Many worry about the geopolitical consequences of Smer’s potential victory in the upcoming Slovak election. Yet, Smer’s rhetoric at home has always been worse than its actions abroad. Looking at twelve years of Smer rule clearly shows what to worry about: the LGTBQIA+ community, the effective management of migration and integration, and—perhaps most of all—the fight against corruption.
September 27, 2023
On September 30, Slovaks go to the polls. One—and perhaps the most likely—outcome is that Smer, the party of former prime minister, Robert Fico, will come first. A less likely possibility is that the upward trajectory of Michal Šimečka and Progressive Slovakia continues, and the party finishes just ahead of Smer. No matter the outcome, coalition negotiations will be tricky, and government formation will depend on which and how many parties cross the 5% threshold to enter parliament. Much has been written (for example, here, here, and here) about the foreign policy consequences of a Smer-led government. The consensus is not optimistic—rightfully so. Yet, when it comes to geopolitics, Smer’s rhetoric at home has always been worse than their actions abroad. Where Smer has the potential to do real damage is not in the EU or NATO—it is at home.
Smer’s Foreign Policy Rhetoric
Yes, Smer’s foreign policy is concerning. Yes, it uses anti-American rhetoric with strong, if not blatant, conspiratorial overtones. Yes, Smer stated that their government would not send any military support to Ukraine, while also managing to spread Kremlin-linked disinformation about neo-Nazis in Ukraine’s armed forces. Yes, influenced by disinformation and by the anti-Western rhetoric of political elites, the Slovak public is increasingly anti-NATO, pro-Russia, and Eurosceptic. And yes, Smer’s electorate, more than before, is increasingly composed of these voters, siphoned away from radical-right parties like Peoples’ Party Our Slovakia (L’SNS), Republika, and the Slovak National Party (SNS).
So, yes, as commentators point out, these are all potential reasons to worry, especially in the worst-case scenario: if Smer forms a coalition with Republika and SNS.
However, we have 12 years of Smer-led governments to consider when making predictions about the future. These 12 years suggest that, above all, Fico is a pragmatist and political survival is his top priority. While Smer consistently instrumentalized geopolitics, when push came to shove, its policy decisions looked a little different.
Smer spearheaded Slovakia’s adoption of the euro in 2009. It shrewdly supported the European Stability Mechanism in return for early elections in 2012 (causing some commentators to label Fico a “Europhile”). Smer purchased F-16s from the United States. It began negotiations with the United States on the defense treaty that it now so adamantly criticizes. Members of Smer supported migrant resettlement quotas in the European Parliament. And Fico himself told foreign ambassadors that Smer supports Ukraine’s EU membership, and he has also publicly stated that his government would continue to send humanitarian aid to the country.
Most importantly, the system of self-enrichment built by Smer appears to be sustained by EU funds and the export-oriented nature of the Slovak economy within the Single Market (perhaps a reason why Fico made a campaign stop at the Volvo factory in eastern Slovakia and reassured foreign investors that he supported the project). When it comes to NATO, Fico has stated that Smer will not form a coalition with any party that wants Slovakia to exit the alliance (and even Republika has walked back its anti-NATO stances as the elections drew closer).
This is to say: it benefits Smer to keep Slovakia firmly in the Euro-Atlantic political structure while also attacking it for electoral gain.
The Domestic Consequences
Looking at 12 years of Smer rule clearly shows what to worry about: the LGTBQIA+ community, the effective management of migration and integration, and the fight against corruption.
Across the political spectrum, numerous parties —backed by conservative, religious civil society movements — increasingly politicize the LGBTQIA+ community. The leader of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) even went as far as to refer to it as a “plague”, though he has since apologized for his statements (kind of). When it comes to Smer, the constitutional amendment defining marriage as solely between a man and women was passed under their watch. Moreover, Fico himself increasingly uses demeaning language when referring to the LGBTQIA+ community. Slovakia is still a society where same-sex relationships and queer identities are not widely tolerated, and where the legal framework fails to treat LGBTQIA+ individuals equally. If Smer leads the next government, the best to hope for is more of the same. At worst, there will be increasing intolerance and discrimination, legitimized by “uncivil“ rhetoric from political elites. Note, however, that the root of the problem is not necessarily Smer. The root of the problem is that, on LGTBQIA+ rights, Smer has numerous willing allies, and that the parties who do advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community are often depicted as progressive threats to Slovak society.
