By Marek Rybář (Masaryk University)

Robert Fico, the leader of Smer-Slovak Social Democracy (Smer), has made a resurgence. Following the electoral setback in 2020, the popularity of his party plummeted to some 8 percent. His erstwhile protégé, Peter Pellegrini, who assumed the role of Prime Minister in the Smer-led coalition government in 2018 after Fico was forced to resign, splintered from the Smer parliamentary caucus to establish his own party, Hlas-Social Democracy (Hlas, denoting ‘Voice’ in Slovak). Numerous public figures associated with Fico’s governments faced prosecution, trials, and convictions. Fico himself confronted corruption charges, and for many months post-defeat, he retreated from the active public life.

However, in the early elections held on September 30, Fico’s party emerged as the leader in the election results, garnering almost 23 percent support. Smer outpaced the liberal pro-European Progressive Slovakia (PS) by a significant margin of 5 percentage points, positioning itself as the frontrunner to form a government. Despite that, for Progressives, led by the Oxford-educated MEP Michal Šimečka, the election results represent the best result of a liberal party in modern Slovak history. In 2020, the party narrowly failed to enter the parliament, that time in a formal electoral alliance with another centrist party.

How to explain the unexpected comeback of Fico’s Smer, what are its chances to put together a stable parliamentary majority and what are the most likely consequences for Slovakia’s domestic politics and foreign policy?

The long campaign
The 2023 elections may be remembered as featuring the lengthiest and potentially most contentious electoral campaign in Slovakia. This effectively commenced in December 2022, following the breakdown of the coalition government, which had been formed in 2020 by four anti-Smer parties. The breakdown occurred when the parliamentary opposition, joined by a former junior coalition party Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) successfully passed a vote of no confidence against the government. This marked the culmination of three years of persistent discord among the top representatives of the governing parties, leading, in 2021, to the replacement of Igor Matovič by Eduard Heger (both of the OLaNO party) as the Prime Minister.

In January 2023, the parliament enacted a constitutional amendment to enable early elections, and the outgoing government’s parties reached an agreement to hold them in September. Functioning in a caretaker capacity with diminished authority and under the supervision of President Zuzana Čaputová, following the parliamentary vote of no confidence, the cabinet underwent a series of high-profile resignations, ultimately climaxing with the departure of Prime Minister Heger. Subsequently, President Čaputová appointed the first technocratic Slovak government, headed by the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank Ľudovít Ódor, to guide the country through the transitional period leading up to the early elections.
The parliamentary opposition, particularly Smer, endeavored to depict the choice facing Slovak voters as one between the chaos, unpredictability, and instability attributed to the parties of the outgoing government, and the stability and order historically associated with Smer-led administrations. On the contrary, the Matovič-led Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO) and other parties from the outgoing coalition government framed the election as a decisive choice between the alleged mafia-style governance of Smer (and Hlas) and the continuation of their own anti-corruption initiatives.

In contrast, Progressive Slovakia positioned itself as a third force, rejecting what it labeled “politicians of the past” and pledging to safeguard liberal democracy, human rights, and the Euro-Atlantic future of the country. Meanwhile, the far-right neofascist Republika, established as a splinter parliamentary faction from the far-right party Kotlebists, also disavowed the legacies of Fico and Matovič governments. However, it pursued an anti-EU, anti-NATO, and pro-Russian campaign, coupled with the vilification of the liberal policies espoused by the Progressive Slovakia.

Smer’s consistent surge in support leading up to the elections can be attributed to widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of the 2020-2023 coalition government, in which Igor Matovič of OLaNO played a pivotal role. However, this upward trend was also propelled by Smer’s strategic repositioning of its policy platform. Prior to 2020, the party could be characterized as a left-leaning, Communist-successor etatist party. However, in the post-2020 period, Smer underwent a significant shift to the radical right. During this period, Smer fully embraced a pro-Putin, anti-Ukraine narrative, actively propagated anti-US, anti-liberal, and anti-LGBT sentiments, and depicted its opponents as agents of foreign interests seeking to dismantle the traditional Slovak way of life. This move to the far right was primarily motivated by the party’s intention to appeal to anti-system voters in a country where a majority of the electorate is susceptible to various conspiracy theories. In the final days of the campaign, Fico also played the anti-immigration card, blaming the EU immigration policies and promising to bring order and stability.

Additionally, these elections marked one of the first instances of a national vote taking place after the EU’s Digital Services Act came into effect. This legislation mandated major social media platforms to, among other responsibilities, proactively eliminate fake news and disinformation campaigns from their platforms. During the legally prescribed 48-hour period of active campaigning, known as the election “moratorium” in Slovakia, a series of deepfake videos surfaced on the Slovak internet. These videos purportedly featured Progressive Slovakia’s leader, Šimečka, and President Čaputová (herself formerly associated with Progressive Slovakia). The dissemination of these deepfakes within this critical timeframe could have adversely affected the electoral support for the party. More broadly, it also raises questions about the capability of internet giants to effectively intervene and curb the spread of substantial disinformation online.

Election results
As in the 2020 elections, seven political parties successfully surpassed the electoral threshold, ensuring their representation in the parliament. Smer secured nearly 23 percent of the vote, followed by Progressive Slovakia with 18 percent and Hlas with 14.7 percent. The electoral support for the OLaNO party reached 8.9 percent. The economic-liberal Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) was the final party from the outgoing parliament that secured reelection, garnering 6.3 percent.

