The return of Robert Fico would be a grave danger for Slovakia, Central Europe and the European Union, says Michal Simecka, leader of Progressive Slovakia, the main rival to the populist strongman in next weekend’s snap general election.
“Fico promises a return to the past, retribution [against police and prosecutors investigating him], a potential threat to the rule of law and international isolation,” the 39-year-old vice-president of the European Parliament told bne IntelliNews in an interview in his office in Bratislava.
Simecka has been a strong critic both in speeches and in social media of Viktor Orban, and says Fico, who is seeking a coalition with far-right parties, would follow the Hungarian strongman’s playbook.
“He is a strong admirer of the way Orban has built his regime and that’s not something that we want for Slovakia and it has implications for Central European politics and the EU, especially when it comes to Russia,” says the liberal leader. “Viktor Orban is doing Russia’s bidding in the EU. My fear is that, given the statements of Fico and others, Slovakia will become Orban’s partner in this.”
He points out that Fico is also one of the main amplifiers of Russian disinformation in Slovakia, which has been one of the most receptive countries for the Kremlin’s lies. “If one of the most popular politicians is spreading lies and disinformation, that is the root cause of the problem,” he says.
Smer is also benefiting from a recent rise in irregular migration from Hungary, where Orban recently released more than 2,000 traffickers, despite his anti-migrant rhetoric.
“It is true that increased migration numbers are helping Fico,” Simecka says, adding that “we can see that Hungary is failing to protect the Schengen border”, though he said rumours that the Hungarian strongman has done it deliberately to benefit Fico's campaign are unproven.
Slovaks should now rally round the leading non-populist party to keep Fico from returning to power at next weekend’s election, he says. “In the final stretch it is a political confrontation of two visions of where Slovakia should be headed,” he declares.
Simecka, who took over as the Progressives’ leader last year following its failure to enter parliament at the 2020 election, says there is still all to play for, with the latest opinion polls showing his liberal party just three points behind Fico’s left populist Smer party on 20% and closing, and with 30% still undecided.
“The trend is positive, going by all the latest polls but it’s still open. A lot could change in the last few weeks.”
Simecka argues that it is vital that his party comes first as President Zuzana Caputova, a former top Progressive leader, has confirmed that she will nominate the leader of the largest party to make the first attempt to form a government.
“If Mr Fico gets the nomination of the president he’s unlikely to let that spill out of his hands,” Simecka says.
The Progressives’ leader rejects accusations from smaller parties that its recent surge is squeezing their vote and could push them below the 5% threshold to enter parliament, thereby potentially harming his chances of building a majority.
“It is not that Progressive Slovakia is rising in the polls at the expense of potential partners,” he says. “[We are] taking votes from the undecided.”
If the Progressives have the votes to keep Fico from returning to power, Simecka is likely to have to build – and hold together – a coalition of perhaps five or six parties stretching from the centre-left to the radical right.
The Progressives would be the most liberal on social issues, if not on economic ones in such a government, and the cabinet would be full of more seasoned political leaders who both hate each other and regard themselves as more suited to be prime minister. This weekend’s election is the second early election in a dozen years brought about by the collapse of fractious coalition governments created to keep Fico out.
“I would be lying if I said it would be super easy [to reach a coalition deal],” he deadpans, but adds: “Coalitions and partnerships between liberals and conservatives are normal in European politics so I don’t see why it should not work in Slovakia.”
The Progressives say that their preferred partners are the neoliberal Freedom and Solidarity Party (SaS) and the Christian Democrats. But to hold a majority they are also likely to have to include at least two from the populist rightwing OLaNO and Smer Rodina parties, and the third-ranked centre-left Hlas party, any of which would be difficult partners.
“My experience is from the European Parliament, where you have to work with people who you don’t necessarily agree with,” he says. “It’s about dialogue and respect for your partners. Of course it’s not going to be easy but I think it is the best possible path for our future.”
One potential conflict could be over the Progressives’ flagship policy to introduce registered partnerships for same-sex couples. This is opposed by the Catholic Christian Democrats, as well as the two populist parties, and could be a sticking point.
Simecka points out that Slovakia is one of the few countries in the EU that still does not allow at least registered partnerships, and the hostile attitude to LGBTQ people – highlighted by a murder in Bratislava last year – may be one factor behind its worrying emigration problem.
“It is not culture war or ideology but just a way to make tens of thousands of people’s lives better,” says Simecka. “I don’t quite understand what damage it can do. This is a way of convincing them they are part of society and they have equal rights. I don’t see that as particularly radical or a culture war.”
One of the biggest challenges facing any government will be the budget deficit, which will be more than 6% of GDP this year. The technocrat government of Ludovit Odor, which took over in May when Eduard Heger’s cabinet collapsed, has recommended that the next government cut 3 percentage points (pp) from the deficit over its term. However, populist parties continue to offer voters more spending promises regardless.
"The picture of our public finances is indeed grim,” says Simecka. “The long-term projection is the worst in the EU. Any future government will have to be fiscally prudent. It is also the law,” he points out, referring to the country’s debt brake law.
The Progressives would cut the deficit by a minimum of 0.5pp next year, partly by targeting welfare subsidies on the most needy and extending the finance ministry’s existing value for money assessment to cover all spending, not just investment.
Simecka says tax rises are not in the Progressives’ manifesto, though the party’s potential conservative partners suspect that it will come up with them. At the same time, populist parties that the Progressives are forced to ally with will fight any cuts that might damage their popularity.
Once the budget is stabilised, Simecka says Slovakia's stuttering economic growth will be revived by helping small and medium-sized companies, reducing bureaucratic hurdles, incentivising investment, and using EU funds properly to assist Slovakia’s transition to a green and digital economy.