For Slovakia’s Left, Welfare Spending and Nationalism Make an Awkward Match

As Slovakia heads toward a snap election, former prime minister Robert Fico is surging in polls. His Smer party has a record of defending welfare spending — but its scandals and nationalist rhetoric make it hard for many left-wingers to support.

Former Slovak prime minister Robert Fico gives a speech in Kosice on September 1, 2021. (Peter Lazar / AFP via Getty Images)

February 29, 2020, seemed to mark the end of an era in Slovak politics. The country had just decisively voted out Smer (Direction), Robert Fico’s populist-hued social democratic party. It was hailed as a new dawn — the start of Slovakia’s probusiness, corruption-free future, after over a decade of near-continuous Smer dominance.

However, the center-right alliance that replaced Smer was not built to last. Last winter, after three years of bickering over the pandemic and falling living standards, the ruling coalition lost a no-confidence vote, forcing a snap election this September 30. Against all odds, Smer has emerged as the frontrunner, thanks to its insurgent campaign centered on the cost-of-living crisis and the war in Ukraine.

Yet, to a young generation of Slovak leftists who came of age after the fall of communism, this is not cause for celebration. For them, Smer’s social democratic rhetoric is overshadowed by its numerous corruption scandals, use of nationalist language, and inability to offer a transformative vision. But at a time when the Left is in retreat across Europe, what attitude will this new generation of activists adopt toward a party that, for all its faults, has proven remarkably successful at defending a welfare state faced with post-communist market liberalization?

A Tangled History

Without a doubt, Fico is the most polarizing politician in Slovakia’s modern history. His many supporters prize his track record of generous welfare spending. To his critics, he is corrupt and opportunistic, not averse to weaponizing the country’s socially conservative instincts against minorities. Yet, over the years, Fico has demonstrated a remarkable ability to brush off criticism, and his ten years as prime minister make him the most successful politician since the country gained its independence thirty years ago.

Fico joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1986, aged twenty-two. After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, he was a member of the Party of the Democratic Left, the de facto successor of the Communist Party, before founding Smer in 1999. Fico’s profile grew as a result of his opposition to the neoliberal reforms implemented by the government of Mikuláš Dzurinda. Dzurinda was described by the World Bank at the time as “the best market reformer in the world” and credited for turning Slovakia into an “investors’ paradise” — however, on the ground, weakened labor protections and slashed welfare spending immiserated ordinary Slovaks, who were suddenly left exposed to the cruelty of the free market.

Public discontent with the results of Dzurinda’s reforms helped Smer win its first general election in 2006. But Fico’s first term as prime minister was far from ideal. With a coalition with Dzurinda out of the question, Fico had to rely on the support of the nationalist Slovak National Party and former prime minister Vladimír Mečiar’s authoritarian Movement for a Democratic Slovakia. This stained the reputation of Smer, which had been promised to be an alternative to the corrupt parties of the post-communist period of privatization.

But Fico would not let this define his party’s future. Smer fulfilled its manifesto promise to reform the labor code, reinstating some of the labor protections abolished by Dzurinda’s government. During this time, Smer also tried, unsuccessfully, to regulate retail food prices, an unprecedented move in the post-communist period, and banned private health insurers from paying out dividends to shareholders.

Smer’s popularity proved robust. When it returned to power in 2012 following a short-lived center-right coalition government, it marked the fourth successive election in which the party increased its vote share. With an outright parliamentary majority, Smer raised the minimum wage, reintroduced a progressive income tax, and introduced free train transport for students and pensioners, among other measures. But Fico’s second spell as premier ended prematurely in 2018. A hit-job murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancée was linked to a businessman with connections to Smer, and nationwide protests forced Fico’s resignation.

He was replaced by his deputy Peter Pellegrini, who led Smer into the 2020 general election. By then, Smer’s popularity was at an all-time low, and it took its worst result in two decades. The election was instead won by the center-right OL’aNO (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities), led by the maverick businessman Igor Matovič, which ran on an anti-corruption platform. Soon after the election, Pellegrini formed a breakaway center-left party, Hlas (Voice), in a proclaimed effort to “rehabilitate” the reputation of social democracy in Slovakia. By the end of the year, Hlas was leading the polls, with Smer hemorrhaging support.

From the Ashes

But a lot has changed in three years, and in recent months, Smer has emerged as the favorite to win the late-September ballot. The possibility of a Smer victory has sent shockwaves through the international press. Foreign Policy has declared that “Western nations should be concerned” by the prospect of another Fico premiership, while Bloomberg has warned that EU unity is “at risk” if Smer forms the new government.

There are a least two factors that account for Smer’s meteoric poll resurgence. The first is Smer’s ability to distinguish itself from its political rivals; the second is its talent for exploiting bread-and-butter issues. The party has recently brought these themes together under the slogan of “Slovak social democracy,” in an attempt to communicate its focus on the national economic interest rather than what it sees as the “cosmopolitan” allegiances of its rivals on both the center left and center right.

So far, Smer has been reaping the benefits of this approach. The party has been able to present itself as a reliable political force capable of stopping the decline in living standards. Its rejection of austerity despite the country’s growing budget deficit and its pledge to stamp out profiteering by food retailers have resonated with voters, at a time when Slovakia is estimated to have the second-lowest living standards of all EU countries.

The problem of rising mortgage rates has in recent months emerged as Smer’s flagship policy focus. Four hundred thousand households in this land of five million inhabitants are expected to be hit by mortgage rate increases in the next two years; Fico has called the situation a “ticking timebomb” created by “bankers’ greed” and vowed to subsidize people’s mortgages through a windfall tax on bank profits.

