The Second Comeback of the “Populist”

In Slovakia, Berlin could lose an ally in the Ukraine war: Electoral favorite, Robert Fico, wants to end arms supplies to Kiev, rejects sanctions against Russia and wants to cooperate more closely with China.

BRATISLAVA/BERLIN (Own report) – With tomorrow’s, Saturday’s parliamentary elections in Slovakia, the German government could lose an important ally in the Ukraine war. Prime Minister Robert Fico’s SMER party is the frontrunner in the polls and has good chances of forming a governing coalition - for the third time since 2006 and 2012. His popularity derives primarily from the social and economic misery into which the country has plunged under previous governments. For Berlin and the West, however, Fico’s intention to change course in the Ukraine policy is a serious matter. Not only does he want to stop arms deliveries to Ukraine, he also rejects EU sanctions against Russia. Furthermore, SMER favors closer cooperation with China and Cuba, among others. Current pro-Western President Zuzana Čaputova has declared this will be a “fateful election.” Because of their dissenting foreign policy, Fico and his SMER party had already come under massive attack in Germany during their previous terms of office. It looks like something similar might happen again.

“Fateful Election”

Tomorrow, Saturday, Slovak voters are called to elect a new parliament, the National Council of the Slovak Republic. All polls show the SMER (“Direction”) party leading in popularity. Party leader Robert Fico has announced that his government will not send a “single round” to Ukraine.[1] Fico previously served as prime minister from 2006 to 2010 and from 2012 to 2018. During the election campaign, referring to the Ukraine war, he also declared “this war is not our war.”[2] For the current liberal-conservative President, Zuzana Čaputová, regarded as the country’s “anchor of pro-Western orientation”, this is a “fateful election: a vote on whether the Slovaks want to preserve their pro-Western orientation.”[3]

Ukraine’s “Major Ally”

Immediately following the beginning of Russia’s intervention, Slovakia was still considered Ukraine’s “major ally” by the EU and NATO. Slovakia became the first country to provide Ukraine with long-range air defense. President Čaputová, who once worked for US-American NGOs, was one of the early advocates for EU candidate status for Ukraine.[4] However, Slovak support for Ukraine, has already been anything but unconditional: Last spring the Slovak government halted imports of grain and other food products from its eastern neighbor.[5] Following the elections, additional reductions in bilateral relations may be in the offing.

“Worries in the West”

Already when Fico became prime minister the first time in 2006 and the second time in 2012, it raised great concern in Berlin ( reported.[6]) Similar to then, his SMER party’s lead in the polls and the strong possibility that Fico may return to the prime minister’s office “has raised eyebrows in Brussels.”[7] This development is “critical for the partners in the EU,” the Süddeutsche Zeitung, for example, commented.[8] In an interview with the CSU affiliated Hanns Seidel Foundation, a Slovak sociologist concluded that with a Prime Minister Fico, Slovakia would become “another problematic partner within the European Union” alongside Hungary.[9] A project manager of the FDP affiliated Friedrich-Naumann Foundation even declared that the country was in danger of “falling prey to pro-Russian propaganda.”[10]

New Foreign Policy Priorities

Regarding Ukraine policy, Robert Fico has announced that he would halt arms deliveries, and pledged to veto Ukraine’s membership in NATO, if ever that possibility arises.[11] The Chair of SMER recently likened the arrival of Bundeswehr NATO soldiers in Slovakia, to a “welcoming of the Wehrmacht” in World War II.[12] Also beyond Ukraine policy, the leading party in the polls seeks to set new accents in foreign policy. Presenting SMER’s foreign policy priorities and stances early this month, Fico declared that his party is promising to expand cooperation with China, Cuba and Vietnam and restore ties with Russia.[13]

Against Sanctions

SMER’s rejection of the Western sanctions policy is no exception in Slovakia’s political landscape. Only half of the parties likely to enter the next National Council support EU sanctions against Russia. Those parties with good chances of forming a new coalition, are not only opposing sanctions against Russia but are also in favor of closer cooperation with the People’s Republic of China.[14] The presumed future Prime Minister Fico even called the EU sanctions “senseless” and announced his intention to veto them.[15]

“Consequences” for SMER

Berlin has long since begun to put Fico under pressure. SPD party chair Lars Klingbeil threatened SMER with “consequences,” if it should again govern with the national-conservative Slovak National Party (SNS). The SPD is “monitoring” the situation and maintains a “cordon sanitaire” vis-à-vis the SNS, Klingbeil declared during the summer.[16] When SMER first entered a coalition with the SNS, beginning in 2006, the Party of European Socialists (PES), in which the SPD wields strong influence, suspended SMER’s membership.[17] The suspension was lifted in 2008, a year before European elections. When Fico made statements deemed anti-Islamic, in 2015, leading PES politicians again raised the demand of putting SMER’s membership on ice.[18] However, threats of “consequences” are considered unlikely to have an impact on the formation of the coalition in Bratislava.

