Slovakia’s Presidential Election Has An Unexpected Favourite Ahead of Run-off

The Fico government will try to salvage what they can in the coming days, whatever it takes

2 April 2024

It was all going according to plan. Of all the politicians that the Robert Fico-led coalition could put forward, Peter Pellegrini was the best positioned to fulfil the role. But the first round of the presidential election appears to have jolted his seemingly unshakeable position in the polls.

Pellegrini led the opinion polls long before he even announced he was going to run for president in mid-January. That is why he could afford to hesitate for months while his main competitor Ivan Korčok – who he will now compete against in a run-off round on 6 April – began actively campaigning on social media and around the country much earlier.

Head-to-head

Before the parliamentary election that took place in September 2023, Pellegrini dismissed suggestions that he could run for president, saying he was still young and ready for a post in the executive. Back then, he could still hope for such a good result and perhaps even vie for the prime-ministerial post, which he had already briefly held between 2018-2020 after Robert Fico was forced to resign.

After the election, it was virtually up to him to decide whether Slovakia would get a fourth Fico government or whether his Hlas party would join the parties described as pro-Western, pro-EU and, well, anti-Fico. Pellegrini opted to become the junior coalition partner to Fico’s Smer, together with the far-right nationalist Slovak National Party.

In anticipation of the upcoming presidential election, Fico and his allies sought a president who would not impede their government’s agenda. Pellegrini, having seen his aspirations for the premiership dashed by the outcome of the previous parliamentary election, acquiesced to run.

Yet, the first round of the election has surprised the Slovak public. The possibility that Slovakia will get a candidate who represents a very different stream of politics is now unexpectedly alive and well.

Ivan Korčok, a career diplomat in charge of the Slovak EU presidency and later served as the foreign affairs minister, won the first round with over 42% of the vote. He came in ahead of Pellegrini with 37%, who made a career within Smer and has served as the speaker of parliament, finance minister and prime minister.

The result contradicts the predictions of opinion polls, although the most recent models published in the week running up to the election had already hinted that Korčok may be gaining ground. In the NMS Market Research poll for the SME daily, Korčok was in the lead, but by a mere 1.8 percentage points.

In the end, Korčok won with a much better result, owing particularly to an unprecedentedly high turnout in comparison to previous elections (over 51%). “The voters of Ivan Korčok turned out to vote while voters of Peter Pellegrini and Štefan Harabin did not come out in such a measure,” pollster Mikuláš Hanes told SME.

Ceremonial but consequential

The underlying question of this election is whether the Fico-led government will have carte blanche or whether there will be someone to secure the president’s role in the system of checks and balances.

Even though the president is elected directly by the voters in Slovakia, the country is still a parliamentary democracy, with the most powerful person being the prime minister. Nonetheless, while limited, presidential competencies are not negligible.

The latest face-off between the Fico government and President Zuzana Čaputová is a case in point. The president has the limited power to veto laws passed by the parliament (if the MPs break the presidential veto, the law becomes effective even without the presidential signature). But when the Fico-led coalition passed the much-criticised Penal Code amendment and toyed with the legislative deadlines in the process, Čaputová was very strategic in her actions. She signed the bill that she did not approve of and then filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court, which subsequently suspended part of the law for the time necessary for the judges to issue a full ruling.

Pellegrini, running on the slogan that the country needs peace, stresses that the constitutional bodies should work in a concerted manner to be able to do things for the people. Korčok, on the other hand, says he is ready to cooperate with the government but will confront leaders if he sees the need for that.

To speculate for a moment — it seems like when it is time to decide, Slovaks show the understanding that it is useful to have a president who can keep an eye on the government, at least to the extent the Constitution empowers them to do so. Voters may have seen this and made their decision to vote for Korčok, especially after the pre-election debates.

They demonstrated that understanding in the 2019 election, when Zuzana Čaputová beat Smer’s Maroš Šefčovič, and also in 2014 when Andrej Kiska – then running from the position of the underdog after the first round – scored a humiliating result against Fico himself. After this first round, Korčok is much better placed than Kiska was to be the next representative of the anti-Smer forces in the Presidential Palace.

Fico is moving fast

While these signs are promising for the opposition, of course, it is not certain Korčok will win. In order to secure victory, he needs to maintain the high support he has already gathered and increase his lead ahead of the second round.

So far, the ruling coalition may have been an unexpected ally to this end. Since they took over in October, they have been hard at work applying some of the main measures copied from Viktor Orbán’s well-tested playbook in Hungary. This is not unexpected, but the pace of the changes has surprised even some of the more seasoned observers of the Slovak political scene.

