Robert Anderson in Bratislava -
Ever since Robert Fico superceded Vladimir Meciar to become the main Slovak opposition leader a decade ago, the country’s fissiparous centre-right parties have ganged up to try to keep Fico's Smer party from power, in the same way as they had successfully blocked Meciar’s HZDS after 1998.
Following the 2006 election, the centre-right rejected a coalition with Smer, pushing Fico to link-up with the HZDS and the Slovak National Party (SNS). Despite a very generous offer, the Christian Democrats (KDH) spurned him again in 2010. Instead, the centre-right cobbled together an unstable four-party coalition that collapsed less than a year and a half later, enabling Fico to win a landslide at the 2012 election and form a single-party government.
Now the centre-right parties, and Bratislava’s largely rightwing media, are in danger of repeating the same mistake after the March 2016 election and forming a Lilliputian alliance to bring Prime Minister Fico down. A recent scandal around the construction company Vahostav-SK has given them renewed hope.
Yet such a government would not only be fractious but it would also lack legitimacy, because this time round Smer is polling more than three times as much as the KDH, the largest opposition party. So why is it even being considered?
The shunning of Fico is partly a tactical response to a desperate plight. Fico is so dominant, and the opposition so divided, that the centre-right parties have to both compete with each other to show how much they detest the PM, while at the same time talking up the possibility of a broad alliance against him.
But it goes deeper than that. The opposition appears to believe they are carrying on the same absolutist battle as when they faced the Communist regime or Meciar’s semi-authoritarian government, whose thuggish misrule delayed Slovakia’s Nato membership and EU accession negotiations. This misconception betrays a nervousness over whether Slovakia’s place in the Western club is yet secure.
The fact that Fico was a young Communist and that he formed a government with Meciar in 2006 are key exhibits in this prosecution case. Fico’s appeasement of Russia, his populist-nationalist rhetoric, and his tight control of Smer and the government machinery flesh out this argument. “They need an enemy,” says a Slovak diplomat. “They try to create from Robert Fico a new Meciar.”
But Fico is not a “young Meciar” and treating him as such stunts Slovak political development. None of the charges against him amount to a reason to shun him.
The fact that his first government of 2006-10 included unsavoury coalition partners was partly the fault of the opposition. Fico reportedly only rushed into a deal with Meciar when he heard that then prime minister Mikulas Dzurinda was trying to stay in power with HZDS support. The coalition they formed was corrupt, but less so than its predecessors, judging by the Gorilla scandal that later destroyed Dzurinda’s SDKU.
In terms of foreign policy, despite populist noises on issues such as Russian sanctions, Fico has always followed a similar pro-EU and Atlantacist line as his centre-right predecessors.
At home, the avowedly leftwing premier has tried to reverse some of the centre-right’s liberalisation and privatisation steps, particularly in the energy sector, and he has strengthened the welfare state. But Finance Minister Peter Kazimir has also cut the fiscal deficit and backed Germany over Greece’s attempt to cut its debt burden. “Smer has killed the rightwing charge that it couldn’t manage the public finances,” says the diplomat.
Overall, Smer wears its ideology very lightly and has usually pursued a pragmatic and populist course. The centre-right deplores the fact that Slovakia is no longer seen as a reform ‘tiger’. “Smer has nothing that would make them a credible partner for the transformation of the state,” says Miroslav Beblavy of the new Siet party. But that begs the question whether the country needs urgent radical reform and the direction of that reform.
The antipathy towards Fico is more about his style than his substance. His arrogance towards the (largely hostile) press, and his brutality towards political opponents make him eminently dislikeable. His recent attempt to blame KDH leader Jan Figel for the Vahostav-SK scandal and sack him as deputy speaker is just the kind of power play that could have been designed to unite the opposition against him.
Political opponents fear joining up with Smer because it is a formidable political machine that has a record of chewing up and spitting out coalition partners. After the first Fico government, the HZDS was wiped out and the SNS lost half its seats, and Smer took over many of their voters (to the benefit of Slovak democracy).
Yet at the moment a stable government without Smer looks unlikely. Despite losing the presidential election last spring and a rash of small corruption scandals this year, Fico and his Smer party garnered a massive 35% in a Focus poll in late April. This was down 9 points from the general election, but almost as much as the four biggest opposition parties put together.
With an improving economy allowing space for more welfare hikes – the central bank expects growth to accelerate to 3.8% next year – the March election will still be Fico’s to lose.
At the moment Smer looks likely to be in the strong position of needing only the SNS or KDH (or another centre-right party) to hold a majority. For the KDH in particular this will pose a “big dilemma”, says Grigorij Meseznikov, chairman of the Institute for Public Affairs think-tank.
If KDH shuns Smer for a third time and chooses the purity of opposition, Fico would probably form a coalition with the rabidly anti-Hungarian Slovak Nationalists again – an outcome that no-one wants. If the KDH instead tries to form a coalition of four or more parties, two of which are new and untested, it risks repeating the fiasco of 2010-12.
The brave choice – but one that looks unlikely to be taken – would be to form a coalition with Smer and try to temper the government from within. With Fico looking increasingly jaded after 15 years leading his party, this might also pave the way for him to step down and for his party to undertake a much-needed process of renewal.
Since independence in 1993, Slovak politics has revolved around the confrontation with Meciar for its first decade, and the stand-off against Fico for the second. Only if Smer is brought in from the cold will Slovakia finally break this dismal pattern and move on to a new politics.
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