Pellegrini´s Road Not Taken: How the Third Most Popular Party Won the Elections in Slovakia
The political landscape of Central Europe is being reshaped - just two weeks before the Polish elections, Slovakia held its own snap elections with its citizens deciding where the Slovak political compass will point towards. Surprisingly, it was not up to the first or even second most popular party to decide that. It was up to the third most popular party's leader, Peter Pellegrini.
Only two weeks before Poland's general elections that lead to the end of the political saga of the currently ruling conservative populist PiS party, Slovakia held its own parliamentary elections. The last polls predicted a tight race between liberal PS (Progressive Slovakia) or centre-left populist Smer-SSD (Direction - Slovak Social Democracy Party). The first surprise of the election night was the announcement of results of the first exit poll. It predicted the Polish scenario - liberal PS coming out at the top with the potential to create a coalition with multiple parties. However, after cautious celebration of the liberal camp in Slovakia, the Polish scenario turned out to be a mere prediction - Smer-SSD won the popular vote, and it was up to a third most popular party, Hlas-SD (Voice - Social Democratic Party) to become the kingmaker and title the leader for the upcoming 4 years. They could either choose Robert Fico, the populist and pro-Russian leader of the Smer-SSD, from whom Hlas-SD broke away after 2020 general elections, or alternatively, choose Progressive Slovakia's leader Michal Šimečka and continue the pro-western governing of its political predecessors had established.
Nerve Wrecking Weeks Before the Elections
Peter Pelligrini, leader of the Hlas party (Voice), held a puzzling position, as Slovak political scientists and commentators were unsure of who will his party choose for a coalition - his past marked by corruption cases linked predominantly to its ex-colleagues in Smer, or, a not-so-new liberal political subject Progressive Slovakia (PS, Progresívne Slovensko), that became the second most popular party in the polls before elections. After its political fiasco in 2020, when it failed to secure parliamentary seats only by a couple thousands of votes, PS was thought to be the strongest competition for the poll-runner centre-left populist and conservative Smer party (Direction). Both PS and Smer rejected any possibility of forming a coalition together from the very beginning of their political campaign. A decision that was expected and only logical, considering the stark differences in their political ideologies. But perhaps surprising to an outsider of Slovak politics, Peter Pellegrini had an overlap in its political agenda both with Smer and PS. Its economic and social policies match the Smer party, but Hlas has clearly stated its intentions to continue economic and military support of Ukraine, whereas Smer has an Orban-styled eurosceptic stance that positions the party towards a pro-Russian view. Similarly, Hlas has rejected cooperation with far-right wing parties such as Republika, which was widely believed to go into coalition with Smer in case they would seek a constitutional majority.
Nevertheless, the reason many political experts in Slovakia believed that Pellegrini could opt out from creating a coalition with Smer was the fact that the relationship between Fico and Pellegrini went cold after he established a breakaway party. For Hlas, forming a coalition with Fico also signified another risk, such as being subsumed by the same party that gave birth to Hlas and as a result, becoming politically irrelevant over the course of time. For these reasons, it was widely believed that with certain compromises made, Hlas could prefer forming a coalition with PS, and libertarian SaS (Sloboda a Solidarita). In fact, PS offered the post of prime minister to Pellegrini, an unprecedented compromise in the relatively short history of Slovak politics. Thus, Pellegrini became a kingmaker and for almost two weeks, Slovaks could watch a peculiar spectacle of how the leader of the third most popular party by vote will decide the course of the country for the upcoming four years.
Back to the Roots
In the end, Hlas announced that it chose to form a coalition with Smer and a far-right wing SNS (Slovak National Party). So what led Pellegrini back to his roots? Official sources say, it was the instability of the potential coalition made with PS, SaS and ultra-conservative KDH (Christian Democratic Movement). Despite the ideological differences between PS/SaS and KDH, the motivation for PS and SaS was to avoid Robert Fico and his party getting into power again. Fico is a well-established political figure in Slovakia and three-times (now fourth-time) elected prime minister, whose party is linked to oligarchs, corruption as well to people linked with the murder of a young journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová that shook the grounds of the Slovak society back in 2018.
