Slovak presidential campaign showed how populists can dominate the narrative to mobilise support

Slovak presidential campaign showed how populists can dominate the narrative to mobilise support
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico (right) greets Slovaks dressed in folklore costume. / Robert Fico's Facebook
By Albin Sybera April 17, 2024

The victory of the Slovak parliamentary speaker Peter Pellegrini by close to a 7% margin in April's second-round presidential election run-off was a showcase of populist mobilisation of the electorate using trumped-up fear messages channelled through social media networks.

It also heralds the shrinking media plurality in the country and should serve as yet another warning bell for Europe ahead of the elections to the European Parliament.

“Liberal media, NGOs fed from abroad, the whole Slovak progressive world suffered a serious defeat,” populist Prime Minister Robert Fico declared on his Facebook page in his regular address Co sa nezmestilo na tlacovku [What hasn’t fit into the presser] on Sunday, April 8, soon after the news of Pellegrini’s victory.

“A majority of people, as in the parliamentary elections, rejected boundless support of the war in Ukraine […] and violent pushing of controversial ethical themes to the Slovak public [which is] built on wholly different values and traditions,” Fico said in his interpretation of the result.

Pellegrini’s victory by a bigger than expected margin was due to a huge mobilisation of the electorate of the left-right government and defeated far-right fringe candidates, using social media to play up fears over the war in next door Ukraine. This propaganda drive overturned diplomat Ivan Korcok’s strong lead in the first round.

Pellegrini desperately targeted voters of the far-right pro-Kremlin candidate Stefan Harabin by calling for “peace”, despite previously having taken a pro-Western stance. This helped him almost double his vote to 1.4mn, giving him the second highest vote ever in a presidential election with the second highest turnout.

“The big story that is emerging with these numbers is that something happened between the first and second rounds,” Milan Nic, senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), told bne IntelliNews straight after the election. “The whole message of the Pellegrini camp changed in between the two rounds,” he added. “The message for Slovakia is that radicalisation works.”

Many commentators and analysts were taken aback by Pellegrini’s brazen and baseless allegations against Korcok, a former pro-Western foreign minister. Using a huge and opaquely funded social media advertising campaign, Pellegrini whipped up fears that Korcok could send Slovak soldiers to fight in Ukraine, even though the opposition candidate did not advocate this and would not have power to do this as president.

“The lie that Ivan Korcok is some kind of warmonger played a key role in the mobilisation of the electorate backing Pellegrini in the second round runoff,” says Ivan Stulajter, correspondent at liberal daily DennikN and former media advisor to former centre-right premier Eduard Heger.

Stulajter told bne Intellinews an account of a pensioner lady who cast a vote for Pellegrini in order to “prevent” Korcok from sending Slovak soldiers to Ukraine. “Using lying narratives and untransparent financing, it is possible to mobilise 1.4mn voters and win elections in Slovakia this way,” Stulajter says.

Believing in fiction

Stulajter argues that a large part of the “electorate is not able to decode the strategies of political parties in power”. Pellegrini succeeded in making a large part of the electorate “believe in fiction”, helped by Fico’s leftist Smer party’s extensive communication network – which includes social media and merges with key narratives circulated in the country’s bustling disinformation and conspiracy scene.

His account is backed up by Eva Mihockova, investigative journalist at Zastavme korupciu anti-corruption NGO and editor at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. “It no longer matters what is factual, but what narrative prevails,” Mihockova says. 

Although Korcok has repeatedly described himself as a moderate conservative, Pellegrini exploited the backing of Korcok by the liberal opposition to brand his opponent as a “progressive liberal.”

In this deliberately crafted message, whipped up by communication networks backing Fico’s left-right cabinet, Pellegrini also claimed that Korcok threatens the welfare state which provides for pensioners and families in need – crucial segments of the ruling coalition’s electorate.

It is far from the first time hoaxes about liberal candidates flooded the Slovak digital domain. Last September, a deep fake video of Michal Simecka, chairman of the liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS) party, portrayed him as claiming his party will introduce an additional levy on beer, just hours before the parliamentary elections in which Smer beat PS by less than 5% margin to return to power.

