Pellegrini takes 'tough' stance as kingmaker of next Slovak government

Pellegrini takes 'tough' stance as kingmaker of next Slovak government
Robert Pellegrini: “Of course, we will be tough in negotiations.” / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera October 3, 2023

Peter Pellegrini, whose centre-left Hlas party is the kingmaker after last weekend's Slovak general election, has promised "tough negotiations" on forming a new government, and does not rule out entering into a coalition with the liberal Progressive Slovakia party (PS) rather than the election winning Smer party of his former colleague, Robert Fico.  

“I won’t be anyone’s assistant”, Pellegrini told a press conference following his meeting with  President Zuzana Caputova. “If Hlas won’t be able to achieve what it wants in talks with Smer then we will seek this with the alternate option,” he said in a nod to a potential coalition with PS, the Christian democrat KDH, and the libertarian SaS, which would have a majority of 82 deputies in the 150-member parliament. The Smer-Hlas-SNS coalition would have 79 deputies. 

Pellegrini said that Hlas, which won a solid 14.7% and 27 seats, has a “unique opportunity to have a strong position in the [next] government” and that “we will be waiting to see who will be generous enough to us.”

“Of course, we will be tough in negotiations,” Pellegrini said with a smile in response to the question of whether Hlas could obtain the PM post.

The new kingmaker of Slovak politics reiterated that party leadership did not rule out any of the options, saying “we are communicating with Smer” and “we will see” how the “first start-up meeting goes”. In response to journalist questions, Pellegrini also confirmed that he “informally met with Mr [Michal] Simecka,” leader of Progressive Slovakia, adding that Hlas is ready to enter talks on a four-party-coalition “if Smer coalition talks fail”.

Pellegrini is leaving his options open but he hinted that he would open to a more moderate government than the combination of Smer, Hlas and the ultra nationalist SNS party favoured by Fico.

“We will guarantee that there will be a government in Slovakia under which no one will be forced to pack their luggage and leave the country”, Pellegrini stated in reference to a highly polarised election campaign in which many young Slovaks voiced depression over the prospect of  Fico’s return to power. Slovakia already has a serious brain drain problem.

Fico was chased away from the government following the largest mass demonstrations in the history of Slovakia prompted by the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kusnirova in 2018.

Pellegrini, who formed Hlas after breaking away from Smer following the previous elections in 2020, reiterated that his party does not want “Slovakia to be a black hole on the map of Europe”, as it was under former premier Vladimir Meciar, according to then US secretary of state Madeline Albright. Analysts predict he would restrain any tilt in foreign policy in the direction of Viktor Orban's Hungary and Vladimir Putin's Moscow.

What seemed like the most likely option for the future coalition – Smer and Hlas ruling together with the SNS – has begun to look less probable after it emerged that four ex-members of the neofascist L’SNS entered the parliament on the SNS list thanks to preferential votes that enabled them to leapfrog other candidates. Party leader Andrej Danko will be the only member of the SNS leadership in the parliament,  making SNS’ ten deputies a more extremist and difficult to predict grouping of  legislators.   

Pellegrini came short of ruling out the cooperation with SNS, however, pointing out that the KDH, which could also form a majority-backed cabinet with Smer and Hlas, has previously taken a hard stance on a coalition with Smer, whose party bosses face several criminal investigations.

“This would be a good coalition,” Pellegrini said in reference to the post-election cooperation with Smer and KDH.

Fico was given 14 days to form the next cabinet after he met Caputova on Monday, October 2. Despite his “spectacular resurrection,” a “non-Fico government is possible,” Milan Nic of US German Marshall Fund observed in reference to the possible four-party coalition of runner-up Progressive Slovakia, Hlas, KDH and neoliberal SaS. "As kingmaker, Pellegrini will refuse the government with ultranationalist SNS," he wrote on social media X.

Pellegrini told media at a press conference following his meeting with Caputova that Hlas will take “a responsible stance,” reiterating that no coalition is possible without  Hlas and that if Hlas went into opposition, then a deadlock situation would occur with another early election likely.  Pellegrini urged patience, saying that “in every democratic country, the winner needs to get an opportunity to form a government”. 

Pellegrini also faced multiple questions over his and other Hlas members' past in Fico’s Smer, which in Bratislava is still seen as exercising influence over Hlas.    

“Hlas won’t break apart,” Pellegrini said, dismissing suggestions that many of his deputies would insist on working with Smer.