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Almost half of Slovakia’s voters, who were convinced that Ivan Korčok, the candidate of the opposition parties, would win in the second round of the presidential election, were disappointed. A miracle—which was taken for granted by many after the first round when the former diplomat who was foreign minister in 2020–2022 narrowly won over Speaker of Parliament Peter Pellegrini—did not take place. With the help of his partners from the governing coalition, Pellegrini won 53.12 percent, i.e. he defeated Korčok by 6.25 percentage points. The election confirmed the balance of political forces after last year’s parliamentary elections. The governing coalition can interpret the outcome as a vote of confidence, and it may thus implement policies to fix public finances that were so far delayed so as not to antagonize voters.


Juraj Marušiak

April 17, 2024


The Causes of Pellegrini’s success

Pellegrini succeeded because he could talk to different, often contradictory groups of society—from the clerical right to neo-communists, from Slovak nationalists to the Hungarian minority, and from oligarchs to workers. Resistance to “progressive liberalism” and “radical environmentalism,” but also the fear that the current war in Ukraine may affect Slovakia, played a vital role in the formation of the illiberal alliance that backed him. His candidacy was supported by the governing coalition, but also by some candidates who did not manage to enter the second round of the presidential election. This alliance has demonstrated a high capacity to mobilize its voters. Although the opposition managed to mobilize its segment of the electorate, usually in large cities, to the maximum extent possible, it could not reach beyond it. In a society as divided as Slovakia’s, only those who seek to engage new groups of supporters and convince some in the camp of their opponents will succeed in attracting more voters, or alternatively at least to persuade their opponent’s voters to stay home.

It was not only Pellegrini’s pro-peace rhetoric regarding the war in Ukraine that worked in his favor, but also voters’ recent experience of the previous government of the now opposition parties, from which even the strongest opposition party, Progressive Slovakia, could not distance itself convincingly. The failed management of the Covid-19 pandemic, the arrogant attitude toward those who criticized the earlier governments led by Igor Matovič (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities, OĽaNO) and Eduard Heger (OĽaNO, since 2023 Democrats), and the previous governing coalition’s permanent conflicts also contributed to far-right voters beginning to show sympathy for the parties of the current governing coalition, even though before 2020 they rejected their rule because of corruption and clientelism.

At the same time, the fight against corruption was the main slogan of the previous ruling coalition of right-wing parties, which they used to justify their arrogant attitude toward criticism of their notions of moral superiority. This attitude was directed not only at the politicians of now Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Direction–Social Democracy (Smer-SD) or Pellegrini’s Voice–Social Democracy (Hlas-SD) but also at their voters and supporters. The response to this, as well as to the investigation of corruption scandals was often close to the edge of the rule of law, was an unprecedented radicalization of Smer-SD, which in its rhetoric as well as in its choice of topics and media has moved closer to the far right after 2020. The radical rhetoric of the coalition parties, especially Smer-SD and the Slovak National Party (SNS), aimed at attracting anti-liberal voters before the parliamentary elections in September 2023 continued in the presidential election campaign and intensified before the second round. Already before the early parliamentary elections in 2023, Smer-SD politicians appeared in media that can be labeled as extremist; by this year’s presidential election, such media ceased to be taboo for Hlas-SD too.

Dissatisfaction with the government policies in 2020-2023 caused many citizens to reject even the policy of extensive support for Ukraine and to accept Smer-SD’s anti-Ukraine rhetoric.

The combination of all these factors contributed to the return of Robert Fico as prime minister in 2023, with the support of the openly pro-Russian (SNS).

The result of the 2019 presidential election when liberal environmental activist Zuzana Čaputová won 58.4 percent of the vote and of the 2020 parliamentary elections when the center-right government gained a constitutional majority in the parliament showed that Smer-SD is not invincible. But it is not enough for its opponents to win elections; they must also learn how to govern, build political alliances, and listen not only to those who unconditionally support them but also to those who criticize them.

Who Is Pellegrini?

On the international scene, Pellegrini became known only in 2018, when he replaced his then-party boss, Robert Fico, as prime minister who had to resign as prime minister after anti-corruption protests. Pellegrini succeeded him for less than two years. He was less aggressive than Fico, rejected Smer’s anti-West rhetoric, and left the party after its electoral defeat in 2020 to establish Hlas-SD.