Since then, Fico has defied the expectations of even seasoned observers who had anticipated Fico would tune down his rhetoric and adopt a more pragmatic approach. Since assuming power in October, his cabinet quickly carried out sweeping staff changes at the police, dismantled the Special Prosecutor Office overseeing high-profile corruption cases, and filed legislative proposals targeting NGOs and seizing control of public broadcaster RTVS.

Despite the country-wide protests that these moves have sparked since December, Smer maintains a narrow lead ahead of PS – by 1.5pp in the Focus poll compiled for the largest commercial television, Markiza, from April 7.

Fico has been keeping up the tension in the domestic public discourse by speaking about “anti-Slovak sabotage abroad” in connection to the parliamentary opposition and has described PS as “dangerous people capable of tolerating any filth in the fight against us”. He has even prepared the ground for blaming the opposition for any future cut-off of EU funds because of his violation of EU values.

“We have to count on the punishment of the West for us electing Peter Pellegrini and not Ivan Korcok, who would have deployed entire Slovak battalions to Ukraine without any hesitation,” Fico claimed on Facebook and warned that he “wouldn’t be surprised if the European Commission jumps at our [EU] funds”.

Conspiratorial thinking

To appeal to conservatives of the right and left, since returning to the prime minister’s post Fico, a former communist, did not hesitate to lay flowers at the grave of Cardinal Jan Chrysostom Korec, a hero for numerous Catholic Slovaks, as well as at the grave of the last communist president in Czechoslovakia, Gustav Husak, whose regime persecuted Korec but also still grips many Slovaks with nostalgia.

Fico identifies himself with “Slovak interests,” which resonates with nationalist and conspiracy narratives depicting Slovak national identity and traditions as under alleged threat from “Brussels elites”. Fico is also an ardent promoter of the Matica slovenska heritage institution, which has recently been documented as cooperating with the Russian Historical Society headed by the chief of the Russian Foreign Intelligence, Sergey Naryshkin. 

Talking to bne Intellinews, the Slovak Director of the Prague-based Centre for an Informed Society, Andrea Michalcova, described the communication strategies of the current Slovak government as “based on fear, the spread of hoaxes and Russian propaganda”, adding that the “main channels they us are social media, mainly Facebook, Telegram, and disinformation and conspiracy outlets such as [the InfoWars-inspired] Infovojna, E-report and others”.

Michalcova’s assessment is backed by stark figures from the country report by Bratislava-based regional think-tank Globsec, which show that 56% of respondents in Slovakia are “susceptible to believing statements that include conspiratorial thinking and misinformation”, the highest in the region, with only Bulgaria (48%) also near the 50% mark.

Smer’s politicians regularly give interviews to Infovojna and similar outlets. This includes the Smer stalwart and European Parliament candidate Lubos Blaha, who slammed RTVS journalist Marta Janckarova – a Slovak of the Year nominee for her work in the media – as a “progressive-liberal political activist” in his latest appearance at Infovojna on April 16.

In yet another breaking of taboos in domestic politics, Minister of Interior Matus Sutaj Estok from Pellegrini’s centre-left Hlas party appeared at an online discussion hosted by a wanted extremist and conspiracy spreader, Daniel Bombic. Shortly after Sutaj Estok, former police chief and Smer legislator Tibor Gaspar, who faces a criminal investigation in connection to Smer’s previous era in power, also appeared on the online show to which Bombic connects from London, where a court is set to rule over his extradition.

Michalcova pointed out the study project by Gerulata Technologies – a technology company providing tools for fighting disinformation and hostile propaganda – according to which Fico is by far the most popular Slovak politician on Facebook, with his page hitting 6.17mn engagements a year. By comparison, the country’s popular liberal President Zuzana Caputova’s Facebook page has 1.6mn engagements a year.   

Mobilising the villages

Presidential election results also showed the existing division of the Slovak electorate between majority liberal-leaning urban-based voters and more conservative rural voters.  

