New Slovak government wins confidence vote

New Slovak government wins confidence vote
Prime Minister Robert Fico and his right hand man, Defence Minister Robert Kalinak. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera November 21, 2023

The new Slovak government of leftist populist Prime Minister Robert Fico won its confidence vote in the National Council (parliament) on November 21.

The vote ended a four-day session over the government programme, which began last Tuesday, November 14. There were 78 legislators who backed the government, while 65 were against out of the 143 present ones (the total figure is 150).

In his opening statements on the government and its programme entitled  “It is better, more peaceful and safer to live in Slovakia”, Fico reiterated several of his talking points from the previous weeks, including his intention to carry out foreign policy “in all four world directions”.

Although Fico and many of his ministers parrot Kremlin propaganda, their programme does not dispute Slovak membership in the EU and Nato, and the cabinet wants to maintain the 2% of GDP spending on defence recommended by Nato.

The opposition parties have already clashed with Fico over his controversial shunning of liberal media, the dismissals of police officers by the new Minister of Interior Matus Sutaj Estok (Smer) and cabinet plans for tax changes that could curtail financing of NGOs. The government has also proposed lower penalties for corruption and pledged to “stop the abuse of the security forces for political purposes”.

Michal Simecka, leader of the largest opposition party, liberal Progressive Slovakia, stated that Slovakia had “the worst historical experience with governments of Robert Fico”.

Fico’s previous cabinets “were accompanied by corruption, vulgarity, stagnation”, and the last one ended amid the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancé in 2018, Simecka recalled, and criticised the new cabinet’s programme as “weak and vague”.     

After securing a victory at the September 30 snap elections ahead of Progressive Slovakia, Fico formed a coalition with Smer’s breakaway party, centre-left Hlas and the far-right SNS.

Both Smer and Hlas were suspended from the Party of European Socialists grouping  for their collaboration with SNS. Politicians with pasts in neo-fascist or far-right parties and organisations thriving in the bustling disinformation environment in the country entered the parliament on the SNS list.   

Analysts and journalists fear for the state of the rule of law under the Smer party,  several of whose members and officials face criminal investigations related to Smer’s 2010s era in power.

While settling scores on the domestic front and whipping up his base with polarising and nationalist messages, Fico has lowered the volume abroad and avoided international media in Brussels altogether in what could be a sign of unwillingness to pick  an open fight on the European level.   

Fico’s cabinet was quick to axe the latest Slovak military aid package to Ukraine, ending Slovakia’s long-standing military backing of Ukraine amid war fatigue, but reiterated it won’t prevent military exports from domestic companies.  

Among other proposals, the government plans to re-introduce a tax on the banking sector in its sights, making the tax system more progressive and raising real estate taxts. It also pledges a mortgage subsidy of up to €1,800 this year, and a bigger 13th pension of €150. 

Fico’s cabinet also wants to restructure the public broadcaster RTVS, develop nuclear power, and implement a “national” motorway toll system.

Anti-corruption NGOs have criticised Fico’s previous cabinets for implementing the existing disadvantageous toll system, while media watchdogs and journalists have been sounding alarm bells over Fico’s attacks on media.   

Fico has also talked about pursuing a more conservative social agenda, announcing that “multicultural views are behind us”.

There is already speculation over the stability of the government, given its narrow majority and the unreliability of the SNS deputies. There is also some doubt over the future of the Hlas party, since Hlas leader Peter Pellegrini may be lured by the prospect of presidential candidature next year, leaving his party exposed to getting reincorporated into Smer.

The government programme also says  it will look at electoral reform to end the whole country being one constituency, which could help Smer win more seats next time around, at the expense of smaller parties such as Hlas.