Slovak strongman Robert Fico follows the Orban playbook

Slovak strongman Robert Fico follows the Orban playbook
Robert Fico (centre): “He is the Djokovic of Slovak politics and Federer is not playing any more.” / bne IntelliNews
By Robert Anderson in Bratislava September 27, 2023

Robert Fico, Slovakia’s three-time premier, continues to top most opinion polls ahead of this weekend’s snap election, and many observers predict the 59-year-old leftwing populist is poised to regain power. They are now asking themselves, “Will we get the devil we know or an even worse one this time?”

Political opponents warn that this election is crucial, and that if Fico wins he would follow Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban’s playbook by hollowing out the country’s democracy and cosying up to the Kremlin, making Slovakia another European renegade.

“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,” Michal Simecka, leader of the liberal Progressive Slovakia, the second strongest party, told bne IntelliNews in an interview.

“Fico is quite open about it. He will do what Orban has done in Hungary,” says a minister in Ludovit Odor’s technocratic cabinet. He adds: “If Fico gets back it means that the future of this country would be stopped for decades. The smartest and bravest will leave.”

When Fico split from the (former communist) SDL party and founded his populist Smer (Direction) party in 1999, the lawyer was seen as a young Vladimir Meciar, a successor to the country’s semi-authoritarian founder who had recently been ousted as premier.

Yet in government with Meciar in 2006-10 and then without him in 2012-18 Fico largely maintained the free market reforms and macro-economic orthodoxy of Mikulas Dzurinda’s reforming administration, as well as its pro-Western foreign policy. His single-party government of 2012-16 did not try to dismantle democracy, as Orban did when he regained power with the first of his constitutional majorities in 2010.

However, according to ongoing police investigations, Smer “captured” the police, prosecution system and judiciary, enabling well connected oligarchs and crooks to pillage the state and bully rival businesses.

“Fico was not after creating a political system but he completely captured the state and privatised sectors of the economy through oligarchs,” says Milan Nic, senior fellow at the German Council of Foreign Relations (DGAP).

If he gets back in, “he will go back to turning the police into a private security company as he did before,” warns Beata Balagova, chief editor of leading daily Sme.

Lawyers agree that Fico’s rule worsened graft, with only Hungary perceived as being more corrupt in Central Europe, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

“In previous Smer governments corruption was not just overt it was in your face,” says a top Bratislava-based lawyer.

The whole rotten system came crashing down when investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée were murdered, leading to massive protests that forced Fico’s resignation. The subsequent investigations exposed the way one well-connected businessmen, Marian Kocner, could control police, prosecutors and judges.

Courts have twice failed to convict Kocner for Kuciak’s murder but he has been jailed for 18 years for fraud in another case. Dozens of police, prosecutors and judges have now been convicted or are still under investigation for corruption offences linked to Kocner and other influential figures.

On the ropes

Fico looked on the ropes after his resignation and reportedly developed a drink problem. His lieutenant Robert Pellegrini took over as premier but then defected to found his own party before the 2020 general election.

At that vote Smer lost power to a four-party coalition led by Igor Matovic campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket. Smer was shunned, with only the neo-fascist LSNS for company in the opposition.

But now he has come roaring back, propelled by Slovaks’ frustration with the incompetence of Matovic’s government in the COVID-19 pandemic, the incessant in-fighting that eventually forced this snap election, as well as the rising cost of living.

He has been helped by the way Matovic’s anti-corruption drive has failed to nail him or other top Smer members for corruption, though several cases are still ongoing, leading to widespread disillusionment.

“The judiciary started more investigations that they could digest,” says Nic. They lost the narrative.”

He adds: “People now think those guys were stealing but [at least] they were more competent at governing.”

Journalist Eva Mihockova agrees: “People don’t know who to believe any more. They are completely confused. They don’t know where the truth is any more.”

Fico regained his mojo, first by campaigning against covid restrictions, then against the Eduard Heger government’s support for Ukraine, which he linked to the rising prices. Fico has pledged to end military support for Kyiv and to oppose new sanctions against Russia.

He has mined traditional radical rightwing populist tropes used by Orban.  He has attacked the government over the ongoing wave of irregular migrants. He has claimed US-Hungarian philanthropist George Soros is masterminding a plot against him, saying, “Big money from Soros has been invested here so that Fico will be defeated”.

The Smer leader has also waged a culture war against Progressive Slovakia, which he paints as radical extremists and a threat to traditional Slovak Catholic values for supporting registered partnerships of same-sex couples.

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".

Progressive Slovakia has tried to make the election a straight choice between themselves and Smer, but this may help mobilise Fico’s voters. Fico appeals to them by contrasting his experience compared to the Progressives’ youthful leader, and offering a return to stability, as well as populist spending promises.

“He was always careful not to lose the position of a major proponent of the social state and protector of the state sector,” says Nic.

Fico has got round the obstacle of a hostile media by using social media skilfully, and he is the best campaigner on the stump in the poorer areas of central and eastern Slovakia. 

“He knows the country better than others,” says Nic. “He is a veteran, he knows the voters. He knows exactly what their problems are.”

Michal Vasecka, head of the Bratislava Policy Institute think-tank, concurs. “He is the Djokovic of Slovak politics and Federer is not playing any more,” he jokes.

Orban admirer

If Fico were to win this weekend’s general election and find enough allies to form a majority government  – which looks more challenging – opponents fear that he would immediately block the ongoing investigations into his previous government, take reprisals against those who carried them out, and once again try to “capture” the police, prosecution system and judiciary. (Smer asked for emailed questions on its government plans but did not respond when they were sent.)