“If the Slovak rural voters mobilise, they will simply outnumber the urban voters,” explained Stulajter. He added that the “mobilisation of Peter Pellegrini’s electorate worked very effectively” in the presidential runoff, in particular, where only two candidates were left, and noted that state media controlled by Viktor Orban’s regime helped mobilise ethnic Hungarians in southern Slovakia.    

In a remarkable turn, Pellegrini was also able to collect votes from Slovak-Hungarians despite his hardened nationalist rhetoric. In previous decades Slovak nationalism was strongly anti-Hungarian, and Fico’s populist precursor, Vladimir Meciar, relied on the anti-Hungarian card to mobilise his own electorate to dominate Slovakia’s first decade of independence in the 1990s.   

Support of the government candidate Pellegrini from Slovak-Hungarians appears to confirm the shift of this electorate towards ruling coalition parties led by Smer after systematic backing of Fico and his allies by the Hungarian state. “The Hungarian state media empire was able to turn the Slovak Hungarian electorate,” Zsolt Gal, Slovak-Hungarian lecturer at Bratislava’s Comenius University, told bne Intellinews earlier. 

Stulajter highlighted that the turn of the Slovak-Hungarians towards nationalist parties also occurred “paradoxically” as a result of calming of nationalist tensions for which he credits “that liberal democracy that is so despised by Orban and his allies”.  

“The narratives about alleged danger from European globalisation and other nonsense [crafted] to hide the kleptocratic nature of regimes [which employ these] is indeed effective and runs through the world, including the USA,” he added.

Controlling the message

As Fico and his cabinet largely boycott the country’s liberal media, instead relying on social media channels, Stulajter explained that public broadcaster RTVS is effectively the last quality nationwide media which can reach the ruling coalition electorate.

“Through RTVS, critical views still reach their [ruling coalition] electorate”, Stulajter went on, adding that many of the pensioners and elderly still lack access to information online or lack the digital skills necessary to access the online world.

Fico’s cabinet caused an uproar among domestic opposition and the journalistic community when it filed a legislative proposal aimed at reconstructing RTVS, which the European Broadcasting Union’s Director General Noel Curran described as a “thinly veiled attempt to turn the Slovak public service broadcaster into state-controlled media”. 

Indeed, in his post-election Facebook address, Fico also alleged that his cabinet “needs to solve illegal political activities of RTVS,” building on his previous accusations that RTVS is politically biased against his cabinet.

Moreover, the Markiza channel, another leading news provider in the country, enjoying the second highest trust after RTVS, and controlled by Czech investment group PPF, is “facing pressure from Czech managers who are trying to move Markiza away from critical journalism” and turn it into an entertainment-focused medium, “more friendly for this government”, Stulajter pointed out, adding that a similar process is occurring in another commercial television TV JOJ, controlled by Slovak J&T financial group.

“Perhaps for a few per cent of profit more, you will decide to hammer a nail [into the coffin] of media freedom in Slovakia,” states a March open letter by the Slovak artists, writers and ex-diplomats addressed to the Kellner family, owners of PPF.    

When asked whether Slovak liberal opposition and civil society can counter the reach Fico and his cabinet have on social media and allied disinformation channels in Slovakia, Michalcova responded starkly, “At this moment, they cannot”.

“Civil society in Slovakia is not ready to counter the reach of Fico and his cabinet at this moment”, and “this is a big lesson for the Czech Republic”, where the national elections are scheduled for next autumn, Michalcova highlighted. 

Before the Czech elections, where populist billionaire Andrej Babis is eying a comeback to power, the European Parliamentary elections will be a more immediate testing ground as to how much further the propaganda narratives and conspiracies have proliferated.

Although the past weak EP voter turnout has benefited liberal parties in the region, the populist camp is gearing up for a strong performance this time.

Looking ahead to the next election cycles, Stulajter says that the presidential elections in Slovakia “should set a challenge on how to work with voters” who come to believe in Russian-imagined nationalist fiction. Unless progressives and centrists can learn how to counter these narratives among such disgruntled and traditionally conservative voters, their two recent Slovak election defeats could just be the first of many in the region.