Bratislava. At the crossroads

On March 23, 2024, the first round of presidential elections took place in Slovakia. According to expectations, former Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok and Parliamentary Speaker Peter Pellegrini, leader of the Hlas-SD party, which is part of the power coalition and, accordingly, the government of Robert Fico, reached the second round. Presidential elections in Slovakia do not matter as much asto parliamentary elections, since the powers of the President of the Republic are not so broad. However, even under these conditions, the current elections are extremely important.

Slovakia is a parliamentary republic where the powers of the president are quite limited. However, the role of the president is quite significant in matters of foreign policy and security, and a pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian president can soften the pro-Russian course of the government of SMER-SD party leader Fico.

Outgoing President Zuzana Caputova, from the very beginning of the nomination of candidates, supported Ivan Korčok. She also explained to the citizens of the Republic that the President can guarantee constitutionality, decent representation of the country, interest in the most important topics for society and exert legitimate pressure on changes, but none of the presidential candidates will raise pensions, reduce food prices, build hospitals or guarantee peace throughout the world – he simply does not have the authority to do this, even though these are the areas that Slovak society considers the most important for its life.

The entire election campaign of the candidates revolved around their attitude to Russia’s war against Ukraine. Unfortunately, as you know, this very topic divides Slovak society almost in half. Everything will be decided in the second round, which will take place on April 6.

Supporters of the pro-European course, which automatically make it pro-Ukrainian as well of Slovakia are celebrating their small victory: Ivan Korčok received much more votes than the polls forecasted, which gave him second place in the race and made him the winner of the first round, gaining 42.52% of the votes, but according to preliminary polls he wouldn’t get more than 36.6%. At the same time, Prime Minister Fico’s comrade in the coalition and his former party member Peter Pellegrini, who was predicted to receive 37.4% of the vote, finished the first round of the presidential race with even a slightly lower result of 37.03%. The change of the poll leader and voting results was rather a minor sensation. But do all these results reflect the real picture that we will see in the finale? Whether they will correspond with the final results is still a big question. After all, the “devil,” as we know, is in the details.

Despite such a large gap, 5.5% in the first round, Pellegrini has a much better chance in the second round of winning over the votes given to other candidates. And Pellegrini’s reserve is quite voluminous. Third place with a score of 11.74% was taken by Stefan Garabin, the ex-head of the Supreme Court and ex-Minister of Justice of Slovakia, who is a loyal follower of Putin and said that he would have treated Ukraine the same way as Putin. Immediately after losing in the first round, Garabin has every chance for his support in his statements and to go to jail for several years instead of an office in the presidential palace. It is important that Garabin refused to publicly support Pellegrini, and earlier even called the speaker of parliament a person under US influence, as well as a “coronadictator” and a politician who supports vaccination, war, migration and even the spread of pedophilia. But what will “his” voters do in the second round? Voters of neo-Nazi candidate Marian Kotleba can also give their votes to Peter Pellegrini, however, only 0.8% of Slovaks were ready to vote for him. Thanks to the support of “Putin’s friend” Viktor Orban, the majority of ethnic Hungarians who supported the leader of their national party, Cristian Forró, in the first round, will be ready to vote for Pellegrini in the second round, scoring 2.91%.

Ivan Korčok’s reserve is not so great. To win, he will need to mobilize the pro-Western electorate as much as possible, as well as attract voters of those politicians who did not make it to the second round. Korčok can count on some of the voters of ex-Prime Minister Igor Matovic, despite the fact that Matovic actively criticized Fico and Pellegrini, but avoided talking about supporting Korčok in the second round, calling him “the candidate from the Bratislava coffee shops,” taking 2.18% of the votes. Also, Korčok will be able to count on the votes of Patrik Dubovsky, who came to the finish line seventh with 0.71% of the votes.

It is unclear to which candidate the supporters of his colleague, ex-diplomat Jan Kubis, will give their 2.04% of votes.

