VISEGRAD BLOG: Slovak political crisis threatens to derail reform drive

VISEGRAD BLOG: Slovak political crisis threatens to derail reform drive
Igor Matovic on his victory night, almost exactly a year ago.
By Robert Anderson in Prague March 21, 2021

Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic offered to resign on March 21 in an effort to end a coalition crisis that has paralysed his centre-right government.

The two more mainstream parties in his four-party government – Richard Sulik’s libertarian Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS), and Veronika Remisova’s centre-right For the People party – have threatened to leave the coalition unless Matovic resigns by Tuesday. Economy Minister Sulik said last week that he and the other SaS ministers had attended their last Tuesday cabinet meeting.

Both parties have attacked the OLaNO leader’s erratic handling of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and in particular the way he has made policy on his own and then announced it on Facebook. The final straw was when he secretly procured Russian Sputnik V vaccines despite their opposition, and then personally greeted the first shipment’s arrival at Kosice Airport.

Matovic finally offered to step down on Sunday evening, though he insisted he would only do so as part of a wider cabinet reshuffle, including the resignation of Sulik. "If our coalition partners meet the commitments they’ve declared publicly and on which OLaNO has based its demands, I’m willing to step down from the helm of the government and operate only as its member," Matovic announced on Facebook.

There is speculation that OLaNO Finance Minister Eduard Hegr might be a compromise candidate for prime minister.

“The only slim chance is that the prime minister steps down and the government goes on for another year,” says Martin M. Simecka, commentator for the daily Dennik N.

If the coalition were to collapse it would be a shattering blow for Slovakia’s rightwing parties, which came to power exactly one year ago amid huge optimism after eight years of corrupt leftwing nationalist-populist rule under Robert Fico’s Smer, which has dominated the country’s politics since 2006.

The murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his partner exposed the capture of the country’s police and judicial system by Smer and its business backers, and sparked massive public demonstrations that led to Fico’s resignation and the right’s victory in the February 2020 general election.

The current political crisis has demonstrated the weakness, inexperience, divisions and lack of governing ability of Slovakia’s right wing. Only SaS and For the People have clear ideological profiles; Matovic’s Ordinary People and Independent Personalities party (OLaNO) and Boris Kollar’s We are Family are just personal populist vehicles. None of these parliamentary parties have long histories – the SaS is the oldest and it was only founded in 2009 – and they will rise and fall along with their political founders.

“There is no tradition or ability to create something that could last long,” says Simecka. “All the parties are founded by alpha males and they are born and die with that alpha male.”

As well as personal animosities, these parties are divided on how liberal they are on social policy and the free market, and on their attitude the EU. They can unite when they face a monolithic opponent – such as Vladmir Meciar’s HZDS in the 1990s or Robert Fico’s Smer for the past 15 years – but usually struggle to maintain that unity in power. Disappointment then leads to political oblivion and the rise of new parties on the right, perpetuating the cycle.

“The agenda is anti-Fico without building a strong centre-right alternative” says Blanka Kolenikova, country risk associate director for IHS. “They focused their energy on fighting Fico.”

The crisis matters because it could halt a promising reform drive to clean up the country’s police and judicial system. Even while the pandemic is ongoing, dozens of policemen, prosecutors and judges who did the bidding of powerful businessmen close to Smer are now in jail or facing prosecution. Marian Kocner, who is suspected of ordering Kuciak’s murder but found not guilty, is now serving 19 years in jail for brazen fraud.

The narcissistic stylebook

Political analysts interviewed by bne IntelliNews blamed the government crisis squarely on Matovic’s emotional, narcissistic and irrational style of governing, as well as his personal feud with Sulik. Matovic and Sulik both played a big part in the collapse of the last centre-right government in 2011, and history appears to be repeating itself.

Matovic, like his billionaire Slovak compatriot, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, is a wealthy businessman who formed his own conservative populist party and used anti-corruption to build his brand. A 47-year-old publishing tycoon who admits to plagiarising his academic thesis, Matovic launched his OLaNO party in 2010, gathering around him a loose group of “independent personalities” who had little in common except for loyalty to him and a vague conservative orientation.

He raised his profile by using publicity stunts and social media to campaign against the corruption of Robert Fico’s government. He even flew to the south of France to make a YouTube video outside a mansion allegedly owned by one of Fico’s former ministers.

