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Veering east? What Slovakia’s election means for Europe and the world

The recent Slovak election has sent European leaders scrambling to shore up support for Ukraine after a pro-Russia party emerged victorious on Saturday 30th September, yet the results may not be quite what they seem.

On the face of it, Slovakia’s election sounds like a simple, clear-cut, and immediate European disaster: a pro-Russia party raked in the most votes, and a firmly Eurosceptic populist who has called for an end to aid for Ukraine is inches from power. Neither of these facts are false. The winning party Smer-SD, better known in English as Direction-Social Democracy, is indeed, at least in its current iteration, Putin-friendly. It ran on a populist programme with hints of left-wing nationalism and social conservatism. Meanwhile, its leader, Robert Fico, has embraced Orbán-esque positions on sanctions and, further fuelling both domestic and foreign concern, is likely to need the support of the far more hardline Slovak National Party (SNS) to cobble together the seventy-six seats required for a majority in the National Council.

All of the above has quite understandably raised the blood pressure of European and American observers alike, fearing that the replacement of a clutch of unstable but avowedly pro-Ukraine centre-right governments with another recalcitrant, Russia-leaning leader might well add another flashpoint to the already faltering European consensus on Ukraine. Michal Šimečka, leader of runners-up Progressive Slovakia (PS) went so far as to describe a Fico-led government as an “abiding evil” after final results were released. Anxiety over Smer’s victory is made bitterer still by the fact that for a few brief hours on Saturday, Europe thought it was out of the woods. Both exit polls released after voting closed showed Progressive Slovakia, a pro-European, NATO-focused, and socially liberal party, narrowly ahead –results which, under Slovak rules, would have given PS the crucial first stab at a majority.

Yet Smer’s victory is pyrrhic at best, and the path to Fico taking the reins is fraught with the skeletons of his checkered political past. Of these, the looming skeleton is without doubt Peter Pellegrini, a former prime minister himself and now leader of Hlas (Voice), a social democratic and pro-European party that finished a respectable third, now finding itself the republic’s kingmaker. Pellegrini stepped in to replace Fico after the latter was forced out of office in a 2018 scandal involving the murder of a journalist and his fiancée. In 2020, he further underlined their differences by walking away from Smer with ten other deputies to found the centre-left Hlas. However, Pellegrini has indicated his preference for a Fico-led government, describing Smer as “closer” to Hlas, though he has not ruled out working with the liberals.

Nonetheless, a Fico-Pellegrini government, albeit with the support of the SNS, is by no means the worst outcome. As recently as August, a Smer-SNS government looked just as likely, but with Hlas relegated to the sidelines and replaced by Republika, a newcomer formed of defectors from the People’s Party of Our Slovakia (L’SNS), a party which traces its roots to Jozef Tiso, a priest and fascist who led Slovakia during WWII when it was a Nazi client state. Compared to this, a Smer-Hlas coalition seems a whole lot better. Even the SNS might be booted from consideration, after the counting of candidate preferential votes allowed four former members of the neo-fascist L’SNS to leapfrog more mainstream candidates into its parliamentary delegation. This could force Fico to instead work with any of a collection of centre-right and pro-European parties, as well as Hlas, or even open the door to a liberal-led government.

With this in mind, Slovakia’s election begins to seem less a disaster, and more an inconvenience. The presence of Pellegrini in government will force Fico to moderate his rhetoric, as he already has done, announcing on Monday no major shift in his country’s Ukraine policy—at least for now. A Russia-sympathetic leader, though a headache for the EU, is not such a problem if he is effectively declawed by the reality of his government.

Likewise, much of the discussion of the election has focused on the ability of Slovakia to blockade EU sanctions, if it so chooses. But Slovakia, a country of just five and a half million, holds few other cards. The EU, in contrast, can hold €6 billion in recovery funding over Fico’s head, if he makes trouble. Slovakia, in other words, is wholly dependent on the EU – it is even part of the Eurozone, a rarity in Eastern Europe. It is simply too small and too reliant on Europe to weather the opprobrium of its fellows.

This is not to say that the election is insignificant; Slovaks are faced with the return of a polarising leader who is under investigation, harasses journalists, and frequently resorts to xenophobia whenever it is politically convenient. However, for Europe, and the world, it is not set to be a dramatic turn of events. Fico, ever a political shapeshifter, will take whatever form his coalition necessitates, which will inevitably mean walking back from the pro-Russia brink.

On the morning after the election, Viktor Orbán took to X (formerly Twitter) to gloat, proclaiming “Guess who’s back”. This has ended up being a surprisingly prophetic statement. As the postbellum became clear, we have all been left wondering which Fico will walk back into government. Will it be a pro-Russia firebrand willing to buck the EU and march into international isolation alongside Hungary, or will it be a muted troublemaker whose big words translate into little action?

Given the fractured results Slovaks have delivered, it can only be the latter.

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