VISEGRAD BLOG: Slovak coalition crisis could hand Fico a lifeline

VISEGRAD BLOG: Slovak coalition crisis could hand Fico a lifeline
Robert Fico: a self-proclaimed leftist who is closer to the radical right.
By Robert Anderson in Prague July 10, 2022

The Slovak governing coalition is crumbling again. There is a kind of sad inevitability about the news, though this time around the mudslide is more slow moving: the Freedom and Solidarity Party (SaS) has given Prime Minister Eduard Heger (OLaNO) until the end of August to dismiss his party leader Igor Matovic as finance minister.

The four-party centre-right coalition was close to collapse a year ago over then Prime Minister Matovic’s handling of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic; today it is teetering over Matovic’s handling of the energy and cost of living crises.

The common factor is the OLaNO leader’s impulsive and erratic performance as minister and his failure to consult coalition colleagues before he takes decisions. “Heger is a good PM but only in the times when Matovic sleeps,” says Grigorij Meseznikov, head of the Slovak Institute for Public Affairs.

But the problem goes deeper than just Matovic. The last centre-right government of 2010-12 was also riven by personal and policy disagreements and collapsed half way through its term, allowing populist Robert Fico to return to power for two terms.

Slovakia – a young state that split from the Czech Republic only in 1993 – has been dominated by populist authoritarian leaders for half its 30 years of existence: during the 1990s by the state’s nationalist founder Vladimir Meciar, and for most of the period since 2006 by Fico, a self-proclaimed leftist who is closer to the radical right.

The risk now is that the collapse of the centre-right coalition will once again enable Fico – or at least a government including his Smer (Direction) Party – to return to power.

Fico was forced to step down in 2018 following the assassination of journalist Jan Kuciak and his partner, though it was later discovered that he had nothing to do with the murders. Nevertheless, the pressure of the huge public demonstrations – the biggest since the 1989 Velvet Revolution against communism – shone a light on the seamy relationship between his Smer Party and businessmen, and in particular the way that police, prosecutors and judges did their bidding.

After the 2020 election, four right-wing parties, led by Matovic’s OLaNO, united on an anti-corruption platform. They have finally begun to achieve some successes, notably the recent sentencing of former chief prosecutor Dusan Kovacik to eight years for corruption.

“It is beyond journalists’ imagination and we have not seen half of it yet,” says Aktualne investigative journalist Martin Turcek about the unfolding testimonies of the accused policemen and others as they inform on their colleagues.

Former interior minister Robert Kalinak and Fico himself have been charged with running a criminal group – a charge usually used against mafia gangs – though many doubt whether the prosecutors will be able to make the charges stick, particularly as Parliament refused to allow Fico's arrest.

Faced with this existential threat, Fico has become even more populist, leading demonstrations against COVID-19 restrictions, and likening the stationing of Nato soldiers in Slovakia to “welcoming the Wehrmacht”.  As rising energy and food prices start to hit living standards, his support is only likely to increase.

If this government were to collapse in mid term like its predecessor, it is possible that after an early election Fico would be able to form a cabinet with his former lieutenant, Peter Pellegrini, who succeeded Fico as premier and has since founded his own party, Hlas (Voice). This would crown another notable comeback by the Slovak strongman and would abruptly halt any further corruption probes.

Divided we fall

Fico has been able to dominate Slovakia for the past two decades precisely because the centre-right has been so bitterly divided, often more over personalities than over ideology. At first the split was between traditional conservatives, represented by former premier Mikulas Dzurinda’s SDKU, and the strongly Catholic KDH.

After the SDKU was decimated at the 2012 general election for its involvement in the Gorilla corruption scandal, the right was split between new parties: Richard Sulik’s Eurosceptic and free market SaS, Matovic’s populist anti-corruption Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO), and Boris Kollar’s radical rightwing We are Family.

The only thing that has united the right has been their opposition to Fico, but this has not been enough to sustain their governments for a full term.

The prickly Sulik destroyed the last centre-right government in 2012 over the EU’s Lisbon Treaty and he was also the prime mover behind the ousting of Matovic as premier last year. Now he has demanded that Matovic resign as finance minister over the way he used votes from the neo-fascist LSNS party to push through welfare handouts to compensate for soaring energy bills.

If Matovic has not left by the end of August, Sulik has threatened to lead his party out of the coalition, leaving it with just 67 seats in the 150-seat parliament.

It is hard to imagine Matovic agreeing to fall on his sword – particularly as this would be a second victory for Sulik – so the coalition looks likely to lose its majority.

“We won’t go into government with Matovic again,” a member of SaS’ National Council told bne IntelliNews, adding that Pellegrini was also unacceptable, though he has yet to face corruption charges. “If we want to be in government we have to think about other options.”

The SaS has indicated it would back the government in confidence motions but the coalition would still struggle to pass its legislative agenda. In such a scenario, the coalition’s remaining 18 months would be consumed by pre-election manoeuvring – if it survives that long.

Analysts are already debating whether, after the next election, Pellegrini would side with the coalition or his former boss. According to some observers, relations between the two men are now bad, but Pellegrini would face a difficult choice.

On the one hand, Pellegrini – whose Hlas Party has steadily led opinion polls – would lose credibility by siding with Fico and a ragbag of populist and far right parties; but on the other hand, as recent history has shown, joining with the Slovak centre-right is rarely a successful long-term strategy.