VISEGRAD BLOG: Slovakia's right wing once again fails the test of leadership

VISEGRAD BLOG: Slovakia's right wing once again fails the test of leadership
The collapse of the government is a crushing disappointment, since it came to power in 2020 with a strong mandate to clean up Slovak politics, after the corruption of Fico’s rule was revealed by the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak. / bne IntelliNews
By Robert Anderson in Prague December 16, 2022
The first Central European government has fallen amid the region’s worsening cost of living crisis and its slide into recession.
But in truth, Slovakia’s no-confidence vote on December 15 was not really about the country’s economic woes, even though inflation hit 15.4% in November, turning real wage growth negative, and the central bank predicts recession next year. The real cause was the country’s broken politics.
Slovakia, which only became independent 30 years ago, has long been bedevilled by both a strongman fixation – with new populist parties continually springing up, led by dominant leaders – and extreme fragmentation, often based on nothing more than personal animosities. 
Apart from a crucial eight-year period between 1998 and 2006 – when centre-right premier Mikulas Dzurinda was able to hold together two reform-orientated coalitions until the end of their terms – the country has only experienced populist strongman rule under first Vladimir Meciar and then Robert Fico, or weak centre-right coalitions that collapse prematurely.
The last centre-right government of 2010-12 was also riven by personal and policy disagreements and fell apart half way through its term, allowing Fico to return to power for two more terms. Like now, the only thing that has united the right has been their opposition to Fico, but this has not been enough to sustain their governments for a full term.
This time around the fall of the government was the direct result of bitter animosity between Richard Sulik, leader of the neoliberal Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) Party, and Igor Matovic, leader of the populist Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO) Party. 
The SaS forced Matovic to resign as premier in March last year and then left the government this September after Matovic survived a no-confidence vote it called over the finance minister's erratic leadership and his way of announcing new policies first over social media. The SaS – which had also brought down a previous centre-right government in 2012 – then called a no-confidence vote in the minority government.  The general election is now likely to be brought forward more than half a year to next summer.
The chaos and collapse of the government is a crushing disappointment, since it came to power in 2020 with a strong mandate to clean up Slovak politics, after the corruption of Fico’s rule was revealed by the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak. Corruption charges against Fico himself were dropped recently and the whole anti-corruption drive is now likely to shudder to a halt.
The key questions now are what happens in the short term and what kind of government is likely to be formed after the next general election?
President Zuzana Caputova could try to put together a technocratic government to lead the country to early elections but she has said this would be her last option. The president – who was part of the non-parliamentary liberal Progressive Party – has managed to antagonise virtually all the parties in the current parliament and does not have the clout to take a strong independent position.
Even if she were able to persuade the parties to support her chosen cabinet, she might feel that doing this during the current economic crisis would imperil her chances of winning re-election in 2024.
Therefore it is the politicians themselves who are likely to have to come up with a temporary fix to keep the show on the road until early elections can be held. Some kind of coalition will have to be created, which will win opposition backing on the promise of holding early elections. 
Such a government would hardly be able to take the strong action required to tackle the country’s economic woes and mitigate the effects of the cost of living crisis, leading to further loss of confidence in democracy and a swing to extremist parties.
Moreover, reaching agreement on holding early elections will in no way be easy. The Constitutional Court has ruled that the parliament will have to pass a bill to cut short its term with a constitutional majority – 90 seats out of 150. Given that currently both OLaNO (47 seats) and the SaS (21) have found rare agreement in opposing early elections, they could block this move. 
Most commentators believe that they will eventually have to come round to early elections, even though the two now bitter enemies are likely to suffer a beating because of their co-responsibility for the political chaos and the failure of their government to respond to the mounting economic crisis.
At that election, the current polls show that Fico’s Smer, together with his former lieutenant Peter Pellegrini’s Hlas, could form a left-wing government, with the support of one other party, perhaps the radical right-wing We are Family of Boris Kollar, or even the new far-right Republican Party. Such a coalition could end Slovak backing for Ukraine and leave the country isolated in Europe, along with neighbouring Hungary, run by the EU’s only semi-authoritarian leader, Viktor Orban.
Yet according to some observers, relations between Fico and Pellegrini are now frosty, and the Hlas-SD leader, who currently leads the polls with almost 20%, is said to prefer forming a centrist coalition because of the likely international blowback to any coalition with Fico and the far right. 
The problem, as ever, is that it will be extremely hard to persuade Slovakia’s right-wing parties to agree to join such a government, and Pellegrini is likely to need four of them to form one. Many right-wing politicians suspect that his split with Fico after the election was merely a ruse to stop the erosion of support for Smer, and believe that Pellegrini – who took over as premier when Fico resigned in 2018 – is just as associated with corruption as his former leader (Pellegrini has never been charged with any offence). 
In the past, OLaNO, SaS and even the liberal Progressives, who are running third in the polls with 10%, have ruled out joining with him. None of them want to admit to even contemplating such an alliance because it could harm their support in an election. 
The only hope is that after that election, they will be able to forget their “holier than thou” posturing and actually start to think about what compromises need to be made to solve the worsening crisis that the country is about to experience.
This article originally appeared in Editor’s Picks, a free daily email digest of bne IntelliNews’ best stories from the last 24 hours. Sign up for free here.

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