Through his focus on corruption he was in the right position to ride the street protests following Kuciak’s murder all the way to the Government Office. OLaNO’s support soared from 6% four months before the 2020 election to first place with 25%. He then brought all the centre-right and rightwing parties into government, giving him a record constitutional majority of 95 seats in the 150-member parliament.  

But Matovic has continued to act like an opposition politician even when in power, publicly attacking his own cabinet colleagues – calling Sulik an “idiot” on radio – and using Facebook to whip up public opinion against them.

“He can’t govern from day to day,” says Simecka. “It’s boring solving the everyday problems of the pandemic. He is not that type.”

The pandemic has accelerated what would have been an inevitable crisis anyway. Slovakia has had one of the worst death rates in Europe, with almost 9,000 deaths in a population of 5.5mn. The government’s handling of the pandemic has been erratic, and a loosening of restrictions over the summer is blamed for the subsequent surge in infections.

Slovakia won headlines for nationwide antigen testing last year but critics argued the massive effort was just another publicity stunt, and President Zuzana Caputova said the tests may even have made Slovaks complacent and worsened the pandemic.

Matovic’s stunt of going behind the backs of his coalition partners to order Sputnik V brought about the final act of the crisis.

The Russian vaccine is controversial both because it has yet to win approval from the European Medicines Agency – patients would have to sign a form taking personal responsibility – and because it is Russian. Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok (SaS) called the vaccine “a tool of hybrid war” and slammed the way Matovic had maximised publicity for the Russian shipment, while he had ignored the import of Western vaccines and continually criticised the European Commission’s procurement efforts.

The For the People party thought it had already vetoed the vaccine. When they found that Matovic and the OLaNO health minister had gone ahead anyway, they and SaS demanded the minister’s resignation.

Matovic initially wavered, suggesting he would cancel the procurement, and after negotiations he agreed to sack the health minister. But then – after asking the opinion of his 286,000 Facebook followers – he refused to cancel the Sputnik V deal and said the minister would stay until the Sputnik vaccinations began. At that point, For the People and SaS demanded his resignation as their price for staying in the cabinet.

Political cycle revolves

If the coalition parties can agree to restructure the cabinet under a new premier, the big question is whether Matovic will be able to behave himself on the backbenches.

“Matovic wouldn’t be able to stand that someone else is in the light of the cameras,” says Simecka. “He would try to be the centre of attention again and make problems.”

But other observers argue the government still has a chance of succeeding.

“They did quite good things but the pandemic prevented them from being more effective,” says Grigorij Meseznikov, head of the IVO think-tank. “They can continue, there is no doubt about this.”

Yet even if the government staggers on, it is doubtful that it can fulfil the hopes of those in 2018 who attended the biggest demonstrations since the 1989 Velvet Revolution against communism. Handling the pandemic and the economic rebuilding afterwards would challenge even a strong, united government.

Slovakia continues to have a well-earned reputation for political volatility and fluidity, with new political forces being created for every election, as skill with social media becomes more important than traditional party structures. This leads to inevitable disappointment when the inexperienced parties grapple with the reality of governing, and then the rapid rise of new forces.

This cycle looks set to continue. According to a poll for the state television RTVS at the weekend, 83% of Slovaks are currently dissatisfied with the government and 82% want Matovic’s resignation.

Waiting in the wings is the new centre-left Voice party of former premier Peter Pellegrini, who split with Fico after the 2020 election and has taken much of his support. According to the RTVS poll, Voice would win 21.4% in an early election, with OLaNO back on only 11.3%. If Voice were to lead a government, significant reform of the police and judiciary would be unlikely.

Unless the Slovak centre-right can find a new unity and purpose, another failure in government could therefore be catastrophic.

“If this government were to collapse and we held early elections, we could say goodbye to a centre-right government for a very long time,” says Kolenikova.

The crisis has wider resonance. In Hungary and Poland, heterogeneous and divided opposition movements face dominant radical rightwing populists. If they finally win power, they must be able to maintain focus whilst in office.

“This is not just about Slovakia,” says Milan Nic of the German Council of Foreign Relations. “This is what you have to do after a long-term strongman government in CEE: whether you can actually govern. Hungary and Poland are watching. A similar job will need to be done there. It’s a warning lesson”