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Former Slovak PM Peter Pellegrini starts new party: More of the same?

Bratislava, Slovakia – Ever since Peter Pellegrini, the former Prime Minister announced he would leave the once all-dominant SMER party unless its chairman Robert Fico (PM before him), stepped down, social democracy in Slovakia has been in turmoil and set to enter a new phase of its history.

After effectively leaving Smer, Peter Pellegrini now presents himself as a reborn social democrat and the new face of social democracy in Slovakia through his newly-created party Hlas-SD (Voice-Social Democracy) that will, self-allegedly, be free of the scandals and corruption with which Smer and Fico are now irrevocably associated with.

Old habits die hard

However, the foundation of Hlas-SD, coming on the heels of Smer’s downfall, begs an obvious question: is Pellegrini’s party truly different, or is it just more of the same with new faces? Will it really break from tradition, or follow in the footsteps of Smer-SD, which came to be when the Party of the Democratic Left and the Communist Party merged after failing to secure enough votes in the 2002 parliamentary elections?

Will Hlas-SD only become the fourth iteration of the same idea in Slovakia’s modern history, promising change, a different perspective and much-needed young energy, professionalism and experience?

Many of the “new experts” Pellegrini so proudly showcased in front of cameras for the launch of his new party are, like him, simply breakaways from Smer: Denisa Sakova (former Minister of Interior and right hand woman of Robert Kalinak, another former MoI), Erik Tomas (formerly staunchly loyal to Fico), Peter Ziga and many more.

A large part of Hlas-SD’s top leadership has, in the past, been accused or suspected of corruption and graft while holding government positions (for more details, you can look at the detailed list of all the mischief committed by members of Fico and Pellegrini’s governments published by a Slovak MP here). So, true leaders hoping to rejuvenate social democracy in Slovakia, really? Or opportunists jumping off a sinking ship?

One can safely assume that there’s nothing really new about Hlas-SD: neither its leader, its backers, its sponsors nor its members. Everything in Pellegrini’s new party comes directly from SMER and amounts to an attempt to cover up and distance itself from years of scandals of a nominally social-democratic party that has ruled Slovakia for most of the past 15 years. Hlas-SD members now enthusiastically clamouring how broken and corrupt Smer is were, only a few months ago, running and campaigning for Fico’s party in the 2020 parliamentary elections.

Future prospects

Hlas-SD is largely built on the personal appeal and popularity of its leader, Peter Pellegrini who, during the 2020 elections, scored over 413,000 preferential votes, slightly less than current Prime Minister Igor Matovic (in comparison, Fico gathered less than 250,000 preferential votes).

Pellegrini, who became Prime Minister in the aftermath of the shockwave caused by the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak in 2018, is today one of the most trusted politicians in Slovakia.

A large part of the Smer electorate, and possibly beyond, do believe that Pellegrini is different, honest in his intentions and has a much cleaner and untainted track record than his former boss and other high-ranking Smer members. Many also credit him – much more than current PM Matovic – with the success of Slovakia’s coronavirus response, despite ongoing accusations of corruption linked to the procurement of face-masks while he was still Prime Minister.

Pellegrini’s party enjoys high popular support, with a recent Focus agency poll indicating that Hlas-SD would have come second, scoring more than 19% if elections had been held in June 2020. A paradoxical, yet possible result of this popularity would be for Hlas-SD to enter a coalition with Smer and, possibly, another politically ambiguous party (like Boris Kollar’s Sme Rodina, today part of the four-party ruling coalition) to secure a majority in Parliament in the next elections.

In this fictional but not unrealistic scenario, Hlas-SD would only become the vehicle for Smer’s come-back. So much for change. But there is hope. There’s a reason why Pellegrini is popular among Slovaks. Instead of remaining in cahoots with countless of people who have played a major part in Slovakia’s systemic corruption at the highest levels of politics, why not use his personal appeal to really distance himself from the old and, just maybe, truly rejuvenate social democracy in Slovakia?

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