VISEGRAD BLOG: New Slovak President Peter Pelligrini will not just be Robert Fico's stooge

VISEGRAD BLOG: New Slovak President Peter Pelligrini will not just be Robert Fico's stooge
Peter Pellegrini won the presidency by himself – with little support from the rest of the governing coalition – and with the second highest vote on the second highest turnout. / Peter Pellegrini's Facebook
By Robert Anderson in Prague April 9, 2024

After Peter Pellegrini’s victory in the Slovak presidential election on Saturday, the media response has been a combination of denigration of the winner as just the populist government’s stooge, together with despair at what is seen as the inevitable march of pro-Kremlin authoritarianism in Central Europe and beyond. Both these fears are exaggerated.

It is true that one should not expect brave opposition to Robert Fico’s left-right government from President Pellegrini, on the lines of the first President Michal Kovac’s stubborn resistance to strongman premier Vladimir Meciar in the mid-1990s.

Four Slovak experts interviewed by bne IntelliNews were united in viewing him as a “man without qualities”, an opportunist, who had never shown any great courage or moral fibre.

The career politician, now 48, was a loyal member of Fico’s leftist Smer party for two decades, rising to become prime minister in 2018 after Fico was forced to step down during massive demonstrations over corruption and the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak. Pellegrini only broke with Fico after Smer lost the 2020 election, when the party’s only direction looked straight down as Fico sought votes from the far-right and peddled COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

Furthermore, Pellegrini spurned a chance to return as head of a broad coalition government without Fico after last September’s general election. Reportedly under pressure from members of his centre-left Hlas party, he chose instead to form a coalition with Fico and the far-right Slovak Nationalist Party. This gave third-placed Hlas several key ministries and Pellegrini the important post of parliamentary speaker, but also led to his party’s suspension from the Party of European Socialists umbrella group.

“He has always shown that he is a weak player towards Fico,” says Milan Nic, senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Since then, with barely a murmur, Pellegrini has gone along with Fico’s attacks on the judiciarymedia and NGOs, as well as his rejection of military aid to Ukraine and restoration of contacts with representatives of Russia.

“He became just a rubber stamp for Fico,” says Miroslav Wlachovsky, foreign minister in the previous centre-right government. “There was not one independent step since he joined the coalition and I don’t see any change when he enters the presidential office.”

The prosecution case is completed by Pellegrini’s behaviour during the election for the largely ceremonial presidential post. Shocked at the margin of his first round defeat to the opposition-backed candidate – former pro-Western diplomat and foreign minister Ivan Korcok – Pellegrini desperately targeted voters of the far-right pro-Kremlin candidate Stefan Harabin. He accused Korcok of being a "president of war" and called for “peace”, despite previously having taken a pro-Western stance.

“I will further peace solutions, and I will never send our soldiers to fight in Ukraine. This is my offer to national as well as all other voters,” Pellegrini said in a Facebook post as part of a huge social media campaign that has been attacked by critics as opaquely financed and probably in breach of spending limits.

Peter Weiss, the veteran leader of the Slovak left during the transition from communism, broke with Pellegrini over his shift on the Ukraine war and instead backed Korcok.

“Pellegrini has changed his political views so many times there is a question over what are his real opinions,” says Weiss, adding: “Hlas is now under the influence of Smer on many issues.”

The future of Hlas, which now has to choose a new leader, looks bleak. Many observers predict it could merge back into Smer or just disappear at the next election. The dream of a moderate, pro-Western, socially liberal Slovak left party seems to be over, and history may record Hlas just as Pellegrini’s personal escalator to the presidency.

Bag carrier?

The election clearly strengthens Fico's grip on Slovakia by installing an ally as president in succession to the outgoing Zuzana Caputova, who was a stalwart opponent. Yet Pellegrini will not just be Fico’s “bag carrier”, as he himself vowed when he formed the governing coalition, and as Hungarian presidents have been under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Reportedly, Pellegrini has a poor relationship with the four-time premier – who called him a “traitor” when he formed his own party – and owes him no favours.

Secondly, Pellegrini won the presidency by himself – with little support from the rest of the coalition – and mobilised the second highest vote on the second highest turnout. This will give him a strong platform to take an independent stance – if he wishes to.

But Pellegrini will not use this mandate to oppose the government because his voters do not want this, as he pointed out on election night.

"You don't have to worry that an opposition opportunistic power centre will emerge from the Presidential Palace, as it has been for the last 10 years, which will harm the government, which will harm the state abroad and will enjoy the failures of the government of the Slovak Republic," he declared.

