Czech politicians interfered in the Slovak parliamentary election more than usual and risked the unique Czech-Slovak relations 

Veronika Sušová-Salminen has discussed the results of the Slovak parliamentary election with a Czech political scientist and professor of international affairs, Petr Drulák. The interview was done in Czech on October 1 and published by Časopis! Argument.  Cross-Border Talks offers an edited English transcription of this interview. 

Veronika Sušová-Salminen: Our topic today is quite current. It is also a topic that also affects the Czech Republic. I think that most of us in the Czech Republic followed the elections in Slovakia with a rather keen eye, so today, we shall look at them from the point of view of political analysis. We already know the results and roughly what the coalition potentials look like, but I would like to take a broader look at the elections. To find out what happened in Slovakia, what the result tells us, and what trends it shows. On the first question, I would like to start with a more general look at the election campaign because the election campaign seemed to be hot. I had the feeling at times that Slovakia was simply deciding whether tomorrow was going to be an apocalypse or whether it was going to crash into some kind of hell. I find it strange that such hysteria is building up in a democracy. However, how would you assess it more generally, and was there anything special about it?

Petr Drulák: Well, I would perhaps start by saying that political campaigns before elections tend to be tense, of course, but I would point out maybe two or three features that probably show that the Slovak campaign was a bit further intensity than usual. Those immediate things were interesting. 

For example, there were physical skirmishes between the top leaders, and it wasn’t just some activists on the fringes, but (Robert) Kaliňák (former minister of interior, Smer) and (Igor) Matovič (former prime minister, Oľano) just got into a physical clinch. This shows both the tension, but what is more interesting is that it helped them. It helped Matovic when he reached out to cancel his opponent’s rally, and it helped Kaliňák that he simply went physical with him. So, we can understand the tension emotionally, of course. But it was a calculation and  it was a calculation that worked. The tension was the result of some calculation. 

You pointed out that the media coverage of the campaign made it look like some kind of apocalypse was coming. And this was especially the case on the part of those who were defending positions that had lost in these elections because they were spreading fear of Smer. It was a bit absurd, as if no one knew Robert Fico, if it was someone from an entirely new party that appeared six months ago and no one knew what to think of it. If it was like that one could have understood that it is possible to be afraid of Smer like that. However, Fico is one of the longest-serving Slovak politicians. He was a multiple time prime minister, and it is simply hard to make a reasonable claim that Slovak democracy will end with his entry into government, that Slovakia will probably leave NATO, the European Union and probably become part of the Russian Federation. I think that the argument was made at that level. 

And what was more interesting was that part of the Slovak, “progressive” elite went to Brussels and for over a year persuaded people in the European Commission and in NATO to help them, that it was really about the survival of democratic Slovakia. These are things that I think are a little bit atypical. What it means is that when there is a fight or even these physical skirmishes, let’s say this is some colouration. But the fact that the “progressives” actually tried to get the EU and even NATO involved, which is entirely absurd, indicates the level of panic there. And it’s perhaps typical of that contemporary European project of progressivism. Because, on the one hand, the bearers of these views are very confident, almost arrogant. They are convinced that they are right about how society should be. On the other hand, they are very aware that most of society is not on their side, and therefore they try to use everything possible to get their side. And that brings me to the other feature.

If we look at how the surveys were done. So once again, it’s been confirmed that the whole sociological survey industry is really clinking. It’s just not serious sociological data. It’s due to the fact, as one commentator pointed out, I think it was Dag Danes, that most of these polls are commissioned by the media, and most of those media are “progressive” and liberal. And of course, how the poll is commissioned matters quite a bit. It’s not like there’s some objective data. These are simply questions that are constructed, and they were constructed to help Progressive Slovakia and that governing coalition. That last highlight was the exit poll. In the exit poll, we saw last night (Saturday, September 30), it looked like Progressive Slovakia won, outperforming even those polls.  The media, of course, played a role. They mobilised against Smer, as did the sociologists and the polls. And yet, despite everything, in the end, the Slovak voter showed that he didn’t like it and that he wanted an alternative. I mean, I saw the spasmodic mobilisation there, which was more substantial than usual, and it confirmed again how unfair the whole industry, the media industry, the polls’ industry is, how those who don’t fit in politically are considered the enemy and how difficult it is for them. I would say that Robert Fico’s victory is more valuable.

