As Europe Unleashes Its Demons, One Leader Clings to Mainstream

(Bloomberg) -- With the ruling party tainted by scandal and nationalist forces on the march across Europe, Slovakia’s prime minister is looking to position himself for next year’s election as the man who can keep the euro-area nation in the mainstream.

Peter Pellegrini, 43, has to navigate a shifting political landscape. The ruling Smer party’s popularity is declining after 11 of the past 13 years in power and new forces, including the far-right party that’s serving its first term in parliament, are on the rise.

As Europe Unleashes Its Demons, One Leader Clings to Mainstream

Populism has become a winning brand in Europe, especially in Slovakia’s post-communist neighborhood. Smer itself has a history of anti-establishment rhetoric under Pellegrini’s predecessor Robert Fico, who still leads the party. As recently as the presidential election, Smer’s candidate tacked to the right.

The prime minister now sees himself as a “bastion against extremism” and pledged to shun populist parties. Pellegrini said he “will never be in a coalition,” with the People’s Party, which on Monday escaped a court ban after the attorney general argued it had “fascist tendencies.”

“This is my only red line,” the premier said Monday in an interview.

Pellegrini’s pitch is that he’s the steady hand at the wheel who can guarantee Slovakia, a nation of about 5 million people with an economy dominated by vehicle manufacturing, a “seat at the table” for the biggest decisions.

He’ll meet President Donald Trump on Friday to discuss tariffs, an existential issue for the country that’s the fifth-largest exporter of cars to the U.S., including Porsche Cayennes and Volkswagen Touaregs assembled in Bratislava, the capital.

“A good trade agreement is a key for Slovakia,” he said. “We should lower all tariffs on manufactured goods including cars to zero.”

Pellegrini rose to the premiership last year after mass protests over a journalist’s murder forced out Fico. The prime minister, who’s served in Smer-led cabinets in various capacities, said the ruling party needs a “refresh,” though he stopped short of openly criticizing his predecessor, the man his opponents say still controls the government from behind the scenes.

Murder, Protests

“Sometimes I wonder whether we’re still able to offer Slovakia a new modern vision,” he said. “Our party still represents an element of stability. But are we still able to convince people that they can trust us? ”

That trust was tested by the government’s response last year to the gangland-style killing of an investigative journalist and his fiancee. The murders ignited the biggest protests since the end of communism 30 years ago, eventually forcing Fico to step aside. Several suspects linked to the murder have since been jailed.

Pellegrini rode out the demonstrations and defied calls for a deeper cabinet overhaul or early elections. While still the most popular party, Smer’s support has suffered. Its presidential candidate, an EU official, got just 42 percent against liberal anti-corruption campaigner Zuzana Caputova. Outgoing President Andrej Kiska is looking to capitalize on her momentum with a new political party.

Far-Right

On the other end of the political spectrum is the People’s Party. It has about 10 percent support, and is vying for voters with four other parties with various degrees of nationalist, populist and euroskeptic positions that all have similar backing, enough to win seats in parliament. Smer is near 20 percent and Caputova’s group has shot up the charts to second place, with about 13 percent, followed by the far-right group.

In such a fractured political environment, Pellegrini -- who has a license to fly small planes and said he’d go to flight school to become a commercial pilot if he were to leave politics -- has less than a year to shore up his once-dominant party’s support. To lure people away from the populists, Smer needs to find a way to talk to people who were attracted to “such delusions,” he said.

“We should do everything possible to create a political climate that would convince people not to give a chance to such extremist parties,” he said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.