In less than a week, Slovaks will in a run-off election choose a new president. Fico or Kiska? In terms of the candidates' approach to Slovak national identity and the issue of nationalism, a lot can be said on Fico's account.
Fico's first term as a prime minister was from the perspective of nationalism and national identity very distinct. Not having received sufficient electoral support to be able to create a government by itself, Smer formed a coalition with the People's Party - Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (Ľudová strana - Hnutie za demokratické Slovensko, ĽS-HZDS), represented by Vladimír Mečiar, and the ultra-nationalist Slovak National Party (Slovenská národná strana, SNS), represented by Ján Slota. Nationalist, if not outright racist and xenofobic, outlook and remarks characterized the controversial government coalition that was in power between 2006 and 2010. Even though the Prime Minister Fico tried to soothe the government's critics by assertions that its politics were going to be “pro-European,” and assurances that his government has declared a war against xenophobia and extremism, as well as guarantees that the national minorities' rights were not threatened, it cannot be concluded Fico succeeded in living up to all these claims.
Critics of the governmental approach in this regard stressed that as a Prime Minister responsible for the coalition government as a whole, Fico had not stood up strongly against the nationalistic tendencies of the government, whatever their source. Fico's coalition with SNS, which represents an extremely nationalistic, anti-Hungarian, anti-Roma and anti-Jewish political line, and HZDS, even turned out to be at the heart of Slovakia's international isolation in the European context – in the first two months in office, Fico had not been invited on any official visit (besides the Czech social democratic Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek), the European Commission had expressed its concerns over Slovakia's commitment to European values, particularly to the upholding the rights of the minorities, and the European Party of European Socialists suspended the provisional membership of Smer for almost a year and a half on the basis of Smer's coalition with the SNS.
This period became a low point in the Slovak-Hungarian relations, which were strained particularly by disputes over double citizenship, but had been severely damaged as numerous other contentious issues related to the Hungarian minority rights vis-à-vis Slovak nationalism had been raised. It cannot be denied that to a large extent, the Slovak government represented by its head Robert Fico, are responsible for this development. Examples of these issues include Fico's accusations of Hungary's export of fascism, ethnically-motivated attacks against the Hungarian minority in Slovakia, the Slovak parliament's passing of a resolution on the inviolability of the Beneš Decrees, Fico's labelling of Hungary a potential threat or his appeals to Slovak youth to wear Slovak symbols and master the Slovak language, among others.
During the 2006-2010 term, Fico has taken advantage of the tensions between the two countries and at times aggravated them; through mobilizing nationalism, he appealed to his voters and likely aimed to cater to his potential constituencies as well. The nationalistic tone reached its peak during the period prior to the Parliamentary election in 2010. Among others, this period was marked by the Slovak government's program aimed at improving the knowledge of Slovak language among students studying at schools for ethnic minorities, the strengthening Slovak patriotism through the playing of the national anthem at schools, or the placing of the statue of Svätopluk in front of the Bratislava castle in an attempt to revive Slovak history. The fact that these developments were taking place against the backdrop of the parliamentary elections in Hungary, where the nationalist Fidesz party also tried to capitalize on nationalist rhetoric, did not work towards the toning down of divisions.
After the 2010 parliamentary elections in which Fico's Smer won, but was unable to find any coalition partner and a government led by Iveta Radičová which excluded the Smer party was formed, relations between Slovakia and Hungary improved. In the 2012 preliminary parliamentary elections campaign, Smer largely shifted away from playing the nationalist card and rather focused on questions of social security. Since gaining a majority in the Parliament large enough to be able to govern on its own in 2012, Fico, as a Prime Minister, has also followed a more conciliatory line in the government's relations with Hungary. Likely in attempts at rehabilitation with regard to the nationalist rhetoric, Fico also again chose to declare a commitment to a pro-Euroepan orientation of his government.
In terms of more recent developments relating to the Slovak Presidential campaign of 2014, a few points can be made. Above all, it must be pointed out that Fico's most recent performance as a Prime Minister cannot be separated from the presidential election, which has led to numerous accusations that Fico is taking advantage of his position and the exposure related to it for the purposes of the campaign, which can be said to have been ongoing already for a few months.
Comments on the account of the Hungarian minority have largely disappeared, marking a shift from the strong anti-Hungarian campaign that has characterized his first term as the Prime Minister and, above all, the election campaign prior to the 2010 Parliamentary elections. The same, however, cannot be said about the Roma issue, which remains to be a salient one even in this election. He still accuses the Roma population of their negative impact on the unemployment statistics and of being overrepresented among the country's prison inmates, even if these comments are issued primarily in the context of his role as a Prime Minister. Confronted with the SNS rhetoric from the times of the previous government, however, these claims are incomparably less charged with nationalism. Contrary to his rival in the second round of the election, Andrej Kiska, Robert Fico has avoided visiting any Roma settlements. Nevertheless, it has to be concluded that both candidates have avoided directly tackling the Roma issue in their campaign.
Fico's recent attempts to reach out to voters with a more traditional outlook on society cannot be understood outside of the context of the presidential election either. In January, Fico made public a short video in which he points out his Catholic upbringing and besides the traditionally Christian roots of his family, also stresses his background as being “very ordinary.” More recently, Fico confirmed this traditional position for his voters by agreeing with the representatives of the Christian-Democratic Movement (Kresťanskodemokratické hnutie, KDH) to include a definition of a marriage as “a union between a man and a woman” in the Slovak Constitution as part of the Constitutional amendments to be passed by the governing party Smer with the support of KDH.
Whether his strong public support is going to translate into a possibility for Fico to influence matters relating to national identity from the position of the President is to be decided already this weekend.