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Post-Truth Politics in Slovakia

Peter Pellegrini’s presidential victory over diplomat Ivan Korčok was in large part the result of support from the ruling political coalition, the Hungarian minority in Slovakia, and various anti-establishment voters, but his win should also be considered with another caveat. It wasn’t only the triumph of populist Prime Minister Robert Fico’s ally – it was arguably the triumph of a campaign based on fear rather than fact in a post-truth political landscape. 


For many voters, Pellegrini was considered the “lesser of two evils”, and their vote was meant to be a stand against Korčok rather than necessarily in support of Pellegrini. 53% of the vote went in his favour, and though his campaign was flagged as being one of the least transparent presidential campaigns in recent Slovak history, it was successful. After trailing behind Korčok in the first round of the election  and subsequently promising not to stoop to “aggressive tactics” before the runoff, Pellegrini still kicked his campaign efforts up a notch. This included openly questioning the authority of the European Union and especially NATO during a debate, when he stated that in case of a Russian attack on another member state and the activation of Article 5, Slovakia would not step up to defend their NATO ally.


More drastic efforts undertaken by Pellegrini in pursuit of victory should be cause for concern in a democratic Europe. In what could be considered a smear campaign against his competitor, Pellegrini wasted no time or effort in trying to convince the Slovak public that Korčok was the pro-war candidate. Pellegrini vowed to “remain on the side of peace, not on the side of war,” despite the fact that as Korčok correctly pointed out, the office of the president has no power to declare war. That responsibility lies  with the Prime Minister, who, in this case, supported Pellegrini’s claims about Korčok and suggested the former diplomat would only lead Slovakia to war. To back up this narrative, Pellegrini and his team opted to share a touching photograph of a grandmother embracing a young soldier, complete with the caption “Come out and vote. Don’t let Slovak sons and grandsons die in war.” The image caught the attention of voters—and the attention of fact-checkers and political influencers in the region, who were quick to point out that the image was actually an edited and repurposed photo of a Ukrainian soldier parting with his family. Instead of apologising for disseminating disinformation, a member of Pellegrini’s party doubled down and insisted it was necessary to do so since they had no similar images of Slovak soldiers. This entire incident hardly impacted Pellegrini’s support—and apparently failed to dispel rumours that Slovaks were in imminent danger of being sent to war if Korčok were to win.


Part of what made Pellegrini’s campaign so successful was his ability to play into the hearts and minds of voters, even if it meant disregarding facts. This phenomenon has been coined with the term “post-truth politics” in recent years, and can be clearly seen at play in both Slovakia and the broader European stage. A tool used especially by populist politicians, post-truth politics involves evoking emotion over fact, worrying less about the veracity of one’s claims and more about the impact or sway they may have on a population’s emotions—and votes. In order to properly employ post-truth politics, one must understand their electorate. In Slovakia, worries over globalisation and the corruption of political elites have surfaced, and though Pellegrini’s own extensive political career should have placed him in the latter category, he and his team found creative ways to distract from his own background and platform, instead focusing on villainising the other candidate and playing up common fears within Slovak society. 


One of those fears is illegal migration. In the days between the first and second rounds of the election, Pellegrini’s party was able to spread the news of a Tajik national in Slovak police custody who was considered a “high-risk and dangerous individual.” Not only did this story play on heightened fears of terrorism and migration following the Moscow Crocus City Hall attack, but it also implicated Ivan Korčok in his previous role as foreign minister. Korčok held the position when this individual came to Slovakia, and current Slovak Minister of the Interior Matúš Šutaj Eštok seized the opportunity to directly link Korčok to the free movement of migrants to and through Slovakia. There was little to no concrete evidence to back up any of these claims, or the rumour about an alleged terrorist “sleeper cell” in Slovakia, but again, when it comes to post-truth politics, it doesn’t matter. A dramatic headline or politically charged narrative does not need supporting evidence to catch voters’ attention, and in this case, these reports played on the concerns of average Slovak citizens and helped Pellegrini secure the win.


Fear has decided the election,” noted Ivan Korčok upon the announcement of Pellegrini’s victory, and, come June, the government’s coalition will be largely unencumbered by checks and balances when it comes to making significant overhauls in the political trajectory of the country. The greatest impact will naturally be felt in Slovakia, which has already seen young citizens moving abroad due to the political situation at home, but this election will also impact Slovakia’s relationship with Ukraine, raising concerns about future support for their neighbour. More than anything, however, this election illustrates the continued normalisation of post-truth politics. This phenomenon is sure to be seen in the upcoming European Parliament elections, with leaders already issuing warnings about concerted disinformation attempts to undermine their legitimacy. Though many of these efforts will come from abroad, the Slovak case may serve as a reminder that these attempts can also come from domestic politicians who alter the truth or spread fear to achieve their political goals.


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