World / September 22, 2023

This Might Be the Most Important Election You Haven’t Heard About

Elections in Slovakia usually don’t get much attention. But this one could hold crucial lessons about the staying power of Trumpist politics around the world.

Emily Tamkin
Former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico waves to his supporters during an election rally in Michalovce, Slovakia, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023.

Former Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico waves to his supporters during an election rally in Michalovce, Slovakia, Wednesday, September 6, 2023.

(Petr David Josek / AP)

He ruled the country once and was forced out in disgrace. Now, powered by conspiracies, mistrust, and bile, he’s running to rule it again—and he may well win.

If you guessed “Donald Trump,” you would, in this case, be wrong—because that description also applies to Robert Fico, the former prime minister of Slovakia. On September 30, Slovakia goes to the polls for an early election. Fico, who resigned in 2018, wants his old job back.

Fico and his Direction–Social Democracy (SMER-SD) party are facing a government that has proved largely ineffective and eventually lost a no-confidence vote amid accusations of incompetence. He is all too willing to play on disenchantment and conspiracy theories, and it now looks like he might make good on his promise to come back to power.

“Fico is targeting/appealing to ‘resentful’ parts of society hurt by cost-of-living crisis, inflation, globalization, confused by the war in Ukraine (appealing to their anti-Americanism) etc.” Milan Nic, senior research fellow in the Center for Order and Governance in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia of the German Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an e-mail.

Fico is a populist and nationalist, Nic added, who is “promising to ‘make SK great again.’” Sound familiar?

While Slovakian elections rarely (if ever) seem to matter to the United States, this one really does, because it could hold very important lessons about the staying power of Trumpist politics, both here and abroad.

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This would actually be Fico’s third stint as prime minister. He served from 2006 to 2010, and then again from 2012 to 2018, when he was dethroned. A months-long, teen-led anti-corruption movement was not enough to oust him—but the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, was. Kuciak and Kusnirova were just 27 years old.

Even before Fico was forced out by mass protests, he distinguished himself by slamming journalists as “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes” for questioning him about alleged procurement anomalies during Slovakia’s turn as the head of the Council of the European Union, and accusing Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros of trying to destabilize the state. His interior minister, Robert Kalinak, resisted calls for resignation, even though he allegedly had ties to a real estate developer who was under investigation for potential tax fraud.

Then came the murders of the journalists. This proved to be a breaking point. In their wake, “civil society has opened its mouth and straightened its back,” Peter Bardy, Kuciak’s former editor in chief, said in an interview earlier this year.

The tide of anger washed Fico out, though he vowed he would return. It washed Kalinak out too. When it came time for presidential elections, Zuzana Caputova, a candidate vowing to clean up corruption and promote the rule of law, was elected, even though some tried to smear her as a Soros stooge. A new parliamentary government came in, sounding the same notes about the importance of good governance and anti-corruption efforts. It looked like maybe a democratic descent had been halted, frozen in mid-air.

In the immediate aftermath of the double murder, many assumed that, since Kuciak had been investigating the Italian Mafia in Slovakia, the Mafia was behind his death. “Fico is in bed with the Italian Mafia,” a protest sign read.

But eventually, financier and real estate owner Marian Kocner, no stranger to scandal, came to be suspected as the force behind the murder. A note smuggled out of prison from Kocner complaining that Judge Mojmir Mamojka had not released him on bail read “Why did Mamojka fail!… R.F. was supposed to fix it,” which was seen as a possible reference to the former prime minister. (Two of three judges on a three-judge panel recently acquitted Kocner and said that one of his close associates had been responsible; the third judge dissented, saying Kocner was most likely guilty).

In the aftermath of the murder, Kocner’s connections throughout Fico’s government became known, which not only ensured that Smer did not win in 2020, but also led to a reform of law enforcement and judicial institutions, and subsequent investigations and prosecutions. Fico himself was charged with running an organized criminal group as prime minister.

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Parliament did not lift Fico’s immunity from prosecution, but, according to Dominika Hajdu, director of the democracy and resilience program at GLOBSEC, a Bratislava-based think tank, if Fico remains out of power, there could be other attempts to prosecute him. On the other hand, if he does manage a return to power, “because of these prosecutions, he might be very motivated to strengthen his grip on the judiciary, the police, in order for them not to continue with any kind of investigations.” Fico and his allies are also back to attacking journalists and journalism.

