How Slovakia's Toxic Politics Left the Prime Minister Fighting for His Life - Latest Global News

How Slovakia’s Toxic Politics Left the Prime Minister Fighting for His Life

Even by the standards of the polarized politics of Central Europe, Slovak politicians are characterized by their caustic discourse.

Just minutes after Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot and seriously injured on Wednesday, some of his allies accused the opposition and media of having blood on their hands and threatened a crackdown.

L’uboš Blaha, deputy speaker of parliament and a senior member of Fico’s Smer party, told opposition MPs: “This is your job.”

“I would like to express my deep disgust at what you have done here over the last few years. What kind of hatred have you, the liberal media, the political opposition, spread towards Robert Fico? You built him a gallows.”

The shooting, which the government said was carried out by a “lone gunman” with political motives, has left the country in turmoil and raised questions about the threat that the spiral of toxicity poses to democracy just weeks before European Parliament elections .

“This tragic event should be a lesson for all of us,” Věra Jourová, vice-president of the European Commission, told the Financial Times. “Everywhere in Europe we can see increasing polarization and hatred. . . We must understand that verbal violence can lead to physical violence.”

Robert Fico’s condition was described as serious but stable Thursday after five hours of surgery for his gunshot wounds © J n Kroöl k/TASR/dpa

Many Slovaks see the attack as the culmination of months of verbal attacks, disinformation campaigns and even fist fights between the liberal opposition and allies of Fico, who returned to power in October.

Fico’s condition was described as serious but stable Thursday after five hours of surgery for his gunshot wounds.

In a rare show of unity, Slovakia’s outgoing liberal president Zuzana Čaputová gave a joint address on Thursday alongside her successor and Fico ally Peter Pellegrini. “We completely agree that we condemn any violence,” said Čaputová. “Yesterday’s attack on Prime Minister Robert Fico is, first and foremost, a great human tragedy, but also an attack on democracy.”

Fico’s government also promised to relax its campaign activities for the EU elections if other parties followed suit.

In fact, the shooting could allow Fico’s ruling coalition to gain significant gains, securing a “clear sympathy vote” in June and providing an opportunity to accelerate its crackdown on opposition media, said Misha Glenny, rector of the Vienna-based Institute for the Humanities.

“There are risk-averse members of the Fico coalition who will try to moderate the course, but the coalition must also retain those who want to escalate things in order to survive” and preserve Fico’s parliamentary majority, said Juraj Medzihorsky, a Slovakian Assistant Professor of Social Data Science at Durham University.

Slovakia's President Zuzana Caputova and President-elect Peter Pellegrini
Slovakia’s outgoing liberal president Zuzana Čaputová and her successor and Fico ally Peter Pellegrini gave a joint speech on Thursday in which they “condemned any violence.” © Jakub Gavlak/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Particularly worrying is the reaction of the ultra-nationalist SNS party, which is part of Fico’s three-party coalition. Its chairman, Andrei Danko, warned that “a political war is beginning at this stage.”

Danko also promised “changes in the media” that go beyond Fico’s planned overhaul of public broadcaster RTVS, which critics say threatens its editorial independence. Fico’s coalition also recently introduced a law in parliament that could withdraw foreign funding from non-governmental organizations.

At the same time, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told the FT that there was a risk that vitriolic attacks and increased danger would deter people from entering politics. “There is a French saying: When people who feel disgust go away, only disgusting people remain.”

In Bratislava, residents were stunned by Fico’s shooting, although many attributed it to a drastic lowering of political standards.

“Politics have added a lot of fuel to the fire here, so I think it was only a matter of time before something like this happened.” But that doesn’t mean it was easy to imagine that this could actually happen to our Prime Minister.” said Michal Venglar, a 33-year-old teacher.

Fico’s shooting brought back memories of another traumatic event in the Slovak psyche: the murder of a 27-year-old investigative journalist and his fiancée in 2018. The reporter Ján Kuciak had been investigating alleged collusion between government officials and organized crime. The uproar over the murders forced Fico to resign as prime minister.

“It reminds me of the horror after the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová, when Slovakia received negative news around the world, and today it is the same again,” wrote Ivan Štefanec, an opposition member of the European Parliament, on the Slovak news site KMU.

Portraits of murdered Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova during a vigil honoring their memory in Bratislava
Portraits of the murdered Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová during a vigil honoring their memory in Bratislava © Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty Images

Grigorij Mesežnikov, a political scientist and president of the Institute of Public Affairs think tank, said Slovakia’s “very confrontational” politics could reflect an “unfinished democratic transformation” after the fall of communism and the persistence of “problematic value orientations” such as. B. can be attributed to xenophobia and homophobia.

Like others, Mesežnikov suggested that the ruling coalition could opt for greater radicalization. Conversely, Fico could use his near-death experience as a turning point and change his aggressive political approach, Mesežnikov said – but he was “skeptical” whether that would happen.

Last year, Fico built his impressive comeback to office on, among other things, stoking social tensions and accusing incumbent politicians of mismanagement and weakness. During the election campaign, a fist fight broke out between Fico’s current defense minister and a former prime minister.

After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Fico criticized the then Slovak government for allegedly violating national sovereignty by sending fighter jets to Kiev at NATO’s request without parliamentary approval.

Some of Fico’s most vicious attacks have been directed at Čaputová – the popular Liberal president said threats against her family were one of the reasons she did not run for re-election in April. Instead, Fico’s coalition partner Pellegrini was elected after running a campaign in which he accused his pro-EU rival of wanting to station Slovak troops in Ukraine.

“I don’t want to give probabilities,” said Medzihorsky of Durham University, “but the risk of things getting worse is pretty serious.”

Additional reporting from Alice Hancock in Brussels

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