Central Europe’s reputation has taken a battering in recent months. The illiberal turn of Poland’s new government and anti-migrant rhetoric coming from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Czech President Milos Zeman and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico have made international headlines and created the perception that the region is veering from European norms.
Perhaps the lone bright spot for Western liberals has been Slovak President Andrej Kiska, an entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist who has spoken in favour of migrant rights and sought to reassert his country’s commitment to Nato and the EU. And with a parliamentary election approaching on March 5, Kiska is increasingly challenging Fico – the man he beat in a 2014 presidential runoff – and his Smer party to lay out a plan for what they would do with another term in office.
“What do they want to do in the next four years exactly?” Kiska asked rhetorically during a recent interview at Bratislava’s Grassalkovich Palace.
Though the Slovak presidency has relatively weak constitutional powers, Kiska has used the platform to provide a sort soft of opposition to the dominance of Fico’s Smer party. Kiska has used his veto on occasion – though it has been easily overridden by Smer’s outright majority in parliament – and sought to slow the appointment of judges perceived as having political interests connected to the ruling party.
As a young man, the now 53-year-old Kiska migrated to the US and worked as a construction labourer and then at a petrol station. When he returned to Slovakia he came with a desire “to be my own boss” and founded a series of businesses, including a pair of companies that bought household appliances at wholesale prices, then offered consumer loans so buyers could purchase them in instalments. He grew wealthy when he later sold them both to the Italian banking group Intesa Sao Paulo. Kiska then founded the Dobry Anjel (Good Angel) charity, which raises money for long-term hospitalised children and their families, and has drawn praise for its transparent financing model.
Kiska’s Western connections and business experience is a sharp contrast to Fico, a former member of the Communist party and a career politician. With the country’s centre-right opposition parties splintered and disorganised, Kiska has tried to walk a middle line, whereby he criticises the content of government policies without naming names, so as to avoid perceptions that he is overstepping his role. But by his own admission, Kiska has set about his own “campaign” in the run up to the March vote. “We have a problem that our political leaders say you have to be afraid and that all Muslims need to be controlled,” Kiska says. “This political discussion before the election should not be about migrants.”
As the refugee crisis dominated the news cycle for the latter half of 2015, Fico staked his re-election on convincing voters that he is best equipped to protect the country from external threats. Beyond this, the election platform of his party consists of five vague sentences. Still, Fico’s prospects are buoyed by an economy that grew at an estimated 3.4% in 2015 and the central bank forecasts 3.5% growth for this year.
While Kiska agrees that the economy is doing “relatively well”, he contends that Fico is squandering an opportunity to fix many of Slovakia’s fundamental structural issues. “When the country is doing is well, we should make priorities,” he continues. “You are able to do this when you have good economic conditions. The priorities need to be healthcare and education.”
Slovaks frequently cite shortcomings in those two areas as top concerns, and recent strikes by teachers and the resignations of hundreds of hospital nurses have focussed more attention to these issues. “In the past three or four weeks things have changed,” Kiska says, “and the discussion has been more in line with some of the things I have been saying.”
Healthcare is a particular worry for Slovak voters and it was the poor state of hospitals and rampant graft encountered during his charity work that drew Kiska into politics. A recent study by Sweden’s Health Consumer Powerhouse found that the poor state of the healthcare system shaves 12 years off the average Slovak lifespan.
The current Smer government has been implicated in a number of health care procurement scandals. The biggest of these brought down then health minister Zuzana Zvolenska and Pavol Paska, a key party leader from Slovakia’s second city Kosice and the parliamentary speaker, in 2014. “Healthcare has not been a priority for any government, it is not just this government,” Kiska says, before turning more direct. “I have given speeches in parliament saying our health minister [Viliam Cislak] is absolutely not helping anything. It is one big jungle of corruption.”
The issue is taking its toll on Smer’s popularity. A new poll released on February 10 by Focus agency found support for Smer now stands at 34.1%, which would see Smer gain 62 of the 150 seats in parliament, compared with the 44.4% it won in the 2012 vote. The poll shows that the hard right Slovak National Party (SNS), which is seen as the most likely partner for Smer should it need to form a coalition, would come in third with 8.1% of votes, or 15 seats. That suggests the pair would get a combined 77 seats, offering a fragile majority between them.
The anti-corruption party Siet is the second most popular in the country, but would win no more than 13.7% of the vote, translating into 25 seats. Most-Hid, a party that represents the interests of Slovak Hungarians, would come fourth with 8% backing (14 seats), followed by the centre-right Christian Democrat Party (KDH) with 7.5% support (13 seats). The Ordinary people–Nova comes next with 6.4% (12 seats) and Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) with 5.1% backing (9 seats).
Beyond domestic issues, Kiska admits that Slovakia and Central Europe do have a branding problem abroad. “If you are looking from Germany, you might think all of the Visegrad Four is behaving in the same way, but this is not true,” he insists.
What is true is that the region has lost its vision for the future, Kiska says, and this poses a genuine problem. “Although we have a better standard of living, people are not getting happier anymore,” he asserts. “In the past, we always had an aim, we wanted to get somewhere, to get to Nato, to get to the EU, to get the euro as a currency, then into the Schengen Area. That was the aim. We were ready to suffer for a while, in the end it was worth it. We have lost this aim.”
Though seemingly unsure of what exactly that next aim should be – “to put a vision for a country is very difficult, people have to understand, they have to believe it” – Kiska is certain he doesn’t see much vision from Fico and Smer. He is also critical of opposition parties for making decisions that appear driven by opinion polls rather than clear policy prescriptions. “When the migration crisis hit I was sad that there were not more voices saying we should orient our country towards a modern Europe and basic human values,” Kiska says.
“Voters here are not absolutely leftwing oriented or always voting for Fico. He is not unbeatable. I beat him!”