You’ve already alluded to the behaviour of those, in quotes, progressive or liberal. They’re a bit of a misnomer because they’re not liberal. Liberalism needs internal diversity. Liberalism, once it becomes hegemonic, is already its negation. We all know that. They try to maintain hegemony at all costs. We could observe that during the election campaign – and now I wonder if you think it was somehow, let’s say, strange or out of line with the experience of the last three decades – how Czech politicians interfered. And that they intervened actively in the campaign – I would remind you that the Czech President and I think this is a precedent that we haven’t had since Václav Havel – expressed concern that if Robert Fico became Prime Minister of Slovakia, this would damage, quote, “disrupt” relations between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. But we know that Mr Babiš got involved in the campaign when he should not have been involved, and he in turn, supported Mr. Fico. We also know that, for example, before the elections, Defence Minister (Jana) Černochová was, I would say, spreading panic, claiming that if Fico won in Slovakia, we would somehow be “the first to go”. I do not know what she meant by that. Will there be any attacks on the Czech Republic from Slovakia since she is Defence Minister? How do you see it? Did Czech politicians or the Czech establishment particularly interfere in these elections compared to other times, or is this normal?

They certainly interfered more than usual, and I would distinguish between the interference of those who hold high state offices and those who do not. 

You mentioned two cases. I think what President Pavel did was absolutely outrageous. He showed that he is not aware of what it means to be President of the Czech Republic when trying to influence the elections in Slovakia in this way. I think that this is more serious because it is the Czech-Slovak relationship. I think they are a bit sensitive to this in Slovakia – to be told from Prague Castle how to vote, what to be afraid of, and what not to be scared of. I don’t think the interference would be effective in any way. It was just foolish. It allowed Robert Fico to play such a statesman. Fico’s reaction was statesmanlike: “Mr President, relations between our countries have always been good. Let’s hope the election doesn’t change that.” That said, Fico has shown who is the statesman here and it is certainly not our puppet in the Castle. I think that was essential. 

You mentioned the defence minister as well. I don’t know if it’s possible to comment on her at all. When I look at the Slovak scene, I think that I don’t understand the phenomenon of Igor Matovič. How is it possible that this man survives politically and survives quite successfully? And in our country, it seems to me that this Mrs Černochová is something similar. Well, it will take some time and that’s just the way it is.

As far as Andrej Babiš is concerned, he is an opposition politician. So, he simply expressed his opinion. It is not entirely unusual for people to support each other. For example, when Babiš was campaigning for president, Viktor Orbán came to visit. But the question is how they do it. For example, they come for a visit, an official visit, they go somewhere together. But Orbán did not say to vote for this politician. That is, he is expressing his support by his very presence. That is how it is usually done. 

When you want to support somebody in a campaign, you come to visit, you get your picture taken with them, you say how you are doing, you say how much you like each other, and you don’t talk at all in the campaign. And when a journalist asks, you say, “That’s none of my business, that’s the voters’ business”. But of course, it’s a way of supporting. 

What other Czech politicians have done was, from this point of view, beyond the usual subtlety and a certain politeness. But with people who don’t have those high offices, it seems to me that they are a bit of a citizen in that respect. They don’t have that responsibility for Czech-Slovak relations. What is important here is that those who are in those ministries and in the Castle have responsibility for the relations and they will probably now simply have as their partner the party they warned about. So that puts a strain on the relationship. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s something that would seriously damage those relationships. Fico is used to a lot of things, he knows that there is simply the material that is there in Prague and that we will just have to endure it for at least two years.

2023 Slovak Parliamentary Election in English (source: Matthew McMullin)

Well, they have known this “material” that is in Prague for some time in Slovakia in the form of not the Castle, but the presidential palace. Is there a similar pattern here? Here the question arises. If we look at the Czech media, they supported Progressive Slovakia and openly opposed Fico and owned the same narrative as the Slovak media or most of the Slovak media. We have also seen the reactions and we must admit that President Pavel has gone back to that statesmanlike position and is now speaking differently – after the election victory of Fico, to be objective. But I still wonder whether the more or less lukewarm reactions of our politicians to the election of Fico and the general fueling of the fire of the hysterical campaign in Slovakia are somehow related to some fears at home because we know that the trends in Slovakia are often a bit of a prelude to the Czech political trends. Maybe Fico is not just a vanguard for us, but maybe he is a vanguard for other countries as well, because the problems that Slovakia faces, other countries also face. Do you think that there were those fears that now it will be “our turn” and there will be a wave of resistance? In our case, in the Czech case, probably Babiš and company, who will sweep us out of power, just like in Slovakia?

