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Why Slovakia’s Election Does Really Matter, Despite What Politico Tells You

After more than five years of political instability and chaos, Slovak voters will get a new chance to choose their political future on Saturday, 30 September. Contrary to some voices, the elections really do matter.

From murdering a journalist, five years a chaos

Slovakia has gone through five different cabinets since the political earthquake caused by the murder of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak in early 2018. First, the public outrage due to the murder—symbolised by the country’s largest protests since the 1989 Velvet revolution—forced then incumbent PM Robert Fico (Smer-S&D) to resign. Fico was replaced by Peter Pellegrini, back then Smer deputy leader, who has however since split and formed his own social democratic party, Hlas (S&D).

Pellegrini in turn lost the 2020 election to Igor Matovič’s OL‘aNO (EPP), who formed a right-of-centre supermajority coalition of 95/150 MPs with libertarian SaS (ECR), right-wing SR (ID) and centre-right ZL‘ (EPP). Despite its very strong initial position, this coalition did not manage to stabilise the Slovak politics in the slightest. On the contrary, Matovič’s chaotic style of governing and mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic led to fierce coalition infighting. In march 2021, both SaS and ZL‘ threatened to leave the government unless Matovič resigned. Matovič eventually agreed, swapping posts with his party ‘s deputy leader Eduard Heger, who served as finance minister under Matovič.

Nevertheless, this change did not improve the situation as the smaller coalition parties kept insisting that Matovič, not Heger, was still running the government behind the scenes. In September 2022, SaS (who at this point also included most of the MPs elected for ZL‘) once again insisted that Matovič must go, this time for good. When he refused, the ministers for SaS resigned, costing Heger his parliamentary majority. A few months later SaS even helped topple the Heger government during a successful vote of no-confidence, setting the stage for the upcoming snap election. Heger remained as PM for almost another six months despite all this, only being replaced by the technocratic caretaker government of L’udovít Ódor in May 2023. In the meantime, Heger decided to follow in Pellegrini’s footsteps by splitting from OL’aNO and founding his new centre-right Demokrati (EPP) party. Add to that the return of Slovakia’s long-time Christian democratic prime minister from the early 2000’s, Mikuláš Dzurinda, who is hoping to succeed with his new party Modrí (EPP), and suddenly Slovak voters may vote between a total of five former PMs, each on a different electoral list in this election.

Two broad governing options

From the polling so far it seems two of them have a decent chance of returning. Robert Fico’s Smer is currently in the lead, averaging around 21%. Fico has capitalised on the chaos of the Matovič and Heger cabinets, attracting large crowds to his anti-government rallies. Fico can’t govern alone, however, and even if he wins, his road to a majority might be hard. As of now one of his close partners is the far-right Republika (NI), a split from the neo-nazi L’SNS (NI). This partnership with Republika is however a double-edged sword, as it scares off Fico’s other potential allies. Namely the more moderate Hlas who refuse to cooperate with Republika on the basis of Hlas’ anti-fascism. Fico could instead try to work with the right-wing Sme Rodina (ID), though these three parties alone are unlikely to get an outright majority.

Whether Fico succeeds could also be decided by the result of the national-conservative SNS (→ECR), who seeks to re-enter parliament and with whom Fico has worked in the past. Should Fico manage to form a majority, this would be another huge shift for Slovakia. Both Fico and his voters have radicalised over the past few years, with COVID-19 pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine being significant factors. Pro-Russian sentiment in Slovakia is one of the highest in Europe and largely concentrated within Fico’s and his allies’ parties. Simply said, if Fico returns, Slovakia looks to move away from the foreign policy and act more like Orban’s Hungary

The alternative arrangement would be a coalition of the liberal PS (RE) with Hlas and the centre-right parties—KDH (EPP), SaS and/or Demokrati, depending on which of them cross the five per cent electoral threshold. PS has in the last polls edged forward to contest Smer’s first place, while Hlas have a rather safe third place in the polls, making it clear that this arrangement would be led by PS leader Michal Šimečka. And while this more liberal coalition would probably hold the EU line on the matter of Ukraine—as well as being more pro-western in general—it would probably have a hard time agreeing on much else. The coalition would probably need to include both the economically left-wing Hlas, as well as well as the libertarian SaS with their history of collapsing governments they economically disagree with. On social issues the situation isn’t much better. Progressive PS wishes to pass gay marriage, while Christian democratic KDH refuses even a discussion on civil unions. In short, Slovakia’s future looks to be either Orban-style ‘stability’, or a continuation of the current chaos.