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Robert Fico, the populist who returned from political death in Slovakia

The nationalist and anti-Ukrainian rhetoric of the veteran politician is creating concern in the West, where there are fears that he could become the next Viktor Orbán within the EU and NATO

Slovakia's parliamentary election 2023
Robert Fico at the headquarters of his party, Smer-SD, on election night this Saturday in Bratislava.MARTIN DIVISEK (EFE)
Gloria Rodríguez-Pina

Everyone in Slovakia considered Robert Fico politically dead. It was in 2020, when his party, Smer-SD (Slovak Social Democracy-Direction) lost the elections after he himself was forced to resign in 2018 due to massive demonstrations following the murder of an investigative reporter and his partner. But just two and a half years later, the populist and nationalist leader, who was prime minister for three terms, is back in power in Slovakia. And he is sounding more radical than ever and eager for revenge. On Saturday, Fico won Slovakia’s parliamentary elections, although he will have to find alliances to be able to govern.

Fico was able to capitalize on the unrest of Slovak voters, to stir up their fears, and to portray himself as their savior. The country first suffered from the coronavirus pandemic, then experienced instability from the war in neighboring Ukraine; added to this was a chaotic and ill-matched center-right coalition government. In the middle of all the political instability and economic anxiety due to the rising cost of living, Fico promised Slovaks stability and security, and the end of military support for Ukraine.

The nationalistic, populist, xenophobic and anti-Ukrainian rhetoric deployed by the 59-year-old veteran politician on the campaign trail has generated concern in Western capitals, which see a risk of him becoming a new Viktor Orbán within the European Union and NATO. Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year, the Hungarian prime minister has stood out as the EU voice closest to Vladimir Putin. Now, Fico could join his team.

Just like the conservative governments of Poland and Hungary, the winner of the Slovak elections opposes the redistribution of refugees in the EU, any change in the method of unanimous decision-making in the European Council, and the integration of Ukraine into the EU and NATO. “We know that Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and that its government regime falls very short of democratic standards,” he told Reuters recently about the possible start of EU accession talks with Kyiv, which he called “delusional.”

The veteran leader has been in politics since the 1990s. He studied in the United States and upon his return, he was vice president of the Democratic Left party, a split from the old Communist Party, in which he also participated. In 1999, he founded Smer, a liberal party where he had no rivals.

Peter Spak, a Slovak political scientist at Masaryk University in the neighboring Czech Republic, remembers how in the beginning Fico refused to associate his new party with either the right or the left. “Since it didn’t work, he moved towards social democracy,” he explains via Zoom. “But this party has nothing to do with Western social democracy. And it never has. [The name] is nothing more than a marketing tool. Their attitude is nationalist and populist,” he warns.

Far-right rhetoric

In 2006, at the beginning of his first term in office (2006-2010), Fico formed a coalition government with a right-wing party. In 2014-2015, “he began to openly and decisively mobilize people on the far right,” according to Spak. “Some of his statements from that time could pass for those of a far-right politician,” he says. And more recently, the political scientist points out, his anti-vaccine messages during the pandemic and his views on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in which he blames Kyiv for the conflict, are not distinguishable from those of Republika, the far-right party that finally has not managed to enter parliament.

His ultra-conservative views on social issues such as LGBTQ+ rights also distances him from the European social democratic family and brings him closer to leaders such as Orbán in Hungary or Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski. He also shares with them a xenophobic view of immigration, with statements such as that letting in migrants from Muslim countries poses a risk of letting in terrorists. During the campaign, Fico advocated strengthening cooperation within the Visegrád Group, where in addition to Hungary and Poland, the Czech Republic also sits.

The political careers of Fico and Orbán are also similar in their evolution from a youth marked by liberal ideas and international studies, to a radicalization and espousal of nationalist, conservative and anti-Western values. The Slovak politician’s career has two turning points, according to Spac. The first was in 2014, when he lost the presidential elections. The definitive one was 2018, with the murder of the journalist Jan Kuciak and his partner, Martina Kusnirova, when the reporter was investigating connections between people close to Smer and the Italian mafia as well as government corruption scandals. The event shook Slovak society, which took to the streets to protest, and Fico was forced to resign. After his departure, Smer fell in the polls and lost the 2020 elections. After that, a part of his party left and founded Hlas (Voice). The media and analysts certified Fico’s political death.

Some 40 senior officials, police officers, judges, prosecutors, politicians and businessmen with ties to Smer have been convicted of corruption and other crimes, according to local media cited by Reuters. Another 130 individuals are being investigated or prosecuted. Fico himself faced charges last year for using information from police and tax authorities to discredit his political rivals. Now, many expect personal revenge for what Fico considers an attack on his own people. During the campaign, he threatened to fire special prosecutor Daniel Lipsic, who has been investigating the most serious crimes and corruption cases. He has also intimidated the president, Zuzana Čaputová, whom he accuses of treason and of being a U.S. agent.

Fico has always been one for grandiose electoral statements and promises, but in the past he has proven to be more pragmatic than ideological, especially in his relationship with the EU, where Slovakia has never had a strong voice. One of the main milestones of his previous governments was the country’s entry into the eurozone in 2008, after having campaigned against it. It is known that he has approached well-respected people for the position of foreign minister, which is viewed as a good sign. On Sunday, speaking after his victory, Fico assured: “Slovakia’s foreign policy is not going to change, but that does not mean that we cannot be critical of the EU on some issues.”

It is foreseeable that if he reaches a coalition agreement to govern with Hlas, his government will be more moderate than his political rallies indicated. Despite everything, Orbán already sees Fico as a possible new ally in his disputes with Brussels. After Fico’s victory, the Hungarian leader was quick to congratulate him and invite him to cooperate. “It is always good to work alongside a patriot. We are looking forward to it!” wrote the Hungarian Prime Minister on X (formerly Twitter).

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