Long-Term Influence Work

German political foundations, promoting the country’s pro-Western orientation, have been active in Slovakia for the past three decades. Already in the third month of that country’s independence, declared on January 1, 1993, the CSU-affiliated Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSS) was registered by the Slovakian Ministry of the Interior. The Prime Minister at the time, Eduard Heger, personally attended the HSS’s 30th Anniversary celebration of activity in that country.[19] Because of corruption scandals in his government, Heger was forced to resign a few weeks later. In Slovakia, alongside the HSS, the SPD-affiliated Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the Green-affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation, the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) and the FDP-affiliated Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNS) are active.

“Tyranny of the Majority”

Germany’s government, political foundations and media had already strongly opposed Prime minister Fico during his first two terms in office. When Fico was elected Prime Minister in 2006, the German government demonstratively did not invite him to an inaugural visit.[20] Years ago, a paper by the KAS characterized Fico’s government from 2006 – 2010 as having been a “tyranny of the majority.”[21] In 2011, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) warned that Fico’s return to power would signal the “end of the reform era.”[22] Shortly prior to the 2012 elections, the journal called Fico “a populist,” who, already in the past, had focused his foreign policy on close relations with “Cuba, Belarus, and Russia.”[23] Following his election, several regional journals in Germany wrote that Fico cultivated “an authoritarian style of governing” and is “taking populist paths.”[24] Following the elections on the weekend, the trend will probably continue.

Social Problems

Tomorrow’s parliamentary elections is likely to be more so determined by the social and economic misery in Slovakia, than by foreign policy. Last year, inflation had risen to 12 percent. For this year 11 percent is predicted. The rate of inflation is therefore around double the average within the Eurozone, which Slovakia joined in 2009 – unlike its neighboring Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, who still do not use this currency. Food prices are particularly onerous.[25] SMER rejects austerity and campaigns on the promise to regulate retail food prices.[26]


[1] Jan Lopatka, Radovan Stoklasa: ‘Not a single round’: Slovak election could see Kyiv lose staunch ally. 21.09.2023.

[2] Jan Puhl: Comeback des Geschassten. 09.05.2023.

[3] Danko Handrick: Ein Wahlsystem der Extreme. 07.09.2023.

[4] Dmytro Tuzhansky: Why Slovakia Has Become Ukraine’s Major Ally in the EU and NATO. 08.06.2022.

[5] Jon Henley: Slovakia joins Poland and Hungary in halting Ukraine grain imports. 17.04.2023.

[6] See also  Pjöngjang an der Donau, Die Rückkehr des „Populisten” and Auf „populistischen Pfaden”.

[7] Jan Lopatka, Radovan Stoklasa: ‘Not a single round’: Slovak election could see Kyiv lose staunch ally. 21.09.2023.

[8] Viktoria Großmann, Cathrin Kahlweit: Liebesgrüße nach Moskau. Süddeutsche Zeitung 15.09.2023.

[9] Interview mit dem slowakischen Soziologen Michal Vašečka. 22.09.2023.

[10] Barbora Krempaská: Zugespitzter Wahlkampf: Muss Europa einen slowakischen Orbán befürchten? 27.09.2023.

[11] Jan Lopatka, Radovan Stoklasa: ‘Not a single round’: Slovak election could see Kyiv lose staunch ally. 21.09.2023.

[12] Balazs Tarnok: The West Can’t Ignore Slovakia’s Election. 18.07.2023.

[13] Smer Presents Foreign Policy Priorities and Stances. 12.09.2023.

[14] Barbara Zmušková, Lucia Yar: Großteil der slowakischen Parteien lehnt neue Russland-Sanktionen ab. 11.09.2023.

[15] Yelizaveta Landenberger: Parlamentswahl in der Slowakei. 11.09.2023.

[16] Barbara Zmušková: Germany’s SPD backs Slovak Hlas joining EU socialists. 11.07.2023.

[17] Slovak party suspended from PES. 13.10.2006.

[18] Pittella asks for the suspension of Robert Fico from the Party of European Socialists (PES). 23.09.2015.

[19] Markus Ehm: 30 Jahre HSS in der Slowakei. 17.03.2023.

[20] See also Pjöngjang an der Donau.

[21] Grigorij Mesežnikov: Die Slowakei nach der Wahl. KAS-Auslandsinformationen 4/2011.

[22] Karl-Peter Schwarz: Den Wahlsieg in der Slowakei fest im Blick. 14.10.2011.

[23] Martin Hock: Slowakische Anleihen – Besser auf die Wahlen warten. 31.01.2012.

[24] See also Auf „populistischen Pfaden”.

[25] Péter Szitá, Michael O’Shea: Will Slovakia’s Elections Signal War Fatigue? 17.09.2023.

[26] Jakub Bokes: For Slovakia’s Left, Welfare Spending and Nationalism Make an Awkward Match, 05.09.2023.