Even more than the LGBTQIA+ community, migrants are the indispensable topic of Slovak politics. Smer and other opposition parties criticized the previous government coalition for its alleged inability to control migration, just at as they criticize the current expert government for its alleged inability to control border crossings with Hungary. Politicizing irregular migration is an effective way to score political points, and it also draws attention away from two fundamental migration-related problems: the integration of non-EU citizens and the emigration of mostly young, well-educated Slovaks.
When it comes to the integration of non-EU nationals, Slovakia has all the right policies on paper but their implementation is lacking. Seemingly simple tasks like recruiting and hiring foreigners take months due to bureaucracy. Responsibility for integration is often “outsourced” to the under-resourced nongovernmental sector that, at best, has a lukewarm relationship with the state. Recent data suggests that over 100,000 Ukrainian refugees have entered Slovakia; 84 percent intend to stay. Even if these numbers are inflated, effective integration is a necessity. At best, a Smer-led government will ignore the issue completely and refuse to work with civil society partners. At worst, as events in the neighboring Czech Republic show, Ukrainians and other third-country nationals residing in Slovakia will become political targets, and nongovernmental organizations will be condemned as Soros-funded foreign agents.
Emigration remains a perennial problem. Between 300,000 and 350,000 Slovaks currently reside abroad, and one-in-four university students plan to leave Slovakia after completing their education. While the primary motivation for emigration is economic, the instability of the previous government did little to convince people to stay. Unfortunately, neither will a Smer victory. In fact, youth disillusionment and frustration with politics will likely increase if Smer attacks progressive policies and rolls back the fight against corruption. Austria, the Czech Republic, and Germany will benefit, while Slovakia will lose the future doctors, engineers, and other young professionals that it desperately needs.
The most drastic consequence of a potential Smer victory concerns the fight against corruption. The former government, led by the OL’ANO (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities) movement, worked hard to live up to its campaign promises on this front. The process has not been perfect. The different branches of the security forces cannot seem to get along, to put it mildly. Neither can the general prosecutor and special prosecutor, the former of whom keeps using Article 363 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to annul charges related to corruption proceedings. And opposition parties, particularly Smer, depict anti-corruption efforts as unjustified, politically motivated attacks. Yet, these efforts are working. In fact, the effectiveness of these efforts is precisely why Smer is more aggressive, conservative, and radical.
Losing the election would come with a high cost for Fico and his party. It would mean the investigations, the trials, and the verdicts will continue. If Smer wins and puts together a coalition government, it would have the opportunity to put a stop to it all. And, in the worst-case scenario, it would give Smer the opportunity to instrumentalize anti-corruption efforts against political opponents—that is, to do exactly what it accuses the former government of doing. In the last three years, Slovakia has made significant progress in the fight against corruption. A Smer government would systematically unravel most of these gains.
“Losing the election would come with a high cost for Fico and his party. It would mean the investigations, the trials, and the verdicts will continue.
On September 13, Igor Matovič, the former prime minister and leader of OĽANO, drove a pick-up truck equipped with loudspeakers to an outdoor Smer press conference. His interruption, which mostly consisted of calling Smer a mafia organization was not taken kindly by former interior minister Robert Kaliňák. The scene ended in a physical altercation between the two, and with another Smer candidate, Richard Glück, punching Matovič in the face. A couple of days later on a popular political talk show, Robert Fico commented on the event with one of his most frequent campaign slogans: he was glad that someone “urobil poriadok” or “made order.”
This incident is emblematic of how polarized, chaotic, and tense Slovak politics has gotten. So, yes, there are reasons to worry about what Smer’s potential victory will mean for the EU, NATO, and Ukraine, but one should also be concerned about what Smer’s potential victory will mean for Slovakia.
Roman Hlatky is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of North Texas.
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