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BRATISLAVA — Slovaks are headed to the polls Saturday in a closely watched election that has the potential to complicate the Western response to Ukraine and put the country on a more illiberal, autocratic course.
The front-runner in the majority of polls by a whisper of a margin is Robert Fico, 59, a populist former prime minister who was forced out of power in disgrace five years ago and has made a comeback bid in a conspiracy theory-laden campaign, laced with pro-Russian and anti-American discourse.
Who is Robert Fico? Pro-Russia populist is favored in Slovakia elections.
A victory by Fico’s Smer party would be another sign of Europe’s tilt toward populist forces, which have capitalized on spiraling costs of living and anxiety over the Ukraine war. It could also turn an ally in the Western response to Ukraine into a spoiler, with Fico threatening to stop arms deliveries and block European Union sanctions against Russia.
During a toxic campaign, Fico tapped into the country’s longtime polarization toward Moscow and deep dissatisfaction with the previous government as he has parroted Russian propaganda and blamed “Ukrainian Nazis” for starting the war.
But the election remains too-tight-to-call. Virtually level with Fico’s party in the polls is Progressive Slovakia, headed by Michal Simecka, 39, a former journalist who would become the country’s youngest-ever prime minister if he took power. He has a drastically different vision for a pro-European, liberal Slovakia and has made last-minute gains in the polls.
A final IPSOS poll published Wednesday put support for Fico’s Smer party at 20.6 percent compared with 19.8 for Progressive Slovakia.
“It will be tight, but decency may prevail,” Simecka wrote in a Facebook post this week.
Whoever comes out ahead will have the first chance at cobbling together a coalition government, amid a fractured political scene where no party is expected to win more than a quarter of the vote. Much could ride on a raft of smaller parties that are on the threshold of reaching the minimum of 5 percent of the vote needed to enter parliament.
“Slovakia can choose a European, dignified future instead of chaos and isolation in these elections,” Simecka said.
Meanwhile, in an all-caps message on his page, Fico criticized Ukraine for its decision to take legal action in response to Slovakia banning its grain imports: “THE WORLD IS STARTING TO GET FED UP WITH ZELENSKY AND UKRAINE, BECAUSE THEY ARE UNGRATEFUL AND STILL UNSATISFIED!”
A pro-Russian tide in Slovakia could threaten Europe’s unity on Ukraine
Simecka has warned that a fourth term for Fico could usher in an ally for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the E.U., with “major implications” for the bloc’s ability to deliver further arms to Ukraine and enact new rounds of sanctions.
While a Fico government would represent a shift in Ukraine policy from a neighbor that has led on deliveries of tanks and heavy weapons, analysts say the impact of his threat to cut off arms deliveries could be limited. Fico has only specified that he will stop sending arms from Slovakia’s already depleted military stocks, and has refrained from threats to halt supplies from the country’s arms manufacturers that stock Ukraine with much-needed artillery shells.
“I don’t buy the completely gloomy scenarios if Fico makes a government,” said Milan Nic, an analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations, who points out that Slovakia is more dependent on the E.U. than Hungary, while Fico is more consumed by investigations into his associates at home.
“He’s much more domestically focused than Mr. Orban,” Nic said. “That’s not to say that they won’t help each other.”
Analysts say that at the forefront of Fico’s agenda would be putting an end to the corruption probes that have dogged him and his associates since was forced to resign in the wake of an investigative journalist’s slaying.
Jan Kuciak, who was fatally shot alongside his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, had been investigating links between the Italian mafia and associates of Fico.
How Slovakia stood up to a journalist’s slaying and kicked out its prime minister
Fico’s campaign has also focused on immigration and the cost of living, as Slovakia experiences the highest inflation in the euro area, nearly double the average of other countries that use the euro.
Simecka, meanwhile, has pledged to maintain the country’s support for Ukraine and speed up its green transition. He has said he will not work with Fico or the far right, but is otherwise open to a range of coalition partners.
“For me, the priority is preventing Robert Fico from forming a government,” Simecka told Reuters this month. “You have to make compromises.”