By Marek Rybář (Masaryk University)
One of the most turbulent months in Slovakia’s recent history started with the murder of an investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and culminated with the resignation of the Prime Minister Robert Fico and his entire cabinet, and appointment of a new government led by Peter Pellegrini. The whole process involved an unprecedented mobilization of civil society and activization of Slovakia’s President Andrej Kiska who pressed the embattled coalition government to gain some concessions. As it quickly turned out, they were merely short-term ones.
On February 26, police discovered bodies of a murdered journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée in their house in Western Slovakia. It was the first murder of a journalist in Slovakia’s history. The police corps president linked the murder to Kuciak’s work. The event spurred a wave of solidarity both at home and internationally. Nineteen Slovak editors-in-chief issued a joint statement claiming that the murder represented a major assault on the freedom of press. The Slovak government also condemned the attack and issued a million-euro reward for information leading to the culprits. The opposition was quick to point out that several government officials, including the Prime Minister Fico, have been known for issuing verbal attacks on journalists. It soon turned out Kuciak’s last (and unfinished) work centered on the VAT frauds allegedly involving members of Smer-SD, the largest governing party in the country. In addition, his investigation showed past personal and business connection between people close to the Italian mafia ´Ndrangheta in Slovakia and civil servants chosen by, and working for, the Prime Minister Fico.
The general public, often apathetic and not inclined to engage in political activities, was outraged. Several independent initiatives emerged, quickly organizing anti-government protests and demanding resignation of the Interior minister, the Police Corp President and eventually also of the Prime Minister himself. Initially, Prime Minister Fico and Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, his closest ally and an undisputed No. 2 in the party hierarchy, pursued a narrative in which the government had to make sure the perpetrators are found, avoiding the question of political responsibility. They were not helped, however, by the resignation of the Culture Minister and an erstwhile strongman in their party Marek Maďarič. His resignation, ostensibly for “purely personal reasons”, contrasted sharply with the attitude of Interior Minister, who denied any wrongdoing and rejected responsibility for any recent scandals involving the Slovak police.
In the situation, Slovak President Kiska stepped in. At a press conference, he warned that public distrust towards the state institutions was mounting and proposed two possible solutions: a fundamental cabinet reshuffle followed by a renewed parliamentary vote of confidence, or early parliamentary elections. Given that the Slovak president lacks constitutional powers to initiate either of the two, Kiska stated he would initiate political consultations with the representatives of all major political forces in the country, with the exception of the far-right, in the hope to find an all-party solution.
Pressed to the corner, the Prime Minister Fico countered by what many perceived as a desperate attempt to steer the public debate away from the hardest issues ever facing any of his governments, and accused the President to be collaborating with the opposition. He even stated that president’s speech “was not written in Slovakia” and hinted that Kiska had been involved in an attempt to destabilize the state and even mentioned George Soros, a billionaire businessman and a favorite scapegoat of several East European conspiracy theorists of various radical persuasions. Invoking Soros and an international conspiracy against Slovakia was a new and a surprising take for the Prime Minister of a government that started in 2016 as a self-proclaimed barrier against domestic extremism and international instability. Fico’s rhetoric met with verbal rejection of several leading representatives of the Most-Híd, a junior coalition partner, who labelled Prime Minister’s words as “incomprehensible and unacceptable”. A wave of anti-governmental protests hit the main squares of many towns in Slovakia, leading to what many observers called the largest political rallies in the country since the end of communism in 1989. They were organized by various independent und mutually unconnected initiatives in which students and young people in general played the leading role. The protesters demanded resignation of the entire Fico cabinet, of the Police Corps President, and of the Chief Special Prosecutor responsible for supervising the investigation of high-profile criminal activities.
Amidst the pressures from the coalition partner and the newly emboldened public, the Interior Minister Kaliňák announced his resignation. He claimed it was the only way to protect “stability of the country” and stressed his decision should bring the much-needed peace for the police investigators to work on the Kuciak murder. It soon turned out that Kaliňák’s resignation came too late to appease the more critical wing of the Most-Híd party. The party leadership, after a day-long deliberation, came with an ultimatum: It called upon its two coalition partners, the Smer and the Slovak National Party (SNS) to come to a mutually agreed deal on early parliamentary elections. Should the coalition parties fail to reach such a deal, Most-Híd would unilaterally leave the government.
