday we will know what they have decided.
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