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The Struggle Over the Soul of Slovakia’s Social Democracy

“Smer” is Slovak and means “direction” in English. It is also the name of Slovakia’s social-democratic party. But strategically for the future, Smer – sociálna demokracia seems undecided about which ideological direction to take. The party that sits with the centre-left S&D Group in the EU Parliament is deeply fragmented into different ideological camps and groups that have brought the party at the brink of breaking apart. The main divide runs between two political heavyweights, Robert Fico and Peter Pellegrini. To understand the current situation, we need to dive into the recent history of the party.

Background of a battleground: Robert Fico, Slovakia’s (former) strongman

Robert Fico leads a powerful camp within Smer that holds selected socially conservative values centring around opposition to non-European immigration and climate change activism. Robert Fico has dominated Slovakia’s political landscape over more than a decade. Prior to his time with Smer, Fico used to be a member of the centre-left SDĽ (“The Democratic Left”) and the left-wing authoritarian KSS (Slovakian branch of the Czechoslovak Communist Party). Following the 2006 national parliamentary election in Slovakia, Fico became the Head of Government and a member of the European Council after forming a coalition with the national conservative SNS (→ECR) and the centrist HZDS (RE, back then ALDE). He remained in office until the 2010 election when centrist and centre-right parties formed a new government, which later collapsed in late 2011. In the 2012 election, Smer won a resounding 44.1% of the vote and 83 seats of the 150 possible (and hence 76 needed for a majority), meaning that Fico became again the Head of Government and European Council member.

In 2013, Fico decided to run for the presidency of Slovakia. Unofficially, it was supposed to be the end of his parliamentary career as he was hoping to become the President for two-terms and then retire in 2024. Most of the polls suggested that Fico was most likely to win the election. As forecasted, Fico won in the first round with 28%, followed by Kiska (*-EPP) (24%), Prochádzka (*-EPP) (21%) and Kňažko (*~ EPP/RE). The opposition, however, largely united against Fico and endorsed Kiska. Kiska won in the second round with 59% of the vote share, which has largely been related to Fico’s poor campaign management and poor performances in public debates.

In the 2016 parliamentary election, Smer remained the strongest party, but its vote share declined by 16 points from 2012. The party had to form a coalition government with the centre-right Most (EPP), the centre-right Sieť (→EPP) and—again—the national-conservative SNS (→ECR). Fico became the Prime Minister for the third time and has established himself as Slovakia’s political strongman.

The cosmos, however, would not let Fico go so easy. In February 2018, Jan Kuciak was murdered. The acclaimed journalist was investigating political corruption, involving allegations against businessmen, like Marián Kočner, who was close to the Smer leadership. The case would proceed to explode Slovakia’s public discourse. The murder was followed by massive protests, demanding resignations of the Minister of Interior, the Chief of Police, Prime Minister Robert Fico, and, later on, a snap election. President Kiska met with Fico and demanded a significant re-shuffle of the Cabinet—including Fico’s own position as Head of Government—or threatened with a snap-election. Fico felt betrayed and suggested that the billionaire George Soros was behind his loss of political power and prestige. The mass protests continued, and one week later, the Minister of Interior resigned, followed by Fico a few days later as he agreed to a re-shuffle the cabinet and handed in his resignation. Smer appointed a new cabinet led by Deputy Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini.

Polling average for Slovakia 2018 – today with Smer being one of the dominant players

In mid-2018, several politicians informed journalists that Fico wanted to become a Supreme Court (SC) judge. Timing played well for Fico as the SC had several pending vacancies by judges that were about to retire. After initial resistance from the President to the move, Smer tried to change the Constitution in order to get Fico to the SC. However, they were unsuccessful as the centre-right coalition partner Most did not support the notion. After this, Fico called government parties to not approve any other SC candidates to paralyze Slovakia’s highest constitutional court. Pellegrini openly critiqued that despite most Smer MPs following Ficos call. Subsequently, Fico used various channels to communicate with the President and even asked Pellegrini to pressure Kiska. The President refused to nominate Fico even after reportedly receiving threats that his public reputation would be damaged.

In the run-up to 2019, President Kiska decided not go for re-election. Fico was hoping, again, to become an SC judge in the post-Kiska era. For this, he needed his preferred nominee, former EU Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, to win the Presidential election in early 2019. Some journalists also suggested that, should Šefčovič win the election, Fico would replace Šefčovič as the EU Commissioner. However, Šefčovič in the end lost the election, meaning that Fico’s exit strategy failed again.

The investigation of Kuciak’s murder progressed relatively swiftly. In August 2019, it became quite clear that the businessman Kočner was most likely responsible for the murder as NAKA (Slovak Police’s special investigation unit) and Europol decoded Kočner’s phone. Later on, more information was released, suggesting that Kočner was corrupting judges, Smer’s nominees, including the Deputy Minister of Justice, and others. In a nutshell, Kočner was doing whatever he wished as he was well connected, corrupting everyone who walked past him. Some of those people had been arrested and are waiting for their trial. However, none of the information in Kočner’s phone suggests that Fico officially knew about the criminal proceedings.