Even before the 2023 parliamentary elections, however, he had aligned his rhetoric on sensitive issues, such as the war in Ukraine, to that of Smer-SD and SNS. Therefore, it is doubtful whether he ever really parted ways with Smer-SD regarding values, ideology, program, and mentality. Hlas-SD was also organizationally set up in a very similar way to Smer-SD. Pellegrini was also very much inspired by his former party in his program; for example, in foreign policy. Even with the war in Ukraine going on, he talks about a policy directed “to the four cardinal points of the world,” similar to Smer-SD.

However, Pellegrini is not a political newcomer. He has spent almost his entire adult life in politics. He is an economist and first ran for parliamentary elections at the age of 26. Although he did not succeed at the time, he then worked with people who co-developed Smer’s economic policy and became a member of parliament in 2006. He held the posts of state secretary in the Ministry of Finance, minister for education, deputy prime minister for informatization, and speaker of the parliament.

Pellegrini is energetic and came across as a clever manager and technocrat. He is “Teflon-like,” demonstrated by how he has reacted to various scandals without those so far affecting his popularity, which is a positive and a negative at the same time. He is a good speaker and experienced in political debates, which he capitalized on in his debates with Korčok. On the negative side is Pellegrini’s flexibility of values; he can deny what he preached a few months previously.


Fico as the Real Winner

Although Pellegrini will be the new president, the actual winner is Fico. He pushed through  “his” candidate, who, despite a transitional rebellion when establishing his party in 2020 and criticizing Fico’s rapprochement with the radical right, has been extremely loyal to him for the last year and a half, and whose party may now fall into political irrelevance or face absorption by Smer-SD. Hlas-SD will need a new leader after Pellegrini goes to the presidential palace. However, the party’s emergence and its entire track record are closely linked to Pellegrini’s personality and technocratic approach to politics. Therefore, it will be challenging to find a personality to match him, and Smer-SD absorbing its membership, parliamentarians, and activists is a highly likely scenario. Hlas-SD could turn out to have been a “lift” for him to the presidency and may now allow itself to be squeezed out by other parties. However, Fico would have been the “winner” even if Pellegrini lost. As Fico has done many times before, he would have been able to take advantage of his partner’s defeat to absorb his party.

Since the parliamentary elections in 2023, it has been tough to identify what Hlas-SD actually is while it being Smer-SD’s only competitor for left-wing voters. It is hardly possible to find differences between it and Smer-SD, from which it was split off. Two almost indistinguishable parties can hardly exist side by side, especially when one has a charismatic and easily identifiable leader and can speak of ideological and political continuity, while the other party has none of these.

While Korčok’s reaction to the election result, in which he accused Pellegrini of smearing him and of non-transparent campaigning, reflects the overall frustration among his supporters, Pellegrini’s post-election speech was full of self-confidence. He has shown that he can be energetic and forceful, with the only exception being in his relationship with Fico. If he has so far acted as a consensus politician, he has made it clear that he will support the government. He adopted the same political style as that of Fico and the current government after 2023, which imitates Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. While as prime minister in 2018-2020 Pellegrini tried to correct the course of Smer-SD partially, it is unlikely that he will do so now.

Pellegrini will also want to seek re-election in five years, for which he will need the support of a strong party. At the moment, only Smer-SD can provide him with that. As a relatively young politician, he would challenge Fico’s dominance only if he found that Smer-SD would no longer guarantee his career in politics.



The presidential election strengthened the positions of the governing coalition, and especially of Smer-SD. The government will have a sufficiently strong mandate to pursue its goals, whether in gaining control over public institutions such as the media, in the fight against nongovernmental organizations, or in consolidation measures in public finances. Pressure on the media and law-enforcement agencies is likely to increase in line with Fico’s pre-election announcement suggesting an emphasis on strengthening the “power side of governance”, which he said Smer-SD has neglected considerably.

It is clear that, after returning to power last year, Smer-SD follows the playbook of Hungarian politics. Since his return as prime minister, Fico, like Orbán, focused primarily on the control of the public broadcasting media and on limiting the powers of institutions like law-enforcement agencies or the judiciary. At the same time, his coalition partner, SNS, uses the Ministry of Culture to suppress dissatisfied artists. The coalition tries to divert attention from the growing economic problems, including the need to raise taxes and to lay off civil servants, with intense anti-West rhetoric.

The rhetoric of the ruling coalition, the newly elected president, and the prime minister suggests that the “cold civil war”—the current polarization of society between the “winners” of the post-communist transformation, especially in the big cities, and the “losers” in the countryside and smaller towns—is far from over. On the contrary, the confrontation between the two parts of political elites but also within the society will intensify.



Juraj Marušiak is the director of the Institute of Political Science at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Photo credit: photocosmos1 via Shutterstock

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