European Socialist grouping suspends Slovakia's Smer and Hlas

European Socialist grouping suspends Slovakia's Smer and Hlas
The parties of Peter Pellegrini (left) and Robert Fico (centre) have been suspended by PES after forming a government with Andrej Danko's SNS (right). / bne IntelliNews
By Robert Anderson in Prague October 13, 2023

The Party of European Socialists (PES), the umbrella group for Europe’s Socialist parties, has suspended both incoming Slovak premier Robert Fico’s Smer-SD and its coalition partner, Peter Pellegrini’s Hlas-SD, after they formed a new government with the far-right Slovak Nationalist Party (SNS).

“This step has been taken following the clear divergence from the values of the PES family demonstrated by Smer-SD leader Robert Fico,” PES’s presidency said in a statement after a meeting on October 12. “And additionally, as a result of concerns raised following the announcement of a government coalition between Smer-SD, Hlas-SD and a radical-right party.”

The PES' move means that Slovakia's ruling parties will be excluded from meetings of Socialist leaders before EU meetings, reducing the country's clout in Brussels.

PES – which had already once suspended Smer-SD in 2006 for forming a government with the anti-migrant SNS – had put the party on watch in the spring. PES’ head, former Swedish premier Stefan Lofven, also publicly warned Fico before last month’s general election that Smer-SD faced suspension for its stance against supporting Ukraine in its defence against Russian aggression.

Fico, who will soon begin his fourth government, has also backed peace talks now between Kyiv and Moscow, opposed sanctions on Russia, and criticised Ukraine, claiming the war was started by "Ukrainian fascists".

Since the election Fico has doubled down on this rhetoric, claiming “there are fascists in the ranks of the Ukrainian army...We must confront fascism and Nazism in all its manifestations”.

He has also mounted an aggressive campaign against refugees, shared platforms with anti-Semites, and is an open admirer of Hungary's radical rightwing strongman Viktor Orban. 

Like Orban, he has even claimed US-Hungarian philanthropist George Soros is masterminding a plot against him, a typical rightwing trope, and has also tried to stoke a culture war in the majority Catholic country.

He has said of his own party, “Smer is a left-wing, social-democratic party, we use the expression that we are of the rustic type, more down-to-earth, we are not Brussels homosexuals".

After the election, Fico responded belligerently in a video to the PES warning, saying it was “blackmail”, “undemocratic” and “authoritarian”, and highlighting his (rare) success as a leftwing leader in Central Europe.

That’s really beautiful, democratic. Either we say what the USA wants, or they’ll expel us. The PES chairman scrupulously adheres to the philosophy that who is for peace is a warmonger, and who is in favour of war and killing is a peace activist … It’s not right to blackmail a sovereign politician.”

"If our exclusion is to be a price for pursuing a genuine left-wing agenda in Slovakia and voicing sovereign opinions, we are prepared to pay the price," Fico said.

Peter Pellegrini's Hlas party was also punished for joining in a government with the SNS. Former premier Pellegrini split from Smer after the 2020 election. After this election he turned down an opportunity to become premier again as head of a broad anti-Fico government.

PES had come under criticism for hypocrisy from its rival centre-right grouping, the European People’s Party (EPP),  because PES had often accused it in the past of slowness in moving to expel Orban’s Fidesz only in 2021 (Orban resigned just before he was formally expelled).

“Whenever we listen to Fico it sounds like Orban,” said Manfred Weber, EPP leader, highlighting Fico’s stance on Russia and towards minorities. “What I am asking is a clarification process on the Socialists’ side, what are they doing now with their own family member?”

Fico has long had a rocky relationship with PES. He has argued that Socialists should address the fears that fuel populism, and adopt some of their enemies’ tactics, such as simple messages and rough and ready language.  He believes that by articulating the beliefs and fears of poorer Slovaks, he has been able to become the dominant political figure in a country that had never previously elected a leftwing government in a free election.