Slovakia dishes up another electoral surprise

NATO and EU member Slovakia (pop: 5.5 million) went to the polls on Saturday to choose the country’s fifth prime minister in four years, following years of fragile coalition governments.

And former leader Robert Fico’s populist Smer (‘Direction’) party out-performed polls, winning the most seats in parliament with 23% of votes.

What were the key election issues? At a domestic level, they included:

  • 😤 Frustration with the previous quarrelling coalition
  • 🏠 Living standards that still lag behind the rest of Europe
  • 📈 A widening budget deficit and high inflation (10%)
  • 🏥 A depleted health system, and
  • 💸 A rising cost of living.

Fico’s winning party also ran on regional issues, including:

  • ⛔ A vow to halt military aid to neighbouring Ukraine
  • 🛑 A vow to curb irregular migration over Slovak territory, and
  • 🇪🇺 Broader scepticism towards the EU.

Fico had also blamed “Ukrainian Nazis and fascists” for provoking Russia’s invasion (a Putin line some Slovaks have embraced). And he just dropped an all-caps Facebook update (🇸🇰) labelling Ukraine as “ungrateful”.

So what happens now?

Fico needs to negotiate with smaller parties to cobble together a majority in the country’s 150-seat parliament. The most likely outcome will see him become prime minister with a slim but functional 79 seat coalition.

But the second-placed Progressive Slovakia, which went from winning no seats in 2020 to scoring 17% in this weekend’s vote, hasn’t given up.

Intrigue’s take: As ever, there’s nuance here. Philosophically, the gap between what folks told pollsters beforehand and what they then did on election day suggests many voters might’ve been motivated along personal lines (eg, a sense of aligning with traditional Slovak rather than EU values).

Practically, any immediate impact on Ukraine seems limited: Slovakia has already given much of what it could spare, including its entire fleet of MiG jets. And it’s hard to see Fico ending his country’s own lucrative contracts for the manufacture of artillery shells for Ukraine.

But longer term, Fico’s return could complicate EU and NATO efforts at unity on Russia. Still, he’s often taken a more pragmatic approach once in power, and the survival of yet another coalition government might demand more of that now.

Also worth noting:

  • Slovakia has had a technocratic government since May, appointed by the country’s (largely ceremonial) president after the previous coalition collapsed.
  • Slovakia’s president is currently suing Fico for “unwarranted accusations” against her, including that she was a US puppet.
  • Fico stepped down as prime minister in 2018 amidst mass protests, following the murder of a journalist investigating corruption. Fico avoided corruption charges last year after lawmakers narrowly voted against stripping his immunity. He denied the charges.
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