On October 1, Robert Fico beat out three former prime ministers in Slovakia’s parliamentary elections, and on October 11, he agreed to a coalition that will form Slovakia’s next government (Euractiv, October 1; Euronews, October 11). Fico, a former Slovak prime minister himself, was expected to have minimal success from the earliest election surveys to the final exit polls. Many Slovaks viewed him as unelectable due to his contentious past. His far-left party, which traces its roots to the Communist regime, Direction – Social Democracy (SMER), appeared to have limited potential for coalition-building. Against all odds, SMER won a plurality of votes, and Fico has successfully built a governing collation that will make up the majority of the Slovak National Council. Barring an extraordinary turn of events, Fico will begin his third term as prime minister before the end of October 2023.
Only five years ago, Fico was implicated in the assassination of journalist Ján Kuciak (Balkan Insight, August 5, 2020). The journalist and his fiancé were gunned down in their home after Kuciak uncovered that members of SMER were involved in tax fraud and embezzlement with the Italian mafia. Fico was forced to resign after weeks of intense protests. His political career appeared to be over.
Fico’s re-election highlights the political turmoil that has plagued the Slovak political system in recent months. Slovakia’s recent political crisis began in December 2022, when then-Prime Minister Eduard Heger’s unstable four-party coalition fell apart, resulting in a vote of no confidence against the government. Much like the highly polarized Slovak society, the governing coalition was divided by each party’s views on Russia. Rising energy costs and inflation further inflamed the divisions in Slovakia’s foreign policy orientation. The government’s death knell ultimately sounded on the heels of a slew of ministerial resignations and reports that then-Minister of Agriculture Ján Mičovský’s privately owned company had received over €1.4 million ($1.47 million) in subsidies from Mičovský’s colleague at the Ministry of Environment (DW, December 15, 2022).
In May 2023, Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová appointed Ľudovít Ódor, the deputy governor of the National Bank, as head of a caretaker government to secure order. This did not cool the political situation, however, as the unelected technocratic government lacked even more legitimacy than Heger’s government. Slovak conservatives accused the socially liberal Čaputová of instigating a “progressive putsch” (Osw.waw.pl, May 16). Ódor himself was nominally centrist, but several prominent government ministers were viewed as outwardly progressive. In June 2023, parliament condemned the caretaker government with a vote of no confidence and called for snap elections (Spectator.sme.sk, June 15). The fact that some in Slovakia welcome SMER’s ideologically shaky coalition as a stabilizing force in the National Council demonstrates the depths of this crisis in governance and why Fico’s election became tenable.
Fico was able to re-enter the political sphere after nearly a year of political dysfunction. He promised voters the political stability he had provided under his previous two terms as prime minister (HNonline.sk, September 30). Fico even played on elderly voters’ nostalgia for the certainty of the former Communist regime and sought to connect with far-right voters through his pro-nationalist rhetoric (Vinohradska 12, May 9).
Fico’s election strategy worked brilliantly, given the circumstances. He knew he was an untenable choice for many Slovak voters. Fico and his team concentrated on attracting voters from less politically active demographics. The political opposition, moreover, was so fractured that SMER won the election with just under 23 percent of the total vote (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 2).
Fico appealed to voters from disenfranchised regions by touting progressive economic policies. These included policies on special bank taxes, price controls, and generous welfare spending. He mixed his left-wing domestic economic policy with an anti-American and anti-EU foreign policy outlook (Balkan Insight, August 22). Fico discredited political opponents by accusing them of being puppets of the US government or receiving funding from Hungarian-American financier George Soros. In brief, Fico implemented a two-step strategy of reducing trust in democratic institutions and then collecting the votes of disaffected and anti-system voters.
Entering the elections, trust in Slovakia’s democratic system was at an all-time low (Aktuality.SK, September 22). Just two days before the elections, the director of Russian Foreign Intelligence (SVR), Sergey Naryškin, promoted the baseless accusation that US intelligence was planning to “manipulate” the Slovak election against Robert Fico’s SMER (HlavneSpravy.SK, October 2)
Some in Slovakia cast doubts on the election results with claims of Russian interference. In a bombshell allegation, former Slovak Defense Minister Jaroslav Naď revealed that Russian intelligence had reportedly paid Slovak citizens to influence the election in SMER’s favor (Aktuality.sk, June 5). Directly preceding the election, Peter Duboczi, editor-in-chief of Infosecurity.sk, claimed that “the disinformation ecosystem in Slovakia is now reaching its peak” (Euronews, September 29). While it is unknown who directly sponsored this propaganda, it appeared to have a major effect on the election.
Slovakia’s media landscape was inundated with disinformation from home and abroad in the lead-up to the election. One approach was to use deep-fake audio “leaks” that targeted SMER’s most prominent opponent, Michal Šimečka, chairman of the Progressive Slovakia Party. In one of these recordings, “Šimečka” seems to say that one of his key initiatives is to raise beer prices by as much as 100 percent to reduce alcoholism in the country (HNonline.sk, September 27). Another widely circulated audio clip imitated a leaked phone call between “Šimečka” and a Bratislava journalist. Šimečka’s artificial voice is heard strategizing about how to manipulate the election by paying the Roma minority to cast their votes for him (Zive.Aktuality.sk, October 3). Both manufactured audio recordings successfully played on divisions within Slovak society.
Pollsters and election watchers missed the fact that Fico could thrive in a political crisis where public trust was deteriorating. In a May 2023 survey, 53 percent of respondents believed that the election would be rigged (Aktuality.sk, May 26). Russian intelligence capitalized on these sentiments by publishing a fake document stating that US intelligence was planning to fix the election in Šimečka’s favor. Despite the Slovak law prohibiting campaigning 48 hours before voting begins, Slovak voters were besieged with more disinformation on election day coming from Russia and other unknown sources.
Although outlandish, the disinformation about Šimečka and other opposition leaders likely led to some Slovak voters discounting the veracity of the allegations against Fico himself. Against this backdrop, the claims of SMER’s connections to the Italian mafia are no more credible than the allegations of Čaputová taking orders from the United States. Fico and his team understood that no one emerges from a mudslinging contest unblemished. Fico’s ability to dictate the tone of the election was pivotal to his success in once again becoming prime minister of Slovakia.