Rookie candidate thwarts Slovak PM’s power grab

By bne IntelliNews March 31, 2014

Tom Nicholson in Bratislava -

For a political greenhorn, president-elect Andrej Kiska looked remarkably composed after stunning leftist veteran Robert Fico to take Slovakia’s highest office March 29.

Kiska, 51, an entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist, won almost 60% support compared with 40% for Fico, the Slovak prime minister. Pundits had expected the race to be extremely close after a savage campaign in which Fico pummelled his opponent with allegations of usury and a “risky” flirtation with Scientology.

“I promise to represent all Slovaks, to unite and motivate them,” Kiska said at campaign headquarters, pausing indulgently to allow supporters to whoop and chant his name. “I promise to restore trust in this office.”

Changing electorate

His words, while scripted, were not mere boilerplate. The Slovak electorate remains deeply divided between rural voters who favour authoritarian populists like PM Fico, and urbanites who prefer western-style liberals. Voters are also clearly disgusted with mainstream politics following an eviscerating scandal from 2012 known as “Gorilla”, in which secret service files implicated the main right-wing parties in systemic corruption stretching back years.

In Slovakia’s parliamentary system the presidency is a largely decorative function, albeit one with politically useful powers such as appointing judges and issuing amnesties. The significance of Kiska’s achievement thus may lie more in what it says about the mood of the electorate ahead of parliamentary elections in 2016.

“Kiska’s margin of victory is not just a loss for Fico and his (social democratic) Smer party,” says political scientist Jan Baranek. “It’s a sign that something is changing in our society. As if people were rejecting standard, party-based politics in favour of something off the radar.”

Kiska, whose consumer-credit business earned him millions in the 1990s, went on to found the Good Angel charity, which supports the families of terminally ill children. He is not the first non-politician to win high office in Slovakia recently: last year, Roma-baiting extremist Marian Kotleba was elected regional governor in Central Slovakia ahead of a Smer party incumbent. “I think this new predilection for ‘apolitical politicians’ is a risky development, but that’s how the voters decided,” says Baranek.

Stinging defeat

Fico conceded soon after the polls closed in a terse statement, taking no questions from media. His political opponents hailed the landslide loss as a damaging blow to the prime minister, who has not lost a national election since 2002. “This was an important referendum on Fico, his government and his methods, and voters sent him a clear message,” said Daniel Lipsic, a former Christian Democrat who has broken away to form a new party, Nova.

Rado Prochazka, a constitutional law expert and MP who also ran for the presidency, says the outcome represented an important defeat for Fico’s ambition to extend the grip of his Smer party from parliament and government to the presidency as well. Now that the presidency was lost, he said, Smer politicians might have less incentive to govern responsibly. “I fear it’s going to be open season on corruption,” he explains.

But the defeat, while embarrassing, hardly weakens Fico or his party, which continues to hold a comfortable majority in parliament and voter support of around 40%.

Cabinet minister Marek Madjaric, who ran Fico’s campaign, said the election results showed that Slovaks were happy with Fico as PM and did not want to see his power diluted through a sideways promotion to the presidency. “If there is any question of someone taking a political fall for this result, it should be addressed to me as campaign chief, not to the prime minister,” he said.


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