Slovakia's populist leader Robert Fico set to return to power

Slovakia's populist leader Robert Fico set to return to power
Peter Pellegrini: “If the [future] government would want to change our foreign policy orientation, then Hlas will cease to be part of such [a] government.” / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera October 10, 2023

Former Slovak premier Robert Fico, leader of the populist leftist Smer party, looks set to return to power after Peter Pellegrini, leader of the third-placed centre-left Hlas party,  announced that he was aiming to form a coalition with his former colleague following last month's general election. 

“Hlas chairmanship today unilaterally decided that Hlas will lead further talks on the government coalition with parties Smer-SSD and [the nationalist] SNS,” Pellegrini said on October 10 at a press conference at Hlas Party headquarters in Bratislava.  

Hlas broke away from Smer after the 2020 elections, when Fico's party lost power following mass demonstrations after the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancé, Martina Kusnirova.

Pellegrini, also a former PM, stressed that no one from the Hlas leadership disputed this and that he expects “future coalition partners to confirm this decision” in the coming days. 

The country’s president, Zuzana Caputova, could be informed of the new coalition this week.

Hlas’ leader effectively ruled out the option of forming a coalition with the second-placed liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS) party, the Christian Democratic KDH and the neoliberal SaS.

Just a few days before, PS leader Michal Simecka offered Pellegrini the post of prime minister in a last-ditch effort to keep Fico from forming a government amid fears that Fico’s administration would meddle with ongoing police investigations that involve several Smer-linked officials and party members.

Fico has also vowed to end military support of Ukraine if he returned to power, and many observers are worried that Fico could help Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban obstruct EU reforms.

Pellegrini stated that “Slovak citizens, voters decided in the elections that the Smer party clearly won and that the Hlas party came third”. He added that “any of our decision-making was possible only within these principles” and that “if citizens wanted Peter Pellegrini for prime minister, they had a chance to elect Hlas as a winner” in the September 30 snap elections.

His words were in contrast with his last week's statement, when he said that he “won’t be anyone’s assistant” and that “we will be tough in [coalition] negotiations”, not ruling out that Hlas could seek the PM post in the future government.

Pellegrini's statements follow meetings with  Fico and Andrej Danko, leader of SNS. Pellegrini has previously suggested he would not work with SNS, on whose list several ex-members of the neofascist LSNS and Christian fundamentalist Zivot [Life] entered parliament, leaving Danko as the only SNS party member in the parliament.

Fico is on course to complete what Milan Nic of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)  described as a “spectacular resurrection of the [Benjamin] Netanyahu of Slovakia.”

Since he lost power, Fico has moved closer to extremist positions, adopting Kremlin viewpoints on Ukraine, and capitalising on the political chaos of the previous centre-right government, which led to the collapse of first the cabinet of Igor Matovic and then Eduard Heger.     

Pellegrini highlighted the rejection by KDH and its leader, Milan Majersky, of both Smer and Progressive Slovakia as potential coalition partners.

“Milan Majersky repeatedly stated that his movement is heading into opposition,” Pellegrini recalled.

He also pointed to the destiny of the previous cabinet, which, according to Pellegrini, proved that uniting liberals and conservatives leads to “instability” and that he does not want “the repeat of the tragedy from the previous election term”.  

Simecka criticised Pellegrini at his own conference soon after Hlas announced it is opting for talks with Fico and SNS. “Pellegrini did not even try,” [to hold talks], he stated, and later highlighted that PS “will be a tough opposition, which will defend democratic principles and the rule of law state".

Pellegrini tried to dismiss the concerns over the rule of concerns under the Smer-led government, which Fico and ex-LSNS member Tomas Taraba, elected a deputy on the SNS list, ignited right after the elections with their remarks targeting the head of police of Stefan Hamran and special procurator Daniel Lipsic.

“If the [future] government would want to change our [Slovakia’s] foreign policy orientation, then Hlas will cease to be part of such [a] government,” Pellegrini said.

Together, Smer, Hlas and SNS have a majority of 79 in the parliament of 150.

Many local observers warned that Pellegrini could have a weak position in a coalition with Fico, while others argued that Pellegrini would restrain Fico and force him to tune down his aggressive rhetoric on foreign policy issues.

“Fico’s real politics towards Ukraine will be different than [his] pre-election rhetoric if he forms a cabinet with Pellegrini,“ Senior Fellow at Slovak Foreign Policy Association Alexander Duleba told bne Intellinews, pointing out that Pellegrini was Fico’s only way to forming the cabinet.

“It was clear since the beginning [of post-election talks] that Peter Pellegrini will nod to a coalition with Smer,“ IVO think tank head Gregorij Meseznikov commented on local media, adding that Slovakia’s next government will be formed by “the same politicians who are responsible for what has been happening in Slovakia in 2012-2018” – an era notorious for the capture of the state judiciary, prosecution and police by businessmen close to the Smer party.