Populism rears its head once more in central Europe

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The struggle to contain political populism in central Europe sometimes looks like a game of “whack a mole”. No sooner is a lid put on it in one country than it pops up in another. The latest example is Slovakia, where Prime Minister Robert Fico is implementing illiberal policies just as Poland’s new government is trying to dismantle the conservative nationalist legacy of its predecessor.

In recent days, Fico has taken a swipe at Ukraine, deriding its government as a US puppet. His culture ministry has announced the restoration of ties with Russia and Belarus, suspended after the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. Above all, Fico is pressing ahead with plans to seize control of Slovakia’s judiciary, taking a leaf out of the books of Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s premier, and Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s former de facto leader.

Fico intends to dissolve a special prosecutor’s office that focuses on corruption and organised crime, and to reduce protections for whistleblowers. One apparent objective is to shield officials of Smer, Fico’s party, against investigations launched after its 2012-2018 spell in power. Last week, the European parliament criticised the proposals in a resolution passed by 496 votes to 70 with 64 abstentions.

Yet elsewhere Fico has friends. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was warm in his praise for him when he spoke last month at an end-of-year news conference. As for Orbán, he hosted Fico in Budapest last week and declared that the interests of Hungary and Slovakia were “99 per cent in alignment”.

The turn to illiberalism in Slovakia dates from Fico’s election victory in September. This was a triumph for a politician whose career seemed in ruins after the murders in 2018 of Ján Kuciak, a journalist who had been investigating Fico’s party for corruption, and his fiancée. That episode threw light on murky connections between Slovak politicians, business people and organised crime. It inspired the country’s largest anti-government protests since the fall of communism in 1989 and prompted Fico’s resignation after six years as premier.

Fico now leads a three-party coalition whose grip on power will be strengthened if Peter Pellegrini, an ally who serves as Speaker of parliament, wins presidential elections set for March 23. Opinion polls put Pellegrini ahead of Ivan Korčok, a pro-western former foreign minister, but the contest will go into a second round in April if no candidate wins more than 50 per cent in the first.

The presidency’s powers are restricted in Slovakia and other central European states but, as is evident in Poland, they still matter. There, President Andrzej Duda has the right to veto legislation. On account of his sympathies with Poland’s former ruling party, he is striving to thwart the new government’s efforts to decontaminate the judiciary and other state institutions.

Zuzana Čaputová, an anti-corruption lawyer who has been Slovakia’s president since 2019, also has veto powers. But they count for less because unlike in Poland, where the new government has only a small parliamentary majority, Fico and his friends have enough votes to override presidential vetoes.

From the west’s point of view, Fico is not as unreliable as Orbán in foreign policy. He has not completely blocked Slovak arms supplies for Ukraine. Although he says he would veto Ukraine’s entry into Nato, he supports its EU membership talks. Slovakia is a eurozone member, which places limits on how disruptive Fico will be inside the EU.

Rather, Fico’s priorities are primarily domestic. He wants to achieve mastery over Slovakia’s political scene and he is drawing from the 21st-century central European illiberal playbook to do so. In this sense, his comeback illustrates that the battle for liberal democracy in Europe is reaching a new peak of intensity.

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