Robert Fico, former Slovak prime minister and lead candidate of the SMER political party, arrives at SMER headquarters at the Slovak parliamentary elections on September 30, 2023 in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Janos Kummer | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Slovakia’s leftist former Prime Minister Robert Fico beat his progressive rival in a parliamentary election after campaigning to end military aid to Ukraine, but he will need to win over allies to form the next government, nearly complete results showed on Sunday.
With 98% of voting districts reporting in the Saturday election, Fico’s SMER-SSD party led with 23.37% of the vote. The liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS) followed with 16.86% and the HLAS (Voice) party, which could become the kingmaker for forming the next government, was third with 15.03%.
Former Fico colleague and leftist HLAS leader Peter Pellegrini kept his options open on future coalitions.
A government led by Fico and his SMER-SSD party would see NATO member Slovakia joining Hungary in challenging the European Union’s consensus on support for Ukraine, just as the bloc looks to maintain unity in opposing Russia’s invasion.
It would also signal a further shift in the region against political liberalism, which may be reinforced if conservative PiS wins an election in Poland later this month.
Fico’s party is more nationalist and socially conservative, criticizing social liberalism, which it says is imposed from Brussels. The PS is liberal on green policies, LGBT rights, deeper European integration and human rights.
“We do want to evaluate everything, so we will wait for the final count,” said Robert Kalinak, a SMER-SSD candidate and long-time Fico ally, adding the party would comment on the full results later on Sunday.
Exit polls had favored PS, but the results went Fico’s way, opening the prospect he may win a fourth stint as premier after leading governments in 2006-2010 and 2012-2018.
The first party across the line was expected to get a mandate from President Zuzana Caputova to lead talks on forming a parliamentary majority and, if successful, a government.
Fico may align with HLAS, which split away from SMER-SSD in 2020, and the nationalist Slovak National Party that won 5.68%.
“The distribution of seats confirms HLAS as a party without which any normally functioning government coalition cannot be put together,” Pellegrini said as most results were known. “If you ask me if we prefer any combination or coalition, I want to say not at all.”
PS has advocated maintaining Slovakia’s strong backing for Ukraine and would also likely follow a liberal line within the EU on issues such as majority voting to make the bloc more flexible, green policies and LGBT rights.
The party’s leader, Michal Simecka, speaking when most votes were counted, did not give up hope he could form the next government, depending how possible smaller allies end up.
“It remains our aim for Slovakia to have after this election a stable pro-European government that will care for the rule of law and which begins to solve and invest into areas key for our future,” Simecka, a former reporter and Oxford graduate, told supporters.
Any coalition that PS could potentially form would likely need HLAS and include more right-wing or socially conservative parties, which would blunt its socially progressive and EU-integration drive.
The incoming government in the nation of 5.5 million will take over a ballooning budget deficit forecast to be the highest in the euro zone.
Fico has ridden on dissatisfaction with a bickering center-right coalition, whose government collapsed last year, triggering the election six months early.
In campaigning, he stressed concern about a rise in the number of migrants passing through Slovakia to Western Europe.
Fico’s views reflect traditionally warm sentiments towards Russia among many Slovaks, which have gathered strength on social media since the Ukraine war started.
He has also pledged to end military supplies to Ukraine and strive for peace talks – a line close to that of Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orban, but rejected by Ukraine and its allies, who say this would only encourage Russia.
The far-right Republika party, which was seen as a possible ally for Fico but unacceptable to others, failed to win any seats.
Fico was forced to resign in 2018 after mass protests against graft that followed the murder of an investigative journalist.
Pellegrini, a SMER-SSD member at the time, took over for him and led the government until 2020, when center-right parties pledging to weed out graft swept an election. But their government collapsed last year after internal bickering, opening the way to Saturday’s early election.
Analysts and diplomats have said Fico might tame this rhetoric if he takes power, as he did in the past.