Pellegrini, the reformer

While Fico’s star was fading, Pellegrini was becoming more and more popular within Smer and amongst their voters. At the same time, his relatively cold relationship with Fico began to get even cooler. It was suggested that Fico did not want Pellegrini to become the Prime Minister candidate after the upcoming 2020 election in case Smer won the election or managed to form a coalition government. At one point in late 2019, it looked like Pellegrini and his fraction would leave Smer. According to several journalists, there was a possibility that Pellegrini and his allies would join the newly established party DV (*) that was founded by Pellegrini’s ally Tomáš Drucker. Drucker used to be the Minister of Health for several years—as an independent nominated by Fico—after which he became the Minister of Interior post the 2018 re-shuffle—this time Pellegrini’s pick—only to resign after no longer than a month. However, the threat of Pellegrini’s resignation in late autumn 2019 convinced Fico to back down and make a compromise: Pellegrini was to become the leader of Smer’s list in the election and he was allowed to place several key allies on the top of the list.

Pellegrini and his predecessor clashed again in late 2019. Fico, in a Facebook video, defended a far-right ĽSNS (NI) politician who was convicted for hate crimes and subsequently lost his seat in the national parliament. Fico called, in a move to attract voters from ĽSNS (NI), the accusations against the politician unjustified while Pellegrini critiqued Fico for defending the far-right narrative.

In the national parliament election campaign during the late 2019 and early 2020, Fico campaigned against immigration from non-European countries, playing on the anti-immigration sentiments. Pellegrini followed a more socially liberal approach and condemned Fico’s campaign strategy. Their battle has intensified after Smer lost power in the 2020 national parliament election.

Support for Pellegrini vs. Fico inside and outside of Smer

Different journalists have made different predictions about whether Fico or Pellegrini will win the battle over Smer’s soul. We at Europe Elects tried to quantify and compare the support for both leaders in the party and in the general public. Smer (S&D) holds 38/150 Seats in the national parliament, 3/14 seats in the European Parliament and 2/8 regional governors.

Recent approval polls show that Pellegrini is far more popular than Fico. Their approval rating gap has even moderately widened compared to last year. We displayed the approval rating for the two politicians over the past months as determined by a Focus poll:

The general voters’ preference of Fico (dark red) over Pellegrini (light red) and their respective allies is also clearly visible in the “preference votes” from the previous national parliament election. In this electoral system, voters have the option to increase the chances of specific candidates on party lists to enter the national parliament.

Currently, Robert Fico (dark red) has the advantage over Pellegrini (light red) that within the upper party ranks, most representatives support him. However, with the party leadership election and the related debate on when to hold it is taking up speed, the support of eight executive body members of Smer for Fico is far from certain.

At Europe Elects, we also counted that a majority of national MPs support the socially more conservative Robert Fico (dark red).

More than just Fico vs. Pellegrini—the many faces of Smer

As hinted earlier, Smer (S&D) is not just split between Fico and Pellegrini but is fragmented into wider camps. The names below are common names used by major media outlets for the different internal factions.

  • Mainstream Smer: Holds a plurality of the party. Old-school Social Democrats, socially moderate to moderate-to-conservative. Tend to be loyal to Fico, but some of them have started to question his leadership in private.
  • Business wing: socially moderate or liberal, pro-free market, pragmatic. They are in Smer (S&D) because it used to be the largest party. They used to be Special Advisors or Deputy Ministers, working their way up the societal ladder. This group used to be more significant (up to 10 MPs), but many of them have since retired from politics. The wing does not care that much about the leadership or party’s policy.
  • Modern Smer: 21st century Social Democrats. They are socially liberal or moderate-to-liberal, although they rarely speak out against the Smer leadership. Loyal to Pellegrini.
  • Conservatives: socially strongly conservative (strongly anti-abortion, strongly anti-LGBT), religious Christians, ideologically close to Slovak SNS and Polish PiS. Loyal to Fico, but constitute only a tiny fraction of the party (1 MPs).
  • The Left: socially rather conservative, ex-communists and ex-members of the Left, anti-capitalist, ideologically close to traditional communists (such as Czech KSČM). This group used to be significantly bigger in the early 2000s, today it has shrunk to only three MPs. Loyal to Fico.

A Pellegrini party on the horizon?

In recent days, Pellegrini and his allies have openly talked about leaving Smer altogether and creating a new centre-left platform, should Pellegrini not be allowed to challenge Fico as a party leader. A recent update of Pellegrini’s web platform does not feature the word “Smer” anymore and can be seen as an indicator that a “Pellegrini party” can happen in near future. Pellegrini is getting significant support from regional branches of Smer and regional politicians—32 out of 88 regional parliament members publicly support him. At the same time, Pellegrini and Fico struggle over when to hold the next party congress, trying to find the date that suits their political aspirations best.

However, Fico is “not planning to go anywhere”—and this is because there is nowhere to go. He has had three exit strategies for his political career, but every single one of them failed. Therefore, he is now trying to take back control of his own party. Pellegrini wants to challenge him and reform Smer, but the Fico camp in the party is still strong. It looks like Pellegrini and his group will need to leave the party and form something new—unless Fico voluntarily gives up.

The struggle over the soul of Slovakia’s social democratic party is far from over.

This article was reviewed and edited by Tobias Gerhard Schminke