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The Return of Robert Fico

The perennial Slovak politician practices a hardnosed, vengeful form of politics. It is also bad news for the future of Slovakian democracy.

By Tim Haughton and Darina Malová

November 2023

Slovakia’s Robert Fico is a resilient politician. In a country where political parties often live fast and die young, and where many politicians have fleeting careers, Fico has been a fixture of the political scene since the early 1990s.

Scandal forced Fico to step down during his second stint as prime minister in 2018. His party, the left-wing, nationalist Smer-SD (Direction–Social Democracy), was not only removed from power in the 2020 elections, but suffered a split soon after. Fico and his party, however, bounced back. Smer-SD won nearly a quarter of the vote (23 percent) in September’s parliamentary election, propelling Fico back into the post of prime minister at the helm of a three-party coalition.

Twenty-one years ago, in the run-up to the first election contested by Smer-SD, one of us wrote an article asking whether Fico was a man to be trusted or feared. At the time, the jury was out. But today his conduct during three stints as prime minister and the early steps of his new government raise concerns about the future of Slovakia’s democracy. Fico practices a vengeful style of politics that, mixed with his power-seeking and pragmatism, could prove perilous for Slovak democracy.

Fico’s first steps since returning to power seem focused on silencing his critics. Within weeks of forming a new government, Fico announced that NGOs, a number of which had been stern critics of Smer-SD governments in the past, will be labeled as “foreign agents.” Moreover, proposed changes to the tax code, which has allowed Slovak taxpayers to direct 2 percent of their taxes to civil society groups, will likely strangle the flow of funds.

But perhaps the most concerning developments are staff changes in key government agencies. It isn’t unusual for a new government to shuffle the personnel in power, ensuring reliable figures land in key positions. However, it isn’t Fico’s removal of people that raises concerns, but the manner. For instance, in a piece of political theater designed to send a signal, Police Chief Štefan Hamran, a vocal critic of Fico who had already announced he would step down, was ousted three days before his declared departure and redeployed to a post in the east of Slovakia, far from his family home. The case isn’t an isolated one. Other leading police investigators have been suspended or removed.

The speed of the changes owes something to the politics of vengeance. The senior policemen relieved of their duties had been investigating criminal activities that had thrived during Fico’s previous stints in power. More than 40 individuals embroiled in a slew of corruption scandals from the Fico era have been investigated and sentenced. If Fico had lost the election, there would likely have been more prosecutions.

But there is also a slice of self-preservation in the personnel changes. Fico and his close ally (and new defense minister) Robert Kaliňák had been charged in April 2022 with creating a criminal group and having obtained and used sensitive tax-related data to discredit prominent political opponents. Despite even the Supreme Court ruling that the charges were lawful, the General Prosecutor’s Office dropped the charges this month, underscoring the benefit of having sympathetic people in positions of power.

Self-preservation, however, also demands delivering results for his support base among Slovakia’s poorer, older, and rural voters. Despite much international coverage focusing on Fico’s opposition to the war in Ukraine, his main pitch to the electorate was that he offers a unique blend of stability, competence, and experience. This message appealed to weary voters, who were sick and tired of the diet of chaotic politics served up by the TV news on an almost daily basis for three and a half years. To his core voters, Fico pointed to his record of delivering economic growth and support for poorer Slovaks. Moreover, he promised an array of socioeconomic measures, such as increased pensions, to alleviate the cost-of-living crisis confronting ordinary Slovak citizens.

Keen to burnish his reputation as a politician who understands the needs of voters and gets on with tackling the challenges facing the country, Fico spent his first few days in power focused on capturing headlines. With his new interior and foreign minister in tow, he traveled to Slovakia’s southern border with Hungary to launch a special overnight police operation designed to signal that Slovakia is not a safe transit route for illegal migrants and smugglers. A couple of days later, with another cluster of ministers, he visited villages in eastern Slovakia hit by a recent earthquake and promised financial support.

A pragmatic streak may also infuse Fico’s foreign policy. His campaign promise not to send a single bullet to Ukraine and his criticisms of his opponents’ fulsome support for Volodymyr Zelensky helped underline the campaign narrative that Fico was focused on the concerns of Slovak voters and not keen for the country to be engaged in what he viewed as a proxy war between the United States and Russia. But since taking power, Fico and his allies have sent conflicting signals, sometimes voicing strong antiwar sentiments to journalists, as during Fico’s first EU summit, and other times seeming to agree with the EU’s stance of providing all forms of support to Ukraine.

Fico knows that there is no alternative to EU membership for a small, landlocked, and trade-dependent economy like that of Slovakia. In tough economic times, EU money remains a vital source of funds for the policies Fico needs to keep his voters happy. His not being an obstreperous leader at the EU level should help the continued flow of funds and may also help avoid the spotlight being shone on the prime minister’s illiberal policies at home.

Fico’s return to power has provoked wider concerns about the fate of democracy in Slovakia with some commentators even warning of an “Orbanization” of the country. The prospects for democratic erosion will be affected in part by the circumstances in which Fico must govern. If his government is not able to make good on its economic promises, this will surely strain the cohesion of his governing coalition. Fico’s record has amply shown that he is more concerned with staying in power than upholding democratic principles. If his power is threatened, there are probably no limits to how he would be willing to bend the system to preserve himself and his cronies.

Fico was forced to step down as prime minister in 2018 following the murders of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. Kuciak was investigating the murky links between businessmen, politicians, and organs of the state. The widespread public revulsion to the murder provoked the largest demonstrations across the country since the fall of communism in 1989.

The response of Slovak citizens, media, and civil society to those murders was a product of the country’s experience as a young democracy over the previous two decades. In the 1990s, under Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, Slovakia seemed to be taking an illiberal path, but citizens mobilized and opposition politicians cooperated, leading to Mečiar’s departure from office in 1998. If the new Fico government tests the country’s democratic norms, it may fall to the body politic to rise up and react again.

Ultimately, the resilience of Slovakia’s democracy will hinge on the response of the anti-Fico forces. The early signposts suggest Slovak society and the international community need to be vigilant about the direction Fico is headed.

Tim Haughton is professor of comparative and European politics and a deputy director of the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation at the University of Birmingham. He is coauthor, with Kevin Deegan-Krause, of The New Party Challenge: Changing Cycles of Party Birth and Death in Central Europe and Beyond (2020). Darina Malová is professor of political science at Comenius University in Bratislava. Among her many publications is Governing New European Democracies (2007).


Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: VLADIMIR SIMICEK/AFP via Getty Images




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