Slovak PM reportedly seeking an exit strategy

Slovak PM reportedly seeking an exit strategy
It wouldn't be the first time Fico has sought to leave the rough and tumble of party politics
By Ben Cunningham in Bratislava May 27, 2016

Despite public statements to the contrary, following a recent health scare Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is looking to leave the daily grind of politics early next year and step down, according to a Smer party source. However, his plan faces a pushback from former adversaries that are now part of the four-party governing coalition.

“He is meant to be resting at a spa right now, but is already increasing his workload,” the Smer source tells bne IntelliNews. “[Fico] is hesitant to leave in a situation that would leave the party exposed.”

Beyond a leadership vacuum in the Smer party, a hasty resignation would also risk bringing down the government. Fico's third administration has been viewed as shaky from the start.

Although it controls a sturdy 81 of the 150 seats in parliament, the coalition is a mix including the nominally left-leaning Smer; the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS); the centre-right Siet; and Most-Hid, a party which draws its base from the country’s Hungarian minority. While many still suggest the uneasy alliance may amount to little more than a caretaker government to last through Slovakia’s six month EU presidency in the latter half of this year, early elections would likely see Smer's three partner parties pushed from power. That obviously increases their desire to preserve the coalition, and therefore try to block the exit of Smer's figurehead.

Although the surprising results from the March election, which saw eight parties reach parliament, make forecasting difficult, Siet and Most-Hid voters were angered by the decision to collaborate with Smer. That suggests both would likely fail to cross the threshold to enter parliament in the event of an early election. SNS would likely secure another strong result, but could have trouble finding partners willing to team up.

Into the void

Fico’s office has been tight-lipped about the specifics of his recent health problems. Reports that the premier had a heart attack remain unconfirmed, but Slovak media have widely claimed that Fico underwent double bypass surgery on April 22 — some eight days after he checked himself into the hospital with chest pains. The PM recently said he plans to begin working full time again on June 1, when he is slated to meet with the European Commission in Brussels to discuss plans for Slovakia’s presidency of the Council of Europe.

Amid the dearth of details about Fico's condition, speculation about his future plans have swirled in Bratislava for weeks. Richard Sulik, chairman of the Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party, went public in late May claiming that he was told the PM plans to step down at the end of the year.

Fico has adamantly denied that he plans to leave office, attributing the story to “myths and nonsense” in what appeared a coordinated public relations response that included a lengthy May 25 interview with the state run TASR newswire. The outlet is widely viewed as sympathetic to Smer.

“I could also say that, according to a source from within SaS — which I don't want to name — they have too much cocaine on their hands,” Fico said in his first interview since leaving hospital. "Will media now make a dash after Mr. Sulik and inquire whether all that coke is really there or not?"

However, the Smer party source confirmed to bne IntelliNews that internal discussions about an exit plan for Fico have taken place in recent weeks. It wouldn't be the first time Fico has sought to leave. In 2014 he sought to transition out of the premiership and into the president's office, but surprisingly lost the election.

As was the concern then, even his opponents will worry what might fill the void. After nearly a decade as Slovakia’s central political figure, Fico’s departure would likely mean turmoil in the wider political landscape, where Smer remains the centre of gravity.

UN intervention

With coalition partners now looking to preserve the government as long as possible, there is no obvious successor as prime minister. Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak has long been considered the best candidate with a chance to receive consensus backing, but he recently announced a bid to succeed Ban Ki Moon as UN secretary general.

Meanwhile Smer’s number two, Interior Minister Robert Kalinak is seen as too politically divisive, and although Deputy Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini is considered a rising star, he is perceived as lacking the necessary experience.

If Lajcak were to lose out on the UN job and stay on in Slovak politics a transition to allow Fico to exit would be more likely, the Smer source confirmed. Indeed Smer voters express similar levels of trust in Lajcak as they do the PM, says Martin Slosariak of the Focus polling agency.

Lajcak even draws support from traditional centre-right voters, which could even help bolster the stability of the current government. Meanwhile, he is not seen as a favourite to take the UN post.

For his part, even as Fico has denied that a resignation is imminent, he seems happy to leave the door open, so long as the coalition has a good chance of survival. “The incumbent government has been legitimately voted into office. Why would I take a position that would put it in jeopardy?" Fico said. ”There's no rational reason for me on December 31, 2016, when our turn heading the EU Council is over, to say: ‘Screw it, I'm leaving.’ and thus sabotage the entire government."