A week after Fico’s shooting, Slovakia still doesn’t know where it will go

maandag 27 mei 2024, 11:25, column van Michal Onderco

De moordaanslag op de Slowaakse premier Fico leidde in Slowakije niet alleen tot een schok, maar liet in de reacties al snel de verdeeldheid in het land zien. Voor de oppositie was het reden om aan te dringen op gematigdheid, met name in het publieke debat. Door regeringspartijen en hun aanhangers werden beschuldigingen geuit aan het adres van de oppositie.

Het gevaar van verdere uitholling van de democratie ligt op de loer. Het wachten is op terugkeer van Fico.

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, when I messaged my wife who was in her Italian class a short message, “Fico was shot”. She replied instantly, “WTF?” The three lettered abbreviation capture well the feelings of the whole country.

The initial reaction was a shock. Sure, Fico was a polarizing figure, but a political murder was outside of the realm of thinkable. If anything, it was Fico’s supporters and those of the parties that were generally sympathetic to many of his views that threatened, and used, violence and foul language against political opponents.

It was therefore understandable that the initial reaction was shock, followed by a wave of solidarity. Across the political spectrum, everyone wished Fico a speedy recovery. In those initial moments, there was unity in rejecting violence, and even some initial soul searching. Yet, a week after the attempted shooting, we see actors pull in opposite directions. Who wins will have a profound impact on Slovakia, and Europe more broadly.

While simplification is always dangerous, the reactions of the political actors in Slovakia fell into two camps. One is led by President Zuzana Čaputová (who will be leaving office next month) and numerous opposition leaders. This camp is primarily concerned with calming down the situation, and encourages soul searching, and rediscovering “the human” in the other as well.

There are calls to abandon the use of foul language in the public life (Fico, in 2022, famously stood by while his fellow party members including the current deputy parliamentary speaker Blaha and current foreign minister Blanár encouraged the crowd to call President Caputova “an American w***e”). Importantly, the deputy Prime Minister Kaliňák, who assumed the powers of the Prime Minister, falls in this camp too.

The other camp has quickly seized the opportunity to pin blame on the opposition and the media for Fico’s shooting. There have also been calls to settle the scores, and the Interior Minister Šutaj Eštok even spoke of an impeding “civil war”. Based on the statements we have heard in the last weeks, deputy parliamentary speaker Blaha, finance minister Kamenický, but also the leader of the far-right Slovak National Party (and another deputy speaker of the parliament) Danko, and the deputy prime minister Taraba fall into this camp.

If one reads the declarations and statements of political leaders in Slovakia, one would think that the first camp is winning. But if the actions speak more than words, then the situation is far from clear. For instance, the leaders of parliamentary parties were meant to meet in a show of unity in a meeting called by the President Čaputová and the president-elect Pellegrini, only for the meeting to be cancelled after Fico’s party and their far right coalition partner withdrew. President-elect Pellegrini then questioned the sincerity of the opposition’s calls for calm and moderation, and advertised “a tough political debate” about who is to blame for the shooting politically, which he promised to moderate “judiciously”.

Many of the political leaders have openly stated that they wait until Fico comes back publicly before making any future commitments. And Fico, still infirm in hospital, is nowhere to be seen. Yet, Fico’s SMER is profiting from the situation, its ratings ahead of the European elections higher than ever.

What appears as a small-town politicking has profound effect for the region and Europe. If those who seek to settle scores get an upper hand, Slovakia might be in for a tough time. One could imagine further tightening of the media freedom (at the time of writing, Slovakia’s parliament is debating turning a public TV into a state TV), further restrictions on public access to information (many government ministries already refuse to communicate with those whom they see as “unfriendly” media).

Andrej Danko, the far-right deputy parliamentary speaker, wants to use the opening of the debate about the hate speech online to shut down a satirical website which he earlier had blamed for his own party’s lack of success among the young voters (Danko is gaffe-prone, to say the least).

Government has resisted the urge to declare the state of emergency, but it is not unthinkable that restrictions to right of assembly, or even some privacy rights could come (there is, for instance, a proposal to crack down on anonymous discussion forums online). This would, ultimately, lead to further erosion of democracy in Slovakia.

If, however, the soul-searchers win, Slovakia might just escape the trap of democracy erosion. It could reopen the public debate about how the nation wants to live together, and tie it again together.

We will probably have to wait until Fico reemerges from his hospital bed to know where the country will land. But the stakes, they couldn’t be higher.

Michal Onderco is hoogleraar internationale betrekkingen aan de Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam