Peter Pellegrini, Ukraine War Skeptic, Wins Presidency in Slovakia, Strengthening Populist Grip on Government

In Bratislava, Slovakia, a confidant of populist Prime Minister Robert Fico triumphed over a pro-Western diplomat to assume the presidency, succeeding Zuzana Caputová, the nation’s inaugural female leader.

Peter Pellegrini, the parliamentary speaker, secured 53.26% of the vote in Saturday’s runoff election, according to the Statistics Office, prevailing over former Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok, who garnered 46.73% of the vote with nearly all polling stations tallied.

“I can promise I will be a president of all Slovak citizens,” Pellegrini said. “I can promise I’ll be always by the side of Slovakia.”

Pellegrini assumes office as Slovakia’s sixth president since the nation’s independence following the Czechoslovak split in 1993.

Caputová, a staunch supporter of Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, opted not to pursue a second term in the predominantly ceremonial role.

Pellegrini’s triumph solidified Fico’s control over the government, consolidating power for him and his allies in key positions.

As president of the 5.4 million-strong nation, Pellegrini will select the prime minister following parliamentary elections, inaugurate the new government, and appoint judges to the Constitutional Court. While possessing the authority to veto legislation, parliamentary majority can override the veto, and legal disputes can be contested in the Constitutional Court. Additionally, the president retains the prerogative to grant pardons.

Executive authority is primarily held by the government, led by the prime minister.

Fico’s leftist Smer (Direction) party emerged victorious in the parliamentary elections held on September 30, advocating for a pro-Russian and anti-American agenda.

At 48 years old, Pellegrini leads the left-wing Hlas (Voice) party, which secured third place in the elections and subsequently formed a coalition government with Fico’s party and the ultranationalist Slovak National Party. Pellegrini advocates for a robust role of the state in governance.

Detractors express concern that under Fico’s leadership, Slovakia may veer away from its pro-Western trajectory and align more closely with Hungary’s direction under populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Upon assuming office, the new government promptly suspended all arms shipments to Ukraine. In recent times, thousands of citizens have gathered in protests across Slovakia, voicing opposition to Fico’s pro-Russian stance and other policies, such as proposed amendments to the penal code and efforts to exert control over public media outlets.

“A majority of people in Slovakia said that they prefer this way of ruling,” Fico said in his comments.

Korcok voiced criticism regarding the government’s actions, which protesters feared could erode the rule of law, while Pellegrini supported the new government without questioning its policies.

Korcok, a former ambassador to the United States and Germany, as well as the country’s representative to NATO and the European Union, staunchly advocates for Slovakia’s EU and NATO affiliations.

Acknowledging his defeat, Korcok extended congratulations to the victor.

“I’m disappointed,” he said about the result.

Pellegrini, who served as Fico’s deputy in Smer, assumed the role of prime minister in 2018 when Fico resigned amid significant anti-government demonstrations following the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée.

Following Smer’s scandal-ridden defeat in the previous election in 2020, Pellegrini briefly distanced himself from Fico.

Pellegrini’s victory marks a resurgence for Fico, who had suffered defeat in two consecutive presidential elections. A decade ago, Fico lost the presidential race to Andrej Kiska, and in 2019, a candidate he backed was defeated by Caputová.