I’m sure. In my opinion, Fiala’s coalition must feel that it is fighting a very similar battle to the previous Slovak coalition and that, in fact, Fico and Babiš are very similar rivals. So, from that point of view, I do not blame them. But the Czech fight will be fought on Czech issues, and I think that what matters more than the Slovak election result is how the current Fiala government is perceived and how it will be perceived in two years’ time. It is a government that has set a record for unpopularity. It is probably not going to get much better because it is due to factors so deeply rooted in those personal characteristics and in those parties that they simply won’t do anything about it, if they even hold on to it until the next election. 

So, yes, I understand that they’re scared and that it’s such a memento for them. But at least the main arguments and the fight is really going to be about what’s going on in the Czech Republic. This is kind of an inspiration. It is interesting for the opposition because it shows that despite the media overwhelm, the support of various foreign institutions, the European Commission and the various warnings that are coming from the West, that may come from I don’t know what other corners, it is possible to fight this fight and it is possible to win it. So, from that point of view, I am not surprised that the Fiala coalition is afraid of it, because they quite rightly see their own fate there.

You don’t see any connection between the almost uncritical and financially demanding support for Ukraine and the way Fico has talked himself out of supporting Ukraine. It was an important issue in that election campaign, and is it a similarly important issue in Poland?

This was very relevant in Slovakia. I think it was an incredibly important topic, but I would say that in Slovakia it’s even more important than in Poland or in the Czech Republic. In Slovakia, public opinion was much less pro-Ukrainian from the beginning than in Poland or in the Czech Republic. That is, the Bratislava government, which in turn went a little further in supporting Ukraine than Prague or Warsaw. Consider, for example, that they gave up their air defence, they gave it to Ukraine and then found out that they had none. Or it was said that Slovnaft might have problems because of sanctions, because it is dependent on Russian oil, and then the Hungarians negotiated because Slovnaft is owned by MOL. The Slovak Government just looked the other way. They were really so out of touch with the opinion of the average Slovak, with the opinion of Slovak society, that this was a very important issue. But of course, otherwise, you are right that Polish society is also tired of the way Ukraine is behaving, the way the Ukrainians are behaving, NATO in Poland and this moment is coming to the Czech Republic as well. But here, from the beginning, public opinion has always been more friendly towards Ukraine and more critical towards Russia than in Slovakia. So maybe that factor will work here, but certainly not as strongly as it did in Slovakia.

Let us now turn to the election results, which will be important for the future of Slovakia and, of course, for the future government. I will recall the numbers here so that our readers and our listeners have an idea. We know that Smer got 22.9%, Hlas (the Voice) 14.7%, the Slovak National Party 5.6%, and Progressive Slovakia 17.9%. The Christian Democratic Movement 6.9 per cent. That’s all the parties that made it into parliament. And so, we know that those coalition potentials are roughly two. I would like to remind that the Slovak parliament, the National Council, has a hundred and fifty members, so there is a fight for 75 plus seats that will support the government. However, the elections have confirmed the still valid division of social democracy in Slovakia between Fico and Pellegrini. Pellegrini and his Hlas, and this has already been shown in the statements of Petr Pellegrini after the elections, is the main bride. It is Hlas that will decide which coalition will govern in Slovakia, simply because its support is now essential for Fico or for Progressive Slovakia. How do you perceive the possible developments there in terms of coalitions?

Theoretically, there are two options – a three-coalition of Smer, Hlas and SNS (Slovak National Party) or a four-coalition Progressive Slovakia, Hlas Voice), Freedom and solidarity (SaS) and Christian Democratic Movement (KDH). Of course, the first coalition is more likely, the three-coalition of Smer, Hlas and SNS, because of course there is much more programmatic overlap between Smer and Hlas than between Hlas and Progressive Slovakia. A particular phase of the campaign has shown this. In the final one, the other parties started to show that they are a bit frightened of Progressive Slovakia and that they could be associated with it, and they showed that it would be very, very difficult for them to govern with Progressive Slovakia. Everybody was doing that except for SaS, who was showing that they were with Progressive Slovakia. The Hlas and the KDH were giving themselves conditions to even consider that coalition. 