As can be seen from this objective picture, the struggle will be literally for every vote.

Considering that only 51.91% of voters came to the elections in the first round, the reserve for uncertainty regarding the winner of the race is more than huge and unpredictable. Therefore, now we will see active foreign influence and the struggle for the vote of every voter, primarily on the part of the most interested country, Russia. After all, it is extremely important for the Kremlin to close the western border of Ukraine in order to supply the people of the country with vital supplies, especially in the conditions of the war unleashed by Russia.

Slovakia is the most vulnerable state to Russian disinformation and propaganda among European countries. Former Prime Minister of Slovakia Eduard Heger (2021-2023) said during the Open Zakarpattia 2023 forum that “the election results in Slovakia are the result of the influence of Russian propaganda. Russian propaganda is one of the challenges facing Slovakia. In times of propaganda, the enemy is trying to tarnish the reputation, so everyone should hear about Ukraine as a free and prosperous country.”

The Slovak segment of the Internet has 253 sites with disinformation and more than 1,800 Facebook pages and open online groups with Kremlin propaganda.

Here we also need to add the pro-Kremlin Hungarian component, since Viktor Orban has already censored the entire media space of the neighboring country. You don’t have to be a visionary to understand what information operations will be done by “Putin’s friends” Fico and Orban to promote Peter Pellegrini to the main post in the country.

On the side of Ivan Korčok are many private media in Slovakia, as well as media in the neighboring Czech Republic, which remain influential for a significant number of Slovaks.

But changing the mood of Slovak voters in two weeks will not be easy. In addition, the ruling coalition will position Korčok as a “war candidate” who will betray the interests of the country for the sake of the Western team. As a result of the manipulations, a black PR campaign against Korčok has already begun. Fico’s team accuses him that, having become president, he will send soldiers to fight in Ukraine, although the president of Slovakia does not have such powers. But these are not only far-fetched statements, billboards with defaced quotes from Korčok about the correctness of the “military scenario” have already appeared in Slovakia. Although these words referred to Israel’s military actions in Gaza, they are trying to drag them into Russia’s war against Ukraine.

At the same time, Pellegrini is presented as the “president of the world,” just as the dellusional women shouted about Putin during the Crimean annexation. He positions himself as a “unifier president”. “We don’t need a president, or an opposition, or a coalition. We need a president of the people,” says Pellegrini, who remained silent for the entire company from the chair of the parliamentary speaker and joined the active race only at the debate stage. Such a strategy was aimed at preserving the image of Pellegrini as a politician “for everyone.” However, it could turn out to be a fatal mistake.

And does the current Speaker of Parliament really need this post? Indeed, if Pellegrini is elected, Roberto Fico’s SMER-SD party will simply absorb his Hlas-SD party throughout the country, and not just in parliament. In fact, Pellegrini will become completely dependent on Fico, becoming his puppet as president, deprived of any support even from his political power. Pellegrini’s victory will allow Fico to monopolize his power in the country. He intensifies his efforts to establish complete control over the country. And in such a scenario, Slovakia’s movement towards authoritarianism will only accelerate.

But despite the high chances of victory for “Fico’s nominee” Pellegrini, the result of the race has not yet been definitively determined. In previous elections, the Slovaks did not dare to entrust Fico with full power, electing his opponents as president twice in a row. An independent president, even with limited powers, remains one of the few factors capable of stopping Slovakia’s move toward authoritarianism. This role was played by presidents Andrej Kiska and Zuzana Caputova, who had great authority in the West.

A possible victory for Ivan Korčok will ensure that Slovakia does not turn into a second authoritarian Hungary in the style of Viktor Orban’s rule. The victory of a pro-Western candidate will be a powerful signal that the majority of Slovaks do not support the current change of country’s foreign policy. And this in itself should become a powerful factor of pressure on the pro-Russian course of the government of Robert Fico.

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