October 1, 2023 - 3:00pm

A bigger-than-expected win for Robert Fico and his Smer party in Slovakia’s elections this weekend could put a major chink in the armour of Western support for Ukraine. With a vote share of 23%, Fico is set to become prime minister of Slovakia for the third time, thanks to a newly Eurosceptic, anti-Western platform.  

Fico is expected to form a coalition with HLAS, a splinter group from Smer which won 15% of the vote and which will be the kingmaker in any coalition government. A Smer government would also require support from another conservative force, such as the Christian Democratic Movement (7%) or the Slovak National Party (6%).

In the days before the vote, the legacy media persuaded itself that the Progressive Slovakia party could beat Fico. Led by European Parliament Vice President Michal Šimečka, the party shot from relative obscurity to become the darling of Slovakia’s metropolitan youth, winning 18% of the total vote. But in this conservative country, its chances of being able to form a coalition always looked slim — though Šimečka insisted on Sunday morning that the party would “do everything” to form its own coalition to stop Fico leading the country.

In the past, Fico portrayed himself in the mould of a traditional social democrat. In the European Parliament, Smer is a member of the often aggressively pro-integrationist Socialists and Democrats group. But Fico has changed that. After resigning as prime minister in 2018 amid a major scandal following the murder of a journalist, he switched up his image, reinventing himself as a persecuted populist firebrand giving voice to the voiceless.  

This resurrection was made possible by the series of global crises in recent years. Covid lockdowns and vaccine policies destroyed the faith of many Slovaks in accepted popular narratives. Then came the Ukraine war, and this deep mistrust found a new focus. Fico has ridden a wave of anti-Western, Ukraine-sceptic feeling, promising not to send “a single bullet” to Kyiv and bemoaning the labelling of anyone with a different opinion on the war as “pro-Russian”.  

As Bratislava has effectively exhausted its available military supplies, this attitude won’t be a game changer for Kyiv. But Fico’s argument against arming Ukraine “because prolonging the conflict only leads to unnecessary and enormous loss of human life” provides validation for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s claim that ordinary Europeans want peace, rather than escalating support for a brutal conflict. As leader, Fico would likely join Orbán in obstructing EU proposals on Ukraine as one of the few ways in which he can put his Slovak nationalist agenda to real effect — so it’s no surprise that the Hungarian PM greeted Smer’s victory with glee.

Although Fico’s Euroscepticism will provoke a shudder of collective horror in Brussels, Slovakia needs the EU, and euro membership gives it little room to diverge significantly from the rest of the bloc. Still, Fico’s win — and the proportion of conservative, nationalist parties in the new parliament — remains significant.

Unsurprisingly, the result has elicited strong reactions. “Robert Fico defeated Slovakia. He has defeated the version of the country that the majority of the nation imagined after the Velvet Revolution,” lamented one newspaper editor. Another editor comforted readers that “Fico will not be strong enough to shut everything down and ban writing, singing, dancing and dreaming.”

Hostility to the written word and music was not part of Fico’s offer to voters this time around, nor was it high on the agenda during his previous periods in office. Nonetheless, once the tricky business of forming a coalition is complete, the Slovak election could indeed prove to be a watershed moment for Europe, as a rejection of the West’s long-term political and ideological trajectory. 

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz