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A populist ex-premier who opposes support for Ukraine leads his leftist party to victory in Slovakia

Former Prime Minister Robert Fico and the leftist Smer, or Direction, party had 22.9% of the votes, the Slovak Statistics Office said early Sunday after counting 99.98% of the ballots from some 6,000 polling stations

Robert Fico Eslovaquia
Chairman of SMER-Social Democracy party Robert Fico arrives at his party's headquarters day after an early parliamentary election in Bratislava, Slovakia, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)Darko Bandic (AP)

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A populist former prime minister and his leftist party have won early parliamentary elections in Slovakia, staging a political comeback after campaigning on a pro-Russian and anti-American message, according to almost complete results.

Former Prime Minister Robert Fico and the leftist Smer, or Direction, party had 22.9% of the votes, the Slovak Statistics Office said early Sunday after counting 99.98% of the ballots from some 6,000 polling stations.

Fico said he was ready to open talks with other parties on forming a coalition government as soon as President Zuzana Caputova asks him to do so. “We’re here, we’re ready, we’ve learned something, we’re more experienced,” he said.

“We have clear ideas, we have clear plans,” Fico said. “We know what exactly the government should do.”

Saturday’s election was a test for the small eastern European country’s support for neighboring Ukraine in its war with Russia, and the win by Fico could strain a fragile unity in the European Union and NATO.

Fico, 59, has vowed to withdraw Slovakia’s military support for Ukraine in Russia’s war if his attempt to return to power succeeds.

“People in Slovakia have bigger problems than Ukraine,” he said.

The country of 5.5 million people created in 1993 following the breakup of Czechoslovakia has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine since Russia invaded last February, donating arms and opening the borders for refugees fleeing the war.

Slovakia has delivered to Ukraine its fleet of the Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets, the S-300 air defense system, helicopters, armored vehicles and much-needed demining equipment.

The current caretaker government is planning to send Ukraine artillery ammunition and to train Ukrainian service members in demining.

Winning approval for sending more arms to Ukraine is getting more difficult in many countries. In the U.S. Congress, a bill to avert a government shutdown in Washington, D.C., excluded President Joe Biden’s request to provide more security assistance to the war-torn nation.

In other countries, including Germany, France, and Spain, populist parties skeptical of intervention in Ukraine also command significant support. Many of these countries have national or regional elections coming up that could tip the balance of popular opinion away from Kyiv and toward Moscow.

With no party winning a majority of seats in Slovakia, a coalition government will need to be formed.

The president traditionally asks an election’s winner to try to form a government, so Fico is likely to become prime minister again. He served as prime minister in 2006-2010 and again in 2012-2018.

A liberal, pro-West newcomer, the Progressive Slovakia party, was second, with 18% of the votes.

Its leader Michal Simecka, who is deputy president of the European Parliament, said his party respected the result. “But it’s bad news for Slovakia,” he said. “And it would be even worse if Robert Fico manages to create a government.”

He said he’d like try to form a governing coalition if Fico fails.

The left-wing Hlas (Voice) party, led by Fico’s former deputy in Smer, Peter Pellegrini, came in third with 14.7%. Pellegrini parted ways with Fico after the scandal-tainted Smer lost the previous election in 2020, but their possible reunion would boost Fico’s chances to form a government.

Pellegrini replaced Fico as prime minister after he was forced to resign after major anti-government street protests following the 2018 killing of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee.

Pellegrini congratulated Fico on his victory but said that two former prime ministers in one government might not work well.

“It’s not ideal but that doesn’t mean such a coalition can’t be created,” he said.

Another potential coalition partner, the ultranationalist Slovak National Party, a clear pro-Russian group, received 5.6%.

Those three parties would have a parliamentary majority if they joined forces in a coalition government.

Fico opposes EU sanctions on Russia, questions whether Ukraine can force out the invading Russian troops and wants to block Ukraine from joining NATO.

He proposes that instead of sending arms to Kyiv, the EU and the U.S. should use their influence to force Russia and Ukraine to strike a compromise peace deal.

Fico’s critics worry that his return to power could lead Slovakia to abandon its course in other ways, following the path of Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and to a lesser extent of Poland under the Law and Justice party.

“It can’t be ruled out that he will be looking for a partner who uses similar rhetoric, and the partner will be Viktor Orbán,” said Radoslav Stefancik, an analyst from the University of Economics in Bratislava.

Orbán welcomed Fico’s victory.

“Always good to work together with a patriot,” he posted on X, the former Twitter. “Looking forward to it!”

Hungary has been sanctioned by the EU for alleged rule-of-law violations and corruption, while EU institutions say Poland has been on a slippery slope away from the EU’s rule-of-law principles. Fico has threatened to dismiss investigators from the National Criminal Agency and the special prosecutor who deals with the most serious crimes and corruption.

Hungary also has — uniquely among EU countries — maintained close relations with Moscow and argued against supplying arms to Ukraine or providing it with economic assistance.

Fico repeats Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unsupported claim that the Ukrainian government runs a Nazi state from which ethnic Russians in the country’s east needed protection. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust.

Known for foul-mouthed tirades against journalists, Fico also campaigned against immigration and LGBTQ+ rights.

The populist Ordinary People group, the conservative Christian Democrats and the pro-business Freedom and Solidarity also won seats in parliament while the far-right Republic failed to do so.

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