Based on the polls before the elections, it was more than apparent that a PS-led government would not be made possible without Hlas and KDH filling in the necessary seats to form a coalition. Both PS and SaS were willing to sacrifice having ex-Smer members in its coalition, as well as taking in the ultra-conservative KDH, if it meant that “the actual” Smer will not be leading the government. However, the stance of KDH leader Milan Majerský, who often spoke of “red lines” that should not be crossed if any political subject should want to invite them to a coalition, was likely one of the main contributors to doubts that such a coalition would ever be stable. For KDH, calling for same-sex partnerships and access to reproductive healthcare were one of these red lines that PS and SaS have crossed. Ultimately, it was Milan Majerský himself who managed to call both corruption and LGBTQ+ people ``a plague” just a few weeks before the elections.
However optimistic Pellegrini´s negotiations with PS seemed for liberal voting spectrum in Slovakia, after all Hlas was once part of Smer and their political agendas still widely match, despite their varying geopolitical orientations. After almost two weeks of nerve-wrecking negotiations, Pellegrini announced his intention to form a government with Smer and Hlas, and thus, the kingmaker chose to whom to pledge the loyalty. One has to wonder how much sacrifice would it take to keep Hlas away from its past - and whether it would have been worth it. Let's recall that these general elections came sooner, as the previous centre-right OĽANO-led government lost its support and called for elections after its volatile three years in government. With a coalition so diverse - liberals, ultra-conservatives and politicians with links to oligarchs and corruption, how long would such a government last? The liberal bloc would risk losing popular support in the meantime if they sacrificed too much for the sake of blocking Fico´s return. We have been given clues by Pellegrini himself that such a coalition had little potential for creating a stable government, as he called the negotiations “messy and unprofessional”.
Though the new coalition proved to be a more likely scenario for Pellegrini, it does not guarantee a stable government that Hlas called for. Smer, Hlas and SNS have signed a “Memorandum of Mutual Agreement”, through which their coalition agrees to maintain a pro-Western direction of Slovak foreign policy, a disputable part of the pact since the government halted the latest military support package for Ukraine, and sent a decisive signal to the EU that Slovakia will no longer provide any further military support. The agreement also mentions keeping ‘gender ideology’ away from the domestic politics, an expected addition to the agreement from the far-right SNS and populist Smer. Just to reiterate, Hlas declined any political cooperation with far-right and fascist parties. This was predominantly interpreted as a snub towards the far-right Republika party, which was expected to win enough seats to enter the government and was considered to become a potential Smer coalition partner. SNS, a nationalist party, technically has only one SNS member in the parliament - the rest of the seats are filled with associated and independent candidates, many of them ex-members of far-right parties or notorious for spreading hoaxes, such as Rudolf Huliak, who was the first nominated candidate for a Minister of Environment. Huliak became famous for his denial of climate change, calling for a ban on 5G internet and for harassing an environmental activist. President Zuzana Čaputová wrote a letter to the new coalition partners that in case his nomination becomes official, she will decline to formally approve the government. To avoid an open conflict with the president, SNS chose a different person - Tomáš Taraba, a far-right ultra-conservative politician who became famous for his radical anti-abortion politics and anti-LGBTQ+ stances. Despite the problems which Taraba and SNS candidates posed for ensuring stability in the political discourse, Čaputová announced the new government in late October.
With the pro-Russian geopolitical orientation of SNS and other far-right and populist MPs being part the coalition, only foreseeable future will reveal whether the presence of radicals and populists will pose a problem of stability of the government and which side of the coalition will compromise on its political positioning - a moderate and pro-EU and NATO Hlas, or, an Eurosceptic and pro-Russian SNS and Smer? It is likely that the burden of shifting Slovakia's political compass will fall on Pellegrini and his party's ability to negotiate more pro-european political policies within a widely eurosceptic coalition that calls for blocking economic and military support of Ukraine. One, who was once a kingmaker, now needs to find a way to leverage his policies with the king he endorsed.