It might seem, if one were otherwise unaware of politics in the world today, that, given his ignominious ouster, alleged corruption, and the threat of what he might do should he become prime minister again, Fico would not stand a political chance, and would be roundly rejected by Slovakia’s voting public. Caputova, who announced that she will not run for a second term, is suing Fico for defamation over his allegations that she is a puppet of the United States and Soros. Caputova has said that her family has received death threats as a result of these smears. Surely, one might think, Slovakia would not vote this person back into office. But anyone who has observed politics recently would know better.

“First of all, Fico is very hardworking,” said Vladimir Snidl, a journalist at independent news outlet Dennik N. “He is able to read the mood in society.” And Fico does not limit himself to telling them what they want to hear. He took an anti-vaccine stance during the Covid-19 pandemic. He has said he would end arms deliveries to Ukraine. He knows his audience is anti-establishment and anti-NATO, and so he will be, too. Once, Snidl stressed, Fico spoke of Slovakia as being in the “core” of Europe. But he knows that that’s not where his voters are, so that’s not where he is anymore either.

“His press conferences are just Soros, Soros, Soros, Soros,” Snidl said. This plays to how his voters see the world. So it’s the picture of the world that he will paint.

Slovakia “is a deeply divided society,” wrote Nic, “So it made sense for Fico to deepen social polarization.” The parties involved in the post-2020 coalition government, led by Igor Matovic of the Ordinary People party, have ruled amid the pandemic and soaring inflation. They didn’t or couldn’t agree on how to try to quell socioeconomic concerns, or fears related to the war in Ukraine. And, on the campaign trail, they have had little to offer in response to Fico.

Fico’s SMER party is polling at around 20 percent, a few points ahead of Progressive Slovakia, a liberal party led by young European Parliament member Michal Simecka. Coming in third is HLAS, led by Peter Pellegrini, who succeeded Fico as prime minister in 2018 and broke away from SMER to form his own party in 2020.

Some of the blame for Fico’s success can be attributed to an “unconvincing campaign by Pellegrini and his HLAS party, which was leading the polls until early 2023,” Nic wrote in an e-mail. Pellegrini’s “project of building up a moderate social democratic party didn’t work amidst increasing polarization.” Fico, he continued, cast Pellegrini “as an unconvincing moderate ‘plotting’ future coalition with the liberals (PS)…The bottom line is consolidation of SMER’s voter base and (re)gaining more ground at the expense of Pellegrini’s HLAS and picking up new support at the fringes, both far-right and far-left.”

“We’re just seeing a very frustrating and sad situation. People are disappointed, people are frustrated with the previous government,” said Hajdu. “But all these pro-democracy parties are not able to make any kind of compromises for the greater good.”

Much still depends not just on who gets the most votes but who is able to form a coalition. Still, Snidl suggested that, if Fico were to come back to power, he would follow the model established by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán: remain in NATO, remain in the European Union, “but also try to make an authoritarian state.”

Fico’s obstacles to creating such a state, Snidl said, are the media and civil society—two sectors he has attacked throughout his campaign. “This,” Snidl said, “is something we need to discourage.”

This is one lesson for Americans: The institutions that exist to check political malfeasance need to remember their role as such, while those in a position to push back against attacks on civil society and journalism should do so. Hajdu, for example, mentioned that politicians across the political spectrum, including, for example, Matovic, will vilify the media if doing so is convenient, ultimately undercutting it as an institution that can hold Fico to account.

Another obvious lesson is for politicians, who seem to be learning in real time that it is not enough to not be Fico. It is not enough to hope that people put aside every other frustration to stop a person who is apparently running to be prime minister out of a combination of revenge and self-preservation. Something more compelling has to be presented to the people.

But the most important lesson, whether Fico wins or loses, is this: Aspiring authoritarianism, corruption, and conspiracy are not phenomena that can be pushed out of power once and then be expected to vanish. Defeating them, and the individuals who promote them, is a choice that society has to make over and over again. That’s true for journalists, and it’s true for voters, and it’s true for politicians ostensibly offering their people a democratic alternative to despotism. It’s true now, five years after Fico resigned, vowing to return. And, should Trump be the Republican candidate for the presidential election next year, it will be true then, too.

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Emily Tamkin

Emily Tamkin is a global affairs journalist and the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews.

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