Pellegrini won – just as the coalition won last September’s general election – because many voters were tired of the chaos and infighting of the previous centre-right governments. They want a president who will work constructively with the cabinet.

“He managed to appeal to part of the country that did not want more infighting,” says Nic.

However, Nic points out that the manner of Pellegrini’s second round victory has also tarnished the future president.

“He won it by applying the most radical and nasty messaging that he had criticised before. I don’t know if there is a way back for him,” Nic says.

“He has been pushed further into Fico’s extremism,” says Bratislava-based British political scientist Karen Henderson.

Moreover, Pellegrini will face a serious dilemma over how to react to the government’s attempts to curb the independence of judges, public service media and NGOswhich risk provoking a rule of law battle with the next European Commission similar to neighbouring Hungary.

All the experts interviewed by bne IntelliNews predict that Fico will feel vindicated by Pellegrini’s defeat of an opposition-backed candidate and will now press ahead even more aggressively to capture the state, following the playbook of Hungary’s strongman Viktor Orban, whose media backed Pellegrini. The first move is likely to be a new bill on the public broadcasters, which was delayed until after the presidential elections.

“We are on course for Orbanisation,” says Wlachovsky. “It will be very tough for media and civil society.”

“Fico has to offer these voters some negative emotions, some enemy, every day. He cannot allow them to return to [the far-right] Republika party,” points out Weiss.

Pellegrini has always taken a more pro-EU stance than Fico but if he attempts to restrain him, in order to prevent a potential freezing of Slovak EU funds, this is bound to spark a sharp conflict between the president and the government, as happened with outgoing liberal President Zuzana Caputova.

Certainly, Pellegrini is unlikely to use the president’s powers to refer many government measures to the Constitutional Court, as Caputova has done, but equally he is unlikely to try to remove uncooperative Supreme Court judges, as Fico has urged him to do.

“I think he would try to avoid obvious conflict points with the EU,” says Henderson.

Instead, Pellegrini is likely to counsel the government to act cautiously in domestic policy – where the president has few powers anyway – while trying to smooth relations with Slovakia’s Western partners, including in Nato, where the president has a bigger role.

“For Fico it will be good to have Pellegrini to do delicate deals with European politicians and the Commission,” says Weiss.

Populist surge?

So if Pellegrini is not going to be a simple stooge, does his election nevertheless show that populism is once more on the march in Central Europe?

The outlook is certainly bleak, with the radical right expected to do well in June’s European Parliament elections, while Donald Trump is still ahead in the opinion polls for November’s US Presidential Elections.

“If Trump wins Mr Orban will get wings and he will fly high,” says Wlachovsky.

On the other hand, Donald Tusk’s defeat of Jaroslaw Kaczysnki’s Law and Justice government in Poland in October can serve as an example of how populism can be fought using populist tactics. Orban’s semi-authoritarian government is also currently facing its toughest test since he returned to power in 2010, with some quarter of a million turning out last weekend in a demonstration called by opposition newcomer Peter Magyar.

There are also specific domestic factors in Pellegrini’s victory, notably Slovakia’s persistent Russophilia and the extensive reach of Russian disinformation, as well as the fact that the Ukraine war is right next door. “The message for Slovakia is that radicalisation works,” says Nic.

Yet the manner of Pellegrini’s second round victory may still have wider implications, and this is why it is worrying observers. A formerly moderate candidate was able to use a big social media campaign to push a radical anti-war message that almost doubled his vote, knocking out a pro-Western rival.

"It turns out that you can become president by not only spreading hatred and whipping up passions, but you can also win by making the other person a candidate for war," Korcok charged on election night.

It is the fact that a one-time moderate used this tactic that is particularly worrying, argues Nic.

Orban, of course, used this narrative to win re-election in April 2022, and populist billionaire Andrej Babis unsuccessfully tried this in the Czech presidential election in January 2023. But Pellegrini’s success may now encourage even centrist candidates and parties to try to exploit fatigue with the Ukraine war and general feelings of insecurity when they contest national and European Parliamentary elections this year, with worrying implications for Ukraine and the EU.

“It’s not about the candidate but the narrative,” says Nic. “You can have very different parties, ideologies, united on a platform that is a smear campaign and it works. This is a message for the whole of Europe. It is an important outcome that will be studied by others.”

“It is a reminder than these are extraordinary times,” he adds. “Something is happening and we should not rely on the traditional paradigms.”