Michal Simecka was called back from Brussels by his Progressive Slovakia party to try to stop what looked like the inevitable return to power of populist strongman Robert Fico at next week’s election – and polls show that he might really pull it off.
Three-time premier Fico had looked down and out when he resigned after massive demonstrations following the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancé in 2018. His leftist Smer party, accused of presiding over a completely corrupted state apparatus, then split and failed to come first at the 2020 general election for the first time since 2006.
But the incompetence of the election winner, centre-right populist Igor Matovic, during the COVID-19 pandemic, together with coalition infighting and the ongoing cost of living crisis have brought Fico roaring back into first place in opinion polls with around 20%.
The liberal pro-EU Progressives, who narrowly failed to enter parliament in 2020, are now benefiting from not being part of that “coalition of chaos” and are just a few percentage points behind Smer in the latest opinion polls. There is a real hope that a late surge of support from the estimated one quarter of undecided voters could push the Progressives into first place on September 30, just like Matovic’s OLaNO last time around.
“It will be very narrow,” says Milan Nic, senior fellow at the German Council of Foreign Relations (DGAP). “It could be decided in the last two weeks.”
“There is a real chance of a bandwagon effect,” says Professor Tim Haughton of Birmingham University, who has just visited the country. “I would not be surprised if they do better than the polls indicate.”
Bratislava is currently full of billboards of the Progressives’ youthful (39-year-old) bearded leader and his wholesome family, urging Slovaks “to vote for the future”.
“In the final stretch it is a political confrontation of two visions of where Slovakia should be headed,” Simecka told bne IntelliNews in an interview in his Bratislava office. “Fico is promising a return to the past, retribution, a potential threat to the rule of law and international isolation.”
Simecka – who built up his profile in Slovakia while vice-president of the European Parliament through punchy interventions on social media – has performed better than expected in television debates, even if his sober style of argument often clashes with tub thumping political rivals (Matovic and Smer’s Robert Kalinak even thumped each other at a recent rally).
There now appears to be real excitement among the city’s liberal and relatively affluent young voters that Progressive Slovakia could win, even if many also fear that Simecka could be outfoxed by the veteran Fico, who has dominated the country’s politics for nearly 20 years.
Simecka is an unlikely politician not just because of his relative youth but because of his background and politics. In a country that over the past 34 years of democracy has habitually backed beefy populists who claim to stand for the ordinary man, his liberal views and academic experience stand out. He comes from a famous family of dissident writers, has a PhD from Oxford, and worked as a foreign policy wonk and journalist before entering politics (full disclosure: he was my colleague 20 years ago).
He also does not dominate his party as Slovak leaders customarily do, and only became chairman and the Progressive candidate for premier in May last year as the party had no-one else who fancied the job.
“One of his weaknesses is that he does not have any executive experience,” says Haughton. “Vice president of the EU parliament counts for virtually nothing here. Is he up to being PM will be the question on many people’s minds.”
Another weakness is that his party is widely dismissed as a Bratislava liberal club with little reach outside the capital. Slovakia suffers from deep regional inequalities and booming Bratislava is a world away from the grim towns and dusty villages in central and eastern parts of the country.
Slovaks in those regions have recently been hit by first the pandemic and then soaring prices, and have long had a weakness (worsened by disinformation) for populist strongmen promising stability, order, and a strong state.
“There is a problem that Progressive Slovakia is seen as very much a Bratislava party and a party of the young,” says Haughton. “Its appeal outside these groups is more limited.”
Nic argues that its free market economic programme has little appeal for poorer voters, and the inclusion of promises such as registered same-sex partnerships does not go down well in the more conservative rural areas. The party also has a strong green focus, and some members have publicly backed liberalisation of drugs.
“They are limiting their appeal to urban areas,” says Nic. “They are playing into the hands of Fico and Smer who are framing them as radicals”.
Michal Vasecka, head of the Bratislava Policy Institute think-tank concurs. “Honestly they are too modern for Slovakia,” he says. “Progressive Slovakia is viewed as too radical.”
Simecka is unapologetic. “We are a liberal party and that is the way it is. We believe in [sexual] equality and that is who we are,” he says. “The thing that people need to realise is that Slovakia is an outlier in the EU. Many EU states have not just civil partnerships but same-sex marriages.”
Even the party’s closest potential allies have turned on them in the heat of the campaign, damning them as too radical, as their own ratings dribble away.
Christian Democrat leader Milan Majerský said the Progressives were "in many ways" a threat because of their gender policies.
The libertarian Freedom and Solidarity Party (SaS) has also recently attacked the “neo-Marxist” Progressives. A top SaS party official told bne IntelliNews that there were deep economic policy differences between the parties that were not always reflected in the Progressives’ programme.
“We don’t know what to expect from them,” he said, casting doubt on their pledge not to raise taxes to close the yawning budget deficit. “They don’t mean it. Their experts say there must be tax hikes. We will ask for more budget cuts but they will not be willing to do this.”
The smaller centre-right parties blame Simecka for trying to make the election a binary choice between the Progressives and Fico. This could firm up Smer’s support and push the smaller parties below the 5% threshold, leaving the Progressives bereft of allies.
“Progressive Slovakia is playing on the fear of Fico and portraying themselves as the alternative,” says Nic. “The strong polarisation between Smer and PS is not good for small parties.”
Even if the seats are there to form a government, and the Progressives can reach a compromise with the Christian Democrats and SaS, they are likely to need at least two more parties to achieve a majority. Building and holding such a government together will be a huge test of Simecka’s leadership skills, and could end in another fiasco for the Slovak centre-right, which is riven with personal antagonisms.
Simecka puts on a brave face. “My experience is from the European Parliament, where you have to work with people who you don’t necessarily agree with…. 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.”
Insiders say that comparing the European Parliament to the snake pit of Slovak politics is naïve.
“Michael Simecka does not know what he has got himself into and what to do about it,” one former senior official in the recently collapsed centre-right government told bne IntelliNews. “He will come face to face with the thick wall of Slovak political reality.”
That reality is that he will need at least two parties from what he says are not his preferred partners, each with their own drawbacks.
Matovic’s OLaNO should be an obvious partner but his erratic behaviour as premier will make him virtually the last choice.
Boris Kollar’s rightwing populist We are Family party is even more traditional on “family issues” than the Catholic Christian Democrats, despite Kollar’s 13 children from 11 different women. Kollar has said that joining with Progressive Slovakia would be his last option and that Simecka would be a “disaster” as premier.
The fate of Slovakia may come down to former premier Robert Pellegrini’s centre-left Hlas party, which is running third in the opinion polls at around 13%.
Pellegrini, who took over as premier from Fico when he resigned but then formed his own party before the election, had indicated he would prefer to work with the Progressives but he has been more ambivalent in recent weeks as his poll support has weakened. "We are fundamentally different and it's probably hard to come to an agreement," he said recently.
Political analysts suggest that Hlas could split if Pellegrini forms a coalition with the centre-right, who distrust him anyway, and he might therefore choose to ally again with Fico, perhaps in return for a clear run for the presidency next year.
“I still have a hidden hope that Progressive Slovakia will win,” says Beata Balagova, editor of the Sme daily. “But if Fico loses it will be a nasty compromise,” she warns, “and we will be in the hands of Pellegrini”.