Why Slovakia’s elections matter

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

An election poster of Slovakian Prime Minister and election leader of SMER party, Peter Pellegrini, is reflected in Bratislava on 21 February 2020. [EPA-EFE/MARTIN DIVISEK]

Slovakia’s parliamentary elections on Saturday (29 February) are on course to redraw the country’s political map, and also its role in the European Union, writes Grigorij Mesežnikov.

Grigorij Mesežnikov is a political scientist, president of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) in Bratislava and non-residential fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna.

If polls are to be believed, the election will have dramatic and wide-ranging implications for Slovakia’s internal political development, its role in Central Europe and the European Union, and its relations with Russia and the West.

Support for the main ruling party Smer-SD, led by former Prime Minister Robert Fico, has fallen to 16%. Its partners in the ruling coalition – the nationalist ‘Slovak National Party’ and Slovak-Hungarian civic party ‘Most’ – have sunk below the 5% threshold and face losing parliamentary representation.

The likelihood of the government coalition continuing in its current composition is close to zero. Who then could replace it?

Polls point to a conglomerate of six centre-right entities, the most popular being the ‘Ordinary People’ movement, which has risen to over 19% support.

These parties have long indicated they would form a broad centre-right coalition and – if the polls bear out – would emerge with an absolute majority of the vote and a powerful parliamentary majority enabling them to push through the bold changes they have promised.

Front and centre of the campaign has been the rule of law, justice and the fight against corruption, which has propelled the ‘Ordinary People’ to popularity. Their leader, Igor Matovič, has relentlessly attacked the ruling Smer-SD, accusing them of nurturing a corrupt clientelistic system and enabling mafia to penetrate national institutions.

Matovič refers to the ruling party as a “gang of thieves and mafiosos” that has robbed the state, ruined the social and health system, and let citizens suffer in poverty.

While this anti-government and populist rhetoric could be seen as par for the course in an election campaign, it is borne out by hard facts and genuine concern in Slovakia.

The murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée in 2018 shook the nation, triggering mass protests that forced the then Prime Minister Robert Fico to step down – yet he still leads Smer-SD into the elections.

The main suspect in the ongoing investigation, businessman Marian Kočner, appears to have been running a vast network of corrupt politicians, government officials, judges, prosecutors, police, lawyers, journalists, former secret service agents, as well as the alleged murderers.

A coalition that promises to rid the country of this legacy is a powerful and attractive offering.

An overhaul in the domestic landscape could also be echoed in Slovakia’s foreign relations. The centre-right parties of the likely coalition have all highlighted the importance of strengthening and deepening the country’s presence in the EU.

Gone will be the days when the country’s Prime Minister nods along European summits, only to return to Bratislava and slam the same institutions for not taking into account the views of small countries.

The shift in attitude towards the EU is likely to have ramifications for Slovakia’s relations with other V4 members – Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic – and the group’s position in the EU.

The current Slovakian government has often stood alongside its neighbours in disputes with Brussels, particularly over their increasingly illiberal policies, corruption and threats to the rule of law. Slovakia’s next government will likely want to distance itself from these issues, prioritising relations with Brussels over the V4.

This makes perfect sense for Slovakia. As the only Eurozone member in the V4, it would be short-sighted to continue to allow EU relations to be dragged down for the sake of its neighbours, who sometimes have their own issues and political games to play.

Most importantly for Western allies, however, is the centre-right parties’ commitment to NATO and the likely shakeup in Slovakia’s relations with Russia. Former Prime Minister Fico and the Speaker of Parliament Andrej Danko are widely seen – and have often behaved – as pro-Russian actors.

Danko travelled to Moscow five times during his term, but never once to Brussels, Berlin, London, Kyiv or Washington.

Moreover, Fico actively undermined the united response to the brutal poisoning of the Skripals in the UK, arguing the UK government had not provided convincing evidence of Russian involvement and refusing to expel Russian diplomats as other European allies did.

The next Slovak government is likely to be a stronger ally in the fight against Russian subversion and interference in Central Europe.

While we have to await the final result, it appears the people of Slovakia have had enough of creeping crime and corruption. The likely victors from the centre-right coalition have set out a promising direction for the country, both domestically and internationally, and one that should be welcomed in Brussels and other Western capitals.

If the coalition is able to deliver, Slovakia will become a powerful story of democratic renewal, setting a strong example for other countries in the region and across Europe.

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