Dalibor Rohac

Slovakia risks following in the footsteps of Orban’s Hungary

Slovakia's prime minister Peter Pellegrini (Credit: Getty images)

With an early election just six months away, the most pressing question facing Slovak politics is whether the country is about to turn down the path of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. The decision might come down to just one individual: former prime minister Peter Pellegrini.

A lot is pointing in direction of Orbánism. With the collapse of a ramshackle, though staunchly pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian, coalition of broadly centre-right parties, the promise of the putative leader of the opposition and Pellegrini’s predecessor in office, Robert Fico, to form a government ‘as stable as the one led by Mr. Orbán in Hungary’ carries understandable appeal. 

Unfortunately, so do Fico’s attacks on Brussels and Washington over the war in Ukraine. ‘Ukrainians never helped us,’ he said in a TV debate last year in which he called for ending assistance to Slovakia’s beleaguered neighbour. On a recent Eurobarometer poll, only 49 per cent of Slovaks expressed support for the EU’s assistance to Ukraine, compared to 85 per cent in Poland, 68 per cent in the Czech Republic, and 59 per cent in Hungary. In another poll, a majority of Slovaks expressed the hope that Russia would win the war.

Electoral mathematics suggests Pellegrini will likely become the kingmaker of the looming governing coalition

Enter Pellegrini. For many years, he served as Fico’s close ally in their catch-all party ‘Smer-Social Democracy’ (‘Smer’ means ‘Direction’ in Slovak), which governed Slovakia for a better part of the past decade. Fico was ousted under public pressure as prime minister in 2018 following the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová, which exposed some of the unsavoury connections between the world of politics and organised crime. Fico was replaced by Pellegrini who was seen as the party’s cleaner and fresher face. 

Out of power, Fico’s rhetoric has only hardened – referring to his own removal as a ‘colour revolution’ organised by dark forces from the West. He is also competing for votes against actual bona fide neo-Nazis who have been an unfortunate fixture of Slovakia’s parliamentary politics since 2016. 

Meanwhile, Smer’s faction led by Pellegrini founded their own left-of-centre, catch-all party in 2020, called ‘Hlas-Social Democracy’ (‘Hlas’ meaning ‘Voice’), which is now neck-and-neck with Fico in the polls. While triangulating on key matters such as Ukraine – in the weeks leading to the war, Pellegrini loudly opposed a trivial and largely technical defense cooperation agreement with the United States – Hlas has steered away of Fico’s intemperate rhetoric and conspiracy mongering. 

Today, the central question is whether Hlas is simply a stalking horse of Smer, hoping to capture a slightly different segment of the electorate and then form a coalition with Fico, bringing him back to power; or whether it offers a genuine alternative of generous redistribution toward poorer, more rural constituencies and economic populism, but without Smer’s toxicity. 

In fact, that question might not have been answered even in Pellegrini’s own mind. Substance aside, Pellegrini’s political style has been unfailingly courteous and professional when acting as prime minister on the international scene. Yet, the formation of Hlas, which is now Smer’s main competitor, seemed like an oddly amicable divorce, and there has been little open fighting between the two parties since.

This is not some esoteric inside-baseball of Slovakia’s party politics. Electoral mathematics suggests Pellegrini will likely become the kingmaker of the looming governing coalition, if not its leader. He faces a decision: to team up with his old party boss, now rabidly anti-Western; or cobble an unwieldy cabinet with respectable pro-Western parties. Which option he takes will determine whether or not Slovakia will follow the path of Hungary. In so doing, it risks burning bridges with Washington and European capitals, and alienating close friends in the region – most notably the Czech Republic and Poland, both adamant in their support for Ukraine.

There is no task more urgent for Western diplomats in Bratislava or for the leadership of the Party of European Socialists (PES), where Hlas is an associate, than to reach out to Pellegrini. They must show him some love, educate him, and – most importantly – set up incentives for him to do the right thing after the election instead of the more convenient alliance with an unhinged Fico. 

It is is not unreasonable to think that, in his heart of hearts, Pellegrini would prefer the company of the likes of Sanna Marin to Fico and Orbán. He is still young, just 47, fluent in English, and his short tenure as prime minister was reasonably untainted by controversy. If he does not choose to become an international pariah, someone should explain to him, he may still have a long and fruitful life ahead in European politics.

Written by
Dalibor Rohac
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. He tweets @DaliborRohac

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