“This is the main motive of Fico,” says Alexander Duleba of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association and a former adviser to Heger. “He would say anything to get back to power and to stop the investigations.”

Nic says the previous governments gave Fico new life by going after his party. “He wants to get back to prevent his people going to prison – and he wants to control the money flows.”

Furthermore, opponents fear that he is determined never to allow such attacks to happen again, and he will now follow the Orban playbook of dismantling the country’s democracy and attacking the independent media and civil society organisations that he blames for the protests that brought him down.

“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 Simecka. “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.”

The likelihood of the Orbanisation of Slovakia’s domestic and foreign policy will be increased if Smer forms a government backed by the rightwing Slovak Nationalist Party (SNS) and the neo-fascist Republika party (though the latter is unlikely to be allowed in the cabinet). Both parties are Eurosceptic, pro-Russian and, according to some, are also financed by Russia. Republika even wants to hold a referendum to end Slovakia’s Nato membership

Balagova argues that the avowed leftwinger has fundamentally changed since the fall of his last government and the defection of more moderate Smer members to Pellegrini’s Hlas party.

She says he is now by trying to win votes from the far right parties through very aggressive rhetoric against the government and President Zuzana Caputova, who has decided not to seek a second term because of the abuse. This lurch right has legitimised far-right views in Slovakia and helped amplify Russian disinformation, she argues.

“The Smer party needed to change itself after Pellegrini left,” she says. “Robert Fico had no option but to turn to voters who support fascist parties.”

Restraining influence

But if Fico wants to follow Orban’s playbook and turn Slovakia into another hybrid democracy, he will not have it so easy as the Hungarian strongman.

First of all, he will not have a constitutional majority and in fact will have to partner with other parties as well as the far right even to get a majority. The latest polls indicate that Smer would also need Boris Kollar’s radical rightwing We are Family party as well as Pellegrini’s Hlas, which might be too much of a stretch. Kollar’s party is also teetering on the 5% threshold to enter parliament.

If Pellegrini’s Hlas were to become part of the cabinet, it is expected to exercise a restraining influence on Fico’s worst instincts. Pellegrini, his former lieutenant, has said he would refuse to be part of a government with the Republika party, and indeed that he would rather not be in a cabinet with Fico at all.

This of course leaves open the option of Republika supporting a Fico government but not being part of it, and Pellegrini staying out of the cabinet and standing for the presidency next year.

The other restraining factor could be the EU. In 2006 Smer was briefly suspended from the Party of European Socialists grouping for forming a government with the SNS, but was otherwise left alone by Brussels. Since Fico was last in power the Commission has become much tougher on the rule of law, with both Orban’s Hungary and Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Poland having EU funding frozen for breaching EU values.

(The PES did not respond to questions about its current stance towards Smer, which is not only planning to form a government with the SNS again, but also with the backing of the neo-fascist Republika party. Fico has also campaigned on platforms next to known anti-Semites.)

Any concerted attack on Slovakia’s law and justice institutions, or the media and NGOs, and Fico would find himself bracketed with his fellow Central European populists and Slovak EU aid would be suspended.

Slovakia’s stuttering economy desperately needs those EU funds, and this time around the soaring budget deficit will severely curtail Fico’s ability to finance other spending. His business backers would also be hurt if he were to damage Slovakia’s economic relations with the rest of the EU.

Moreover, unlike his fellow Central European populists, Fico is not someone who is desperate to pick a fight with the EU. Although he regularly criticises the EU on the stump, his record shows that he has always fallen into line when in Brussels.  He is uninterested in foreign policy and has always appointed diplomats as his foreign ministers. 

“Fico is pragmatic not ideological,” says Nic. “He is a political animal. He understands power and money. He does not have an ideology that would justify dramatic change.”

Slovakia also does not have the puffed up self-importance of Hungary or the heft of Poland to go head to head with Brussels.

“Slovakia doesn’t have self-confidence about striking out on their own,” says Professor Tim Haughton of Birmingham University. “They are more worried about the international implications of what they do.”

Slovakia was left out of the first wave of Nato enlargement in 1999 because Meciar had turned the country into a “black hole” in the centre of Europe, in former US secretary of state Madeline Albright’s words. The country has never forgotten that black mark and ever since it has been the most consistently pro-EU country of the Visegrad Group and the only one that has adopted the euro so far (under Fico).

Optimists argue that Fico will confine himself to domestic outbursts against Brussels and Russian sanctions, and making occasional gestures to his supporters. “He will do something symbolic but he will always be pragmatic and tricky,” says Nic.

Slovakia has already given Kyiv all relevant Soviet-era weaponry in its depots, so it is easy for Fico to simply say that no more will be sent. A Fico government would not stop Slovak companies selling defence materiel to Ukraine.

“He will offer red meat without following the Budapest or Warsaw playbook,” says Haughton.

Nevertheless the risk remains that Fico has now gone too far to pull back, that he really intends to destroy domestic threats to his party, and this will put him on a collision course with Brussels. This could force him to make common cause with Orban and Kaczynski, causing further disruption to the EU.

“In the past he was able to do this double talk,” says Balagova. “It will not longer be possible. She adds: “He won’t be able to free his people without intervening in the institutions and this will breach EU rules.”

A top Slovak businessmen in Bratislava also says he remains worried about what Fico could do. “He has moved too far. Can he move completely back? I doubt it.”