Tomorrow, Slovaks will head to the polls in another decisive election that will determine whether the country will continue as a Western democracy or radically shift towards a more authoritarian and pro-Russian orientation. A lot is at play in this election, but even a few hours before the polls open, it is difficult to predict the outcome.
The five-year journey to tomorrow
The election must be viewed in the context of the past five years. In 2018, the murder of the Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak, who was investigating the widespread corruption in Slovak politics, triggered a wave of protests, ultimately leading to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Robert Fico and a decisive defeat of his left-leaning populist party SMER (Direction), in the subsequent parliamentary election. Slovak voters expressed their discontent with the widespread corruption endemic to Slovak politics. Fico's and SMER’s political prospects appeared bleak, especially after the exodus of the party’s key politicians to the newly established HLAS (Voice) party. Created by former SMER politician, Peter Pellegrini, in an effort to distance the social democratic ideology from SMER’s corruption. However, against the odds, Fico has staged a political comeback by capitalising on the pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine near Slovakia's border, and the previous government's chaotic rule and instability.
SMER has maintained a consistent lead in the election polls, but this last week is tied with its ideological rival, Progressive Slovakia. Fico achieved his comeback by adopting an aggressive campaign style, exploiting the country's pro-Russian sentiment, as well as taking advantage of the prevalence of conspiracy theories, both of which affect Slovakia more than its Czech and Polish neighbours. The former prime minister has used these factors to dismiss sanctions against Russia and criticize NATO. In a recent televised debate, he directly referenced Russian propaganda by explicitly describing his party as being “against fascism,” referring to Russia’s justification for invading Ukraine.
What about the EU?
Given SMER's aggressive campaign, concerns have arisen not only about the return of widespread political corruption but also a potential shift away from the country’s Western alliances. There is a risk that Slovakia may emulate Hungary's illiberal policies, which would be unsettling for the European Union, as it would provide Hungary with a like-minded partner. This would likely cause complications for EU’s Ukraine aid, as the countries would drag their feet in providing it. Additionally, they might complicate the EU’s energy policy, given that Slovnaft, Slovakia’s largest oil refinery, is owned by the Hungarian MOL group, and has already raised concerns about Russian sanctions.
The outcome of this election rests on two critical factors. Firstly, it hinges on whether the democratic opposition can form a governing coalition, which depends on the HLAS's choice of coalition partner. HLAS is currently in third place in the polls, with recent surveys oscillating around fifteen percent share of the vote. This gives them the potential to form a ruling coalition either with HLAS or Progressive Slovakia. Pellegrini has deliberately remained silent about his preferred coalition partner. While HLAS is often nicknamed "SMER with a humane face," signifying its socially democratic policies and its composition of former SMER politicians. During this election cycle, it has consistently tried to present itself as a legitimate pro-Western democratic party. This makes it a possible partner for SMER's immediate opponent, the staunchly liberal Progressive Slovakia. If this scenario unfolds, they would likely need to collaborate with smaller parties like the liberal centre-right Freedom and Solidarity party and the socially conservative Christian Democrats, the only other parties with a staunchly pro-Western orientation.
On the other hand, if SMER forms the governing coalition, it would likely involve the nationalist Slovak National Party and the far right Republika (Republic) party. This could pose a challenge for Pellegrini, who has worked hard to convey that HLAS is a legitimate social democratic party. Were it to join SMER, which has conducted a populist campaign and the nationalist Slovak National Party and Republika parties, HLAS would lose its main appeal of being a Western-oriented “SMER with a humane face.”
Decisive political turns
Despite the country's small size, the outcome of tomorrow’s election will be significant for Europe. If Slovakia were to take an illiberal turn and withdraw its support for Ukraine, it could bolster anti-Ukraine sentiments rising in governments in neighbouring countries. The election will mark the culmination of the country's tumultuous past five years. Slovakia finds itself at critical crossroads, and its choices will resonate far beyond its borders, shaping not only its own future but also the broader geopolitical landscape of Central and Eastern Europe.
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