Smer’s populist campaign has sharply contrasted with those of its rivals. Pellegrini’s split party Hlas has been in freefall, as its attempt to pitch itself as the moderate center-left force has fallen flat. The centrist Progressive Slovakia, currently Smer’s biggest rival, has mostly focused on attracting middle-class professionals by brandishing its technocratic competence. Meanwhile, the center right has been trying to resurrect the anti-corruption themes that dominated the 2020 election but to little avail, as the cost-of-living crisis has taken center stage.

Embracing a Multipolar World

Speaking to tabloid newspaper Nový Čas on April 21, Fico pushed back against suggestions that his party was playing the role of a “useful idiot” to Putin’s regime because of its opposition to military aid to Ukraine and calls for negotiations with Russia. “Simply because we have a different view?” Fico asked at one point. “I’m sorry but I think I am allowed to have a different view.” The exchange encapsulated why many voters have been drawn to Smer in recent months.

The war in neighboring Ukraine has become a highly emotive topic in Slovakia. The country has offered refuge to over one hundred thousand Ukrainians since the Russian invasion, and Ukraine’s war effort has drawn widespread support in the media. Abroad, Slovakia has been hailed as one of Ukraine’s most reliable allies.

Yet, out of all eastern European countries, Slovakia has among the lowest levels of support for military aid to Ukraine. Polls show that only 40 percent of the population holds Russia solely responsible for the war (compared to 85 percent in Poland and 71 percent in the Czech Republic) whereas 66 percent think that the United States is dragging the country into a war with Russia. Meanwhile, support for NATO membership in Slovakia has dropped from 72 percent to 58 percent over the past year. The liberal and center-right parties have attributed this to the “success of the Russian disinformation campaign.” But Fico’s criticism of NATO and the EU’s approach to the war in Ukraine is resonating with many voters, who feel that the conversation about the war has become one-sided.

While ostensibly committed to honoring Slovakia’s international obligations, Fico has built a reputation for embracing geopolitical multipolarity, which has often put him at odds with the pro-Western consensus that has dominated Slovak politics since Mečiar’s ouster in 1998. In 2007, Fico oversaw the withdrawal of Slovak troops from Iraq, calling the invasion “unjust and wrong.” In 2015, during a visit to Putin one year after the outbreak of the conflict in Donbas and Luhansk, he called for dropping sanctions against Russia. He has also voiced support for Hungary’s political autonomy amid the EU’s accusations that Viktor Orbán’s government is trampling on the rule of law.

Fico has recently described the conflict in Ukraine as a proxy war between the United States and Russia, calling on NATO and the EU to immediately de-escalate and push for peace negotiations. Ukraine, he said, should receive security guarantees from both Russia and NATO and become a buffer zone between East and West.

With Fico having made clear that as prime minister, he would veto any attempts by Ukraine to join NATO, there can be no doubt about the geopolitical significance of a Smer-led government.

The fact that Fico has been so vocal about the war in Ukraine shows how important it is to Smer’s political platform. Domestically, Fico has criticized the decision to procure new military equipment from the United States after sending existing equipment to Ukraine, calling it the wrong priority at a time when money should be used to address the cost-of-living crisis.

Future of the Left

Smer’s pitch to voters is in many ways conservative. It promises to protect the country against “neoliberal trends in the global economy,” rather than offering a radical rupture from the status quo. As a result, Smer’s electoral base is different from that of its sister parties in Europe. Instead of trying to mobilize the support of young voters disillusioned with neoliberalism and sympathetic to left-wing ideas, Smer’s base is composed mainly of pensioners and low-income workers in the country’s poorer regions.

There are several reasons for this. Smer’s half-hearted commitment to NATO and the EU, as well as its antimigrant and anti-NGO rhetoric, does not resonate with the cosmopolitan worldview of younger voters, many of whom see international organizations and NGOs as a beacon of hope against the parochialism of national-level politics.

Moreover, Smer’s trivialization of the problems faced by LGBTQ people as part of its pitch to socially conservative voters has come at the cost of alienating younger, more socially liberal voters. As the Ervína Szabová Collective argued in Jacobin several years ago, Smer has “never made a concerted effort” to win its conservative base over to more progressive positions, or to “enlarge its social base by attracting urban left-liberals.”

As a result, young voters with left-wing sympathies have instead rallied behind the centrist Progressive Slovakia, a party whose socially liberal platform provides a thin veneer over its technocratic instincts. For many in this constituency, Progressive Slovakia stands out as an imperfect option, but one that will at least push for long overdue liberal social reforms (Slovakia is yet to recognize civil partnerships for same-sex couples, who lack basic legal rights to inherit from their partner or access their partner’s medical records).

At the heart of the situation that the Slovak left finds itself in is a deeper question of historical memory. For older, more conservative voters who form the backbone of Smer’s electoral coalition, the party represents the last defense of the security provided by the communist state. To younger voters, equally disillusioned with neoliberalism but with a completely different political upbringing, Smer represents a throwback to an era of centralization and unfreedom. To them, a truly emancipatory left must break not just with the post-communist liberal consensus, but also with the corrupted legacy of “really existing” social democracy.

Yet, imperfect as it may be, Smer has proven remarkably successful at marshalling support for the principles of redistribution that underpin social democracy, at a time when social democratic parties in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have vacated the field to right-wing national populism. Will the new generation of young Slovak leftists come to regret giving up on one of the most successful left-wing parties in Europe?