Two other “traditional” political parties secured parliamentary seats: the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) attained 6.8 percent, marking its return to the national parliament after two electoral cycles since 2016. The Slovak National Party secured 5.6 percent. Intriguingly, it continued the pattern established since 2012, involving a term in government (as Smer’s junior partner) followed by an electoral term outside the national parliament due to its inability to surpass the five percent electoral threshold.

The post-election dynamics indicate two plausible scenarios for government formation. In the first scenario, Smer would align with Hlas and SNS, resulting in a coalition with a working parliamentary majority of 79 out of 150 seats. This outcome is preferable for Smer and SNS. Peter Pellegrini, the leader of Hlas, sees Smer as an acceptable coalition partner. However, he has voiced his reservations about the potential instability of SNS and its parliamentary caucus. Despite having ten parliamentarians in the new parliament, only the chairman of SNS, Andrej Danko, is a member of the party. Part of SNS’s success in surpassing the 5 percent threshold lies in Danko offering places on his party list to members of two small nationalist parties and non-affiliated activists with similar political leanings. Running their own independent campaigns, they took advantage of the preferential voting system and secured parliamentary seats at the expense of SNS members on the party list. Consequently, Danko may face challenges in controlling his parliamentary representatives, posing a potential risk of government instability. In a modified version of this scenario, Christian Democrats could replace SNS as the third party. Although KDH before the elections officially rejected cooperation with Smer, middle-ranking regional bosses within the party may be more inclined to seek government positions.

Alternatively, a four-way majority government comprising Progressive Slovakia, Hlas, Christian Democrats, and SaS could be formed, controlling 82 of 150 seats in parliament. This is the preferred option for the Progressives and SaS. The leader of Progressive Slovakia, M. Šimečka, asserted that his party would exert every effort to prevent the establishment of a Smer-led administration. However, it remains uncertain how Pellegrini’s Hlas will respond and what factors could influence them to opt for an anti-Smer government. While Pellegrini himself may not be overly enthusiastic about governing with Smer, a majority of his fellow party MPs have political roots in Smer and may feel more comfortable working closely with their former party, despite some policy differences.

It is worth noting that none of the discussed scenarios involves Matovič’s OLaNO party. Matovič has garnered a reputation as a “toxic” politician, and there are few potential allies willing to work closely with his party. Matovič’s official post-election announcement, declaring that his party would remain in parliamentary opposition, could thus be interpreted as a preemptive move to divert public attention from the fact that his party is not considered a suitable partner by any other parliamentary entity.

In contrast, Hlas currently occupies the position of a kingmaker, as no viable coalition can be established without its participation. However, this situation may prove to be a double-edged sword for the party. Entering into government with Smer, particularly with Fico as the Prime Minister, raises concerns that voters might question the necessity of maintaining two seemingly similar parties. Fico has a historical track record of assimilating a significant portion of voters from his coalition partners, as exemplified by the fate of SNS and Vladimír Mečiar’s HZDS in the 2010 elections.

On the alternative path, forming an alliance with the Progressives and two other anti-Smer parties could potentially create the conditions for defections of Hlas MPs to Smer. Indications suggest that a majority within the Hlas leadership and parliamentary caucus may harbor a preference for collaboration with Smer. Regardless of the chosen trajectory, the medium-term survival of Hlas remains an open-ended issue.

The impact of elections
The international media’s coverage of the 2023 Slovak elections, perhaps understandably, predominantly concentrated on their international implications. Assertions have been made that Fico’s return to power raises questions about the country’s dedication to its EU and NATO partners. Fico himself committed to halting any military assistance to Ukraine and, for example, expressed admiration for the political direction Hungary has taken under Viktor Orbán’s leadership. Coupled with his anti-American and pro-Putin rhetoric, apprehensions have arisen regarding the potential emergence of another illiberal regime in Central Europe, which could further erode the delicate foreign policy consensus within the EU.

However, a more plausible interpretation suggests that Fico has employed foreign policy issues as a means to garner electoral support for advancing his domestic agenda. His primary objective is to impede investigations by the police and prosecutors into the involvement of Smer-affiliated public officials in deeds committed during his previous governments. If Smer regains power, it is anticipated that pressures on independent media and civil society organizations will intensify, and the anti-corruption efforts of recent years will likely be abandoned. Fico has exhibited limited interest in international affairs, positioning himself as a pragmatist willing to exchange his consent for major EU initiatives in return for diminished EU scrutiny of his domestic performance.

While the likelihood of a fourth Smer-led government persists, the internal fragility of its potential coalition parties, coupled with the absence of a credible alternative without Smer in government, implies that any new government is likely to face issues related to its stability. In the two preceding parliamentary cycles (2016-2020 and 2020-2023), governments of diverse political orientations were established, but the coalitions supporting them subsequently disintegrated. The confluence of highly personalized politics, a multitude of parliamentary parties, and their internal fragility has established a “new normal”, characterized by transient parties and unstable governments. It is possible that the Slovak political landscape following the 2023 elections will serve as yet another manifestation of this discernible trend.

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