Slovakia’s populist ex-PM Fico seals coalition deal for new government

By Jason Hovet

(Reuters) – Slovak former prime minister Robert Fico and his party signed a coalition deal on Monday to form a new government expected to go slow on cutting high deficits and reduce support to neighbour Ukraine.

Fico, a three-time prime minister last in power in 2018, won an election on Sept. 30 with pledges to halt military aid to Ukraine, while taking a hard line on rising illegal migration and a surge in prices.

He has backed peace talks for Ukraine as it battles Russia’s invasion – a line similar to that of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban but rejected by Kyiv and its Western allies, who say this would only encourage Russian aggression.

Fico’s leftist, populist SMER-SSD (Direction-Slovak Social Democracy) struck a deal last week with the centre-left HLAS (Voice) and nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS) to form a coalition that will have 79 out of 150 seats in parliament.

Monday’s pact, which can allow the president to appoint the new government, agreed the breakdown of cabinet positions, giving SMER the defence, finance, foreign and justice ministries.

HLAS, whose presence could blunt any hard policy shifts in the proposed government, will get parliament’s speaker role.

President Zuzana Caputova, who gave Fico a mandate to secure a parliamentary majority for a government after the election, said she would take further steps after receiving the names of proposed ministers, which the parties must still agree.

Slovakia, a European Union and NATO member, is on course for the highest deficit in the euro zone this year as a result of slower economic growth, higher spending needs and rising costs, with the shortfall seen at more than twice the bloc’s ceiling of 3% of gross domestic product.

Fico said he wanted to prevent budget tightening from hurting social standards and to allow space for investments, signalling slower pace of fiscal consolidation than what the outgoing caretaker government has recommended.

“Slovakia needs to support economic growth,” he told a news conference.

Fico said his priorities would include boosting living standards and a foreign policy consistent with Slovakia’s EU and NATO membership – but focused on protecting national interests.

He told reporters that what he called the era of non-governmental groups running the country was over.

Fico has a tense relationship with Caputova, whom he has called a U.S. puppet acting as U.S. financier and philanthropist George Soros’ proxy. Caputova has sued Fico for spreading lies about her.

The new government deal dashed liberal opposition’s hopes to win over HLAS – whose third-place finish in the election left it as kingmaker – as an ally.

In Poland the liberal, pro-EU opposition looked on track on Monday to form the next government after elections there likely left the ruling nationalists without a majority, according to exit polls.

(Reporting by Jason Hovet in Prague; editing by Alex Richardson, Mark Heinrich and Tomasz Janowski)