The parliamentary opposition, quite naturally, welcomed the development. There were speculations that early elections would be held either in early July or in early September. However, the events got yet another surprising twist. This time, it was the Prime Minister Fico himself who announced he would stepped down in order to solve the political crisis and avert early elections that would, in his view, further destabilize the country. What was even more surprising, the Most-Híd party changed their minds and instead of terminating the election cycle or leaving the government, agreed to strike a new deal with Smer and SNS. Since resignation of the prime minister automatically leads to resignation of the entire cabinet, the new government would have to seek a vote of confidence in the National Council. Thus, one of the two possible solutions to the crisis, originally proposed by President Kiska, was eventually agreed upon.
In their dealings with the presidents, leaders of the three governing parties presented him a petition of 79 Members of Parliament (out of total 150) who confirmed they were ready to support the new cabinet. This was to limit the room of Kiska’s maneuver. While the Slovak constitutions gives the president by and large a ceremonial role, the influence of presidency dramatically increases in the process of government formation. Formally, the presidents are not constrained in their choice of the Prime Minister. Fico and his fellow party members feared that President Ksika could take a more activist stance and appoint a technocratic government or a cabinet close to his political preferences (something he has never suggested).
Kiska accepted that it was Smer, as the largest party, that would propose the candidate for the new Prime Minister. Fico, at an official ceremony during which he handed to the president his official letter of resignation, also introduce Peter Pellegrini, the deputy Prime Minister of the outgoing department and his party’s pick of the new Prime Minister. In line with the country’s political convention, Kiska did not appoint immediately Pellegrini the Prime Minister. Instead, he only asked him to start inter-party consultations and requested Pellegrini informed him about their progress and outcomes. After a few days, Pellegrini visited Kiska and presented him his tentative list of ministers. In a surprising and an unprecedented decision, Kiska said he was not convinced that the proposed government was a guarantee of a renewed trust in the state institutions and asked Pellegrini to come forward with a new set of names. It was the post of the Interior minister Kiska was most concerned about. Pellegrini’s original pick for the position was a non-party person “suspected” to have close links to the outgoing Interior Minister Kaliňák. Pellegrini agreed and came up with a new proposal: He persuaded the outgoing Health Minister Tomáš Drucker, a respected non-party technocrat, to take up the position. This time, president Kiska voiced no objections. He officially appointed Pellegrini the new Prime Minister and, upon his formal proposal, also the rest of the ministers. The new cabinet received a formal backing of the National Council on March 26. Out of 150 deputies, 81 supported the new cabinet.
Just a few days later an opposition parliamentarian came up with the new information that would heavily damage credibility of the new Interior Minister. A company of Drucker’s wife allegedly benefitted disproportionately from trade deals with another company that had received several lucrative contracts from the Health ministry under Drucker. Drucker denied any wrongdoing and rejected to acknowledge a conflict of interests. However, the public was equally interested to know whether he would sack the Police Corps President. After postponing his decision several times, Drucker announced he found no ‘managerial’ reasons to dismiss the head of the police. Instead, he himself decided to step down, citing his inability to calm the situation. Drucker said he was leaving politics altogether.
The decision was widely interpreted as a result of his frustration with the Smer party leadership, especially people around former Interior Minister Kaliňák, who refused to let the Police Corps President go. Prime Minister Pellegrini accepted Drucker’s resignation and, in the capacity of the acting Interior Minister, announced the Police Corps President would leave his position at the end of May. In addition, he proposed to the President to appoint Denisa Saková, the former State Secretary under Kaliňák, as the new Interior Minister. Lacking constitutional powers to act otherwise, President appointed her to the post.
While several explanations are at hand, it seems that Prime Minister Pellegrini enforced his authority and brokered a deal: To appease the protesters, he replaced the Police leadership. At the same time, he appointed a person close to the former Minister Kaliňák as the Interior Minister. Being perceived as weak and uncharismatic, the solution may actually untie his hands and gain some room for maneuver, both within his own party and vis-a-vis the coalition partners. It remains to be seen whether his government will complete the rest of its term or, as some expect, will not hold and early elections will be held at some point in the near future.
Photo source: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/03/22/slovakia-appoints-new-prime-minister-amid-political-crisis-murder/