Slovaks head to the presidential polls amid fears of state capture

Slovaks head to the presidential polls amid fears of state capture
Former premier Peter Pellegrini together with Slovaks in folk costume. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera March 22, 2024

Slovaks vote on March 23 in the first round of presidential elections that are widely expected to lead to a second-round runoff between former premier Peter Pellegrini,  speaker of the Slovak National Council (parliament), and former foreign minister and diplomat Ivan Korcok.

Pellegrini, an ally of populist Prime Minister Robert Fico and chairman of the centre-left Hlas party, is backed by Fico’s leftist nationalist Smer party, and he is also expected to collect votes from nationalist candidates in the run-off two weeks later, giving him a crucial advantage over Korcok.

“The president should be a person who defends the interests of Slovakia in the first place,” Pellegrini said in his final statement of the last presidential debate ahead of the first round vote at public broadcaster RTVS on March 21. On Friday, he posted on his Facebook account, “Friends, come to vote on Saturday so others do not decide on our behalf”.

Pellegrini’s last-minute lines illustrate well his effort to portray himself as a moderate candidate supporting Slovakia’s EU and Nato memberships, while at the same time leaving the door open to backing from more radicalised nationalist voters prone to believe conspiracy theories, which helped Fico’s Smer return to power last autumn and form a cabinet with Hlas and the ultranationalist SNS.

Pellegrini has also attacked Korcok for his stints with the previous centre-right cabinets of Igor Matovic and Eduard Heger, which both collapsed,  causing domestic political chaos.  

New EU pariah state

Since then, developments under Fico’s left-right cabinet have alarmed the EU, the domestic liberal media and the opposition, which has backed country-wide protests against Fico’s judicial overhaul and the cabinet’s proposal to restructure RTVS and give the cabinet control over its management.

Fico’s cabinet has also re-oriented the country's foreign policy from a staunch backer of Ukraine into a Kremlin-appeasing stance, by calling for peace negotiations and pursuing an odd alliance with Hungary's radical right wing leader Viktor Orban.

Even though the constitutional court struck down a large part of the changes to the criminal code, it allowed through the dismantling of the Special Prosecutor Office overseeing high-profile corruption cases, which had been investigating several Smer-linked officials.

Reuters wrote earlier this week, referring to an unnamed official, that the European Commission is likely to infringement proceedings against Bratislava in the coming weeks because of concerns that investigations involving embezzlement of EU funds could be shelved. “It has not been decided yet [but] they deserve it”, the official was quoted as saying.

Korcok has been catching up on Pellegrini in recent weeks, appearing to capitalise on a public mood galvanised by protests, but second-round projections show that it may simply not be enough to overturn Pellegrini in the run-off. The Ipsos poll from March 20 projects Pellegrini to win 54.5% to 45.5%, and the AKO poll from March 19 projects 52.9% to 47.1%.

Not all commentators agree that Pellegrini will be endorsed by ultranationalist candidate Stefan Harabin in the second round on April 6. Harabin, whose first-round popularity oscillates between 10-12%, is the only other candidate polling above 5%. Nevertheless, his voters are expected to choose Pellegrini above Korcok, who has always struck a very pro-Western line.

This would mean the Slovak opposition parties would lose their last voice at the top level of the country’s politics. Outgoing liberal President Zuzana Caputova has represented a leading critical voice against the Fico-led cabinet since Fico returned to power after September’s general election.

“In case Hlas gets the post of the president, it would, on the one hand, mean that the government won’t have anyone to stand against in Slovak politics, political scientist Jozef Lenc pointed out on RTVS this week.

Independent Pellegrini?

Pellegrini appears eager to prove that he and Hlas are not just an extension of Fico’s Smer, of which he was once part, a criticism that has intensified since Pellegrini scuppered an attempt by the opposition Progressive Slovakia party to build a ruling coalition without Smer in October. For instance, Pellegrini stated during the RTVS debate on March 21 that he would not sign the controversial media bill in its current shape and that Hlas would submit amendments to the bill.

“It can never be ruled out that Pellegrini will find in himself an ability to do autonomous politics in the office of the president,” says investigative journalist Eve Mihockova, adding that Pellebrini’s “inner world is not fully identical with Robert Fico, particularly in the question of willingness to cooperate with neo-fascists and openly back Russia”.

The Slovak president has often tried to be above politics, a tradition which runs back to Michal Kovac, who left the nationalist HZDS party of the strongman premier Vladimir Meciar when Kovac became the first president of present-day Slovakia in 1993. Thereafter, Kovac openly criticised Meciar, which escalated into the kidnapping of Kovac’s son by Meciar’s secret service.

“Many people hope that he [Pellegrini] could repeat the [Kovac] story,” Mihockova says, but “nothing in Pellegrini’s political career has so far demonstrated that he would be capable of such emancipation”.

She says Pellegrini is dependent on the  “structure of his electorate whose majority wishes him to function in tandem with Fico”.

Fico’s cabinet already has a Janus-like quality, for example when its ministers held talks with Putin’s top diplomat, Igor Lavrov and US Defence Secretary Austin Loyd in the span of two days. While Fico axed state military aid for Ukraine he also repeated on numerous occasions that he has no issue with continued commercial military exports to Ukraine.

Fico may thus feel comfortable with Pellegrini taking occasional aim at his political mentor in what could be just a gesture of independence in the presidential office.

“It can be expected that as president he [Pellegrini] would have occasional rhetorical attempts at independent views of the political situation,” Mihockova says, adding that Pellegrini will always be dependent on the Smer electorate if he seeks re-election in five years. “Already in this campaign, Pellegrini is signalling that as a president he will seek a harmonious relationship with the government.”