In the months leading up to the presidential election, Fico’s government dissolved the Special Prosecutor’s Office – which investigates the most serious criminality, including high-profile corruption – and passed an amendment to the Penal Code (temporarily suspended by the Constitutional Court) that will make the life of criminals easier. The nationalist SNS (a coalition member) presented its plan to replace the public-service broadcaster RTVS with a state-run, government-controlled platform, and brazenly, the Fico government put Pavol Gašpar in charge of the intelligence service. Pavol Gašpar is the son of the former Police Corps president, Tibor Gašpar, who currently serves as a Smer MP and is charged in the Purgatory case with allegations of running a criminal organisation within the police. And this is nowhere near a complete list.

In turn, the actions of the government have prompted thousands of people to attend street protests on almost a weekly basis. Even though Pellegrini tried to stay away from these protest-inducing changes, Korčok and the parliamentary opposition have been able to link him to what they describe, among other things, as an attempt at a hostile takeover of the state.

Pellegrini, meanwhile, maintains the face of one that does not go for confrontation and pledges to “remain civil” in the campaign. He can afford to do that because the ruling coalition has enough figures who can conduct a smear campaign on behalf of their presidential candidate, including the prime minister himself, who will not hesitate to call Korčok anything from an “American agent” to a “warmonger”.

Korčok will need to figure out a good way to respond to this hate and not let it hijack the conversation in the coming days. Speaking to his supporters on election night, he hinted that he would keep reminding Pellegrini of the failure to fulfil promises of lower food prices (this was actually an election slogan printed on megaboards next to Pellegrini’s face in September).

The campaign before the run-off is also going to be about what the voters of the unsuccessful candidates decide to do. In the first round, Korčok prevailed in regional capitals and in cities and towns of more than 20,000 inhabitants. He garnered the support of liberal voters, but also of voters in the traditionally conservative-leaning regions despite the fact that he is mostly viewed as a liberal.

Korčok came first in the northern Slovak regions, such as Orava, mainly thanks to the support of the Christian Democratic Movement, which was widely praised for putting aside potential differences on issues like abortion or same-sex partnerships for what has been described as “the greater good” – stopping the Fico-led government.

But in the south of the country, where the Hungarian minority lives, the chairman of the Alliance party, Krisztián Forró, won in all villages where ethnic Hungarians make up more than half of the population — nationwide, this translated to just below 3 percent of the vote.

Korčok, a vocal critic of Orbán as foreign minister, has been labelled a “Hungarophobe” by some Hungarian politicians, notably Alliance deputy chairman György Gyimesi. Speaking to his supporters on election night, after it was clear that he had scored the first-round victory, Korčok thanked voters in Hungarian and said that it “pains him” that this label has been slapped on him.

Before the Easter holidays, Forró encouraged his supporters to vote for Pellegrini without consulting the leadership of the party. This recommendation is likely to work for voters who are Viktor Orbán sympathisers and are expected to hear the “peace” hints that Pellegrini has been uttering with regard to the war in Ukraine.

Korčok like Pavel?

It is widely expected that in the last leg of the campaign, the nervous coalition of Smer, Hlas and SNS will apply the tactic of playing on people’s fears and then having Pellegrini reassure the good citizens of Slovakia that he is there to protect them from harm. The Russian war in Ukraine is set to be the main topic.

When Pellegrini initially inked the coalition agreement with Fico, amidst concerns about a potential shift towards Russia under a Fico-led government, he vowed that his Hlas party would steadfastly uphold Slovakia’s commitment to a pro-Western foreign policy trajectory. Since then, Pellegrini has made several claims that put that claim in jeopardy – like standing up for a Slovak KHL player – and has taken to talking about “sovereign” foreign policy like Fico.

“Sovereignty” and “peace” are the dog whistles that the fiercest pro-Kremlin candidate Štefan Harabin uses when criticising the government; Harabin took third in the first round with over 260,000 votes (11.7%). If Pellegrini manages to get these supporters to go to the polling stations and vote for him next Saturday, he would most likely beat Korčok in the run-off. In the last election model by the NMS Research polling agency before the first round of the election, 60% of the polled voters of Harabin said they were likely to attend the second round, most of them voting for Pellegrini.

They are the ones who are likely to be mobilised by appeals for “peace” and a smear campaign portraying Korčok as a candidate who would not act in the interests of Slovakia. In that sense, the remaining days of the campaign will likely remind us of what we have already seen last year in the Czech Republic, where Andrej Babiš used the false dichotomy of “war vs. peace” against Petr Pavel.

Importantly, this tactic failed against Pavel. If it fails against Korčok, Slovakia will get a president that may not stop Robert Fico but will at least significantly complicate his plans.

Michaela Terenzani

Michaela Terenzani is a writer and the Editor-in-Chief of The Slovak Spectator, Slovakia’s English language newspaper.

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