The possibility of a three-party coalition is looking more likely for now. Of course, Pellegrini is the one who will make the big decision at this point, because he is the one who will form either one or the other coalition.  His personal relationship with Fico, which is simply not an easy one, will also be important. Pellegrini has so far indicated that he would prefer to see a government where Fico is not the prime minister. So that is the question. Whether that’s an important condition for Pellegrini, or whether it’s, as they say, a red line, or whether it’s something he’s prepared to negotiate. The fact that Šimečka and Progressive Slovakia, apparently, can offer Pellegrini a prime minister, may be a certain attraction for him personally. But Pellegrini would then have a problem in his parliamentary caucus because his caucus tends to coalition with Smer, and a coalition with Progressive Slovakia could lead to a revolt of his MPs and a split vote. I think Pellegrini may want to save himself. 

So, unless there is a big punch-up during the coalition talks, unless they somehow let go of each other and start publicly humiliating each other, I think it is quite realistic that a three-party coalition will emerge. If we look at the result, let’s realise how extraordinary a result Progressive Slovakia obtained in a Slovakia that is somehow twice as progressive. I don’t think Slovak society is so inclined in this respect to all sorts of social experiments, this kind of social engineering, whether gender or climate or various minorities. So, the fact that they got 18 per cent as an extra-parliamentary party is actually a fantastic result for them. The fact that they had big eyes and saw themselves and saw themselves as premiers is another thing. But I would say from that point of view it is something that is also a kind of a memento for other political parties who are saying Well, here we have an elephant that we’re probably going to somehow want to circumvent as well. That elephant will not be Fico, as some might think, but it will be, for example, Progressive Slovakia. 

What is very important, by the way, is what happened among the smaller parties, and that the Slovak National Party, not the party Republika, got into parliament because the Republic finished just below five per cent. For a long time, it looked like Republika would get into parliament rather than the Slovak National Party. If that had happened, the coalition would have been much more complicated, because Republika is accused of having a fascist past and Pellegrini has made it clear that he would not really be in a coalition with such a party. Pellegrini does not have any fundamental problem with the Slovak National Party. After all, he has already been in coalition with them several times as an essential figure in Smer at the time, which is something that makes coalition easier. Strangely enough, what damaged Republika was not so much its past, which was widely known, but the fact that it came to public attention that Mr Uhlík, its leader, had been a prominent exponent of Mikuláš Dzurinda’s youth wing in the past. That was a centrist party and he caught up a bit with his youthful centrist youthful moderation. What damaged him remarkably was not that he was with (Marian) Kotleba (leader of the neo-fascist  People’s Party Our Slovakia) but that he was with Dzurinda (former Slovak prime minister responsible for neo-liberal reforms). 

So, there are two coalition possibilities looming. I think the coalition with Smer is much more likely and I would expect them to start negotiating in the next few weeks. President Čaputová has said that she is going to put Robert Fico in charge of the negotiations, so in those next few weeks, we will probably see the contours of what I believe will be a future three-way coalition.

Last question. Could you specify a little bit about what the relationship between Fico and Pellegrini is. What are the biggest sources of tension, and is it personal or is it otherwise?

I’m obviously not quite the insider that I am to know how things are between them now. When Fico was forced out as prime minister after the affair, after the murder of Kuciak, he suggested Pellegrini as his successor because he is a man he trusts. He is like a close associate, a close colleague. But in politics, no such closeness and friendship lasts forever. And Pellegrini, when he discovers that he’s quite good at politics and discovers that he can actually be a good party leader himself, which Fico himself bears with some resentment. On the other hand, I would say that both are quite professional politicians, and if they know that they can come to power together and that both can hold quite important positions, they will be able to overcome this. Sometimes we can see a certain rationality in the political scene. I have already mentioned Igor Matovič, there has never been much of that irrationality in the case of Pellegrini and Fico. They both behaved quite rationally, so it was surprising. I would be surprised if they now surprised us with some irrational outbursts where personal animosities either mixed or reappeared or even created them. I expect it to be a rational agreement between two rational players.

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