As the anti-communist Velvet Revolution was sweeping across Czechoslovakia in the autumn of 1989, Robert Fico, then a communist party member, said that he did “not even notice” the democratic moment that was taking place in his country.
Over the next three decades, Fico rebranded himself from a communist to a self-proclaimed social democrat, going on to win three parliamentary elections in Slovakia.
His victory in a fourth vote, confirmed on Sunday, was the result of another volte-face: having once defined Slovakia’s future as being in “the core of the EU”, he set himself firmly against the European consensus on Ukraine and turned instead in the direction of Moscow.
As a winner of the election, Fico will attempt to form a coalition – an inevitability in the Slovak political system. He will find allies in Hlas, the party of his former protégé, Peter Pellegrini, that came in third place, and in the Slovak Nationalist Party, a past coalition partner that squeezed into parliament by a narrow margin. This makes the prospect of a Fico-led government nearly inescapable, but only with a small majority of four in a 150-seat chamber.
If he succeeds in forming a coalition, Fico will not shy away from introducing sweeping changes in both domestic and international policy. During the campaign, he has opposed the EU’s sanctions against Russia and pledged that Ukraine would not receive “one more bullet” when he returns to power. For a country that has been one of the staunchest supporters of Ukraine to date, this would mark a sharp U-turn.
The result is already playing into pro-Kremlin propaganda. The Russian outlet Pravda has referred to Fico as “a politician totally loyal to Moscow whose party is resisting the liberal agenda of the globalised West.”
The win is all the more extraordinary because Fico’s political future had been hanging by a short thread in recent years. The former premier was forced out of office in 2018, after a journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée were brutally murdered. He was later accused of leading a criminal organisation; several of his former colleagues ended up in prison for bribery and tax fraud; and his party fell to its knees with public support in the single digits.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic, during which Fico attacked the government’s lockdown policies, combined with the spectre of a ruling centre-right government in disarray, have fuelled his comeback.
It is true that Fico has, in the past proved, pragmatic on the European stage, siding with Brussels on issues that benefited him and diverging on others, like migration policy.
But Fico is a master of reinvention. With his current electorate on the eurosceptic side, he will be more comfortable siding with Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, than ever before.
Moreover, if the ruling PiS party wins the Polish elections in October, this could lead to a revival of the Visegrad club as the counterforce of “illiberal” politics within the EU.
Unlike other Visegrad countries, however, Slovakia is a eurozone member. The EU’s fiscal rules and the country’s mounting deficit will put a brake on Fico’s government. The sticks that Brussels has with Bratislava are, ultimately, greater than those that it has with governments in Budapest or Warsaw.
Serious consequences for Slovakia
What must not be overlooked are the far-reaching domestic consequences of this election.
Fico has already pledged to stop ongoing anti-corruption proceedings and scrap the role of a special public prosecutor’s office in investigating the abuse of power. The danger is that there could be little left to stop him from taking a sweep at the integrity of the courts and the media, putting the rule of law in jeopardy.
Behind Mr Fico’s re-emergence lies a deeply polarised society exposed by this election. A party that came second with almost 18 percent, Progressive Slovakia, has campaigned as a liberal, pro-EU and modernising political force. It has overwhelmingly won the vote in the two biggest cities.
What this election has, ultimately, shown is a dividing line – not only in Slovakia, but also across the wider region – between voters who find comfort in the politics of resentment and younger generations who are pro-European and yearning for change.
Anton Spisak is a senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. He was born in Slovakia and writes in personal capacity