The procedures for registering candidates and parties are fair and transparent, and were not changed in the period under review. Candidates for presidency must be nominated by at least 15 MPs or must document support by at least 15,000 voters. The registration of parties that want to take part in the national elections requires 10,000 signatures. Moreover, registered parties must make a deposit of about €16,500, which is returned only to those parties that receive at least 3 percent of the vote. The deposit has been criticized for serving to discriminate against small parties. Since its introduction in 2004, however, the decline in the number of parties participating in the national elections has been insignificant.
The existing media pluralism in Slovakia ensures that all candidates and parties have access to the media. However, the public media made some concessions to the Fico government. They downplayed the importance of major government scandals and granted Prime Minister Fico much airtime. Departing from the traditional practice, they also allowed the prime minister to take part in political programs without facing a counterpart from the parliamentary opposition.
The electoral process is largely inclusive. In principle, all adult citizens can participate in elections. There is a special electoral register for traveling communities, most notably Roma, and other Slovak citizens without permanent residence in the country. Voters that will not be in their place of residence on election day can ask for a special voter’s pass that allows voting elsewhere. Slovak citizens residing or staying abroad can vote by mail. However, electoral participation is still marred by the blanket disenfranchisement of convicted prisoners, which is not in line with the European Convention on Human Rights. The regional elections in November 2009 were overshadowed by allegations of vote-buying in the Košice region. Though the allegations were not proven, the controversy led four members of the Central Electoral Commission to decline from signing the final report on the elections. Critical observers speak of the most serious electoral fraud in Slovakia since the end of communism (Bútora et al. 2010, 20-21).
Bútora, Martin/Mesežnikov, Grigorij/Kollár, Miroslav (eds.), 2010: Slovakia 2009. Trends in Quality of Democracy, Bratislava: IVO.
In Slovakia, the means by which parties are financed was given new footing in 2005. The single most important source of income is state contributions, the size of which depends on the number of a party’s voters and mandates. Provoked by a scandal about a dubious cash donation to the governing L’S-HZDS, an amendment of the Act on Political Parties and Movements in 2009 tightened the rules on private funding by putting a cap on donations (cash and otherwise), and by requiring parties to publish on a quarterly basis a list of donors on their websites. Nonetheless, the regulations governing party financing are not adequately enforced, as is evidenced by recurring finance scandals. Monitoring is formalistic and fragmented, and rests with organizations lacking the requisite expertise of investigative capacity, such as the Committee on Finance, Budget and Currency of the National Council or the Ministry of Finance.
Under the Fico government, the Slovakian media’s independence deteriorated significantly. The Fico government took a critical stance towards the media and routinely accused them of partisan bias in favor of the opposition. It staffed the Council for Broadcasting and Retransmission, which supervises public TV and radio stations, with political loyalists and interfered with public broadcasting programming. The new Press Act, which went into force in June 2008, introduced restrictions on media coverage of issues such as war, cruel acts or drugs, thereby limiting access to information. The Press Act also put the government rather than the courts in charge of ensuring compliance with these restrictions, thus increasing government influence on the media. Finally, the Act further expanded the media’s obligations to publish counterstatements irrespective of the truth of the original reporting and without editorial intervention. Several cabinet members sued the press for libel, thus raising concerns that the financial risks associated with libel suits may lead to self-censorship. In the ranking of press freedom provided by Reporters without Borders, Slovakia’s position fell drastically from rank 3 in 2007 to rank 44 in 2009.
Reporters without Borders, Press Freedom Index (http://en.rsf.org/information-tools,803.html)
Media pluralism is facilitated by a diversified ownership structure and a substantial share of foreign ownership. In the period under review, however, Slovakia’s media ownership structure has undergone some consolidation. The American media enterprise Central Europe Media Enterprises (CME) took over TV Markíza, the market leader formerly owned by the media baron Pavol Rusko, and is now operating four TV programs. Ivan Kmotrík has also expanded his media empire which includes the country’s largest printing house, the important press distributor Mediaprint Kappa, the news program TV3, the largest advertizing agency and a number of print media. Unlike in other countries, the envisaged digitalization of TV was not used to open the market. The media market also continues to suffer from a lack of transparency and regulation. The provision in the Act on Broadcasting that no person or company is allowed to hold more than one national television or radio license or to be a publisher of more than one national daily is not sufficiently enforced, and there is often no clarity regarding ownership. Neither the Council for Broadcasting and Retransmission nor the government have done anything to improve the situation.
The access to government information is guaranteed by the constitution and the Act on Free Access to Information approved in 2000. However, the Fico government often declined to provide information, reacted to requests with extreme delay or released only heavily edited information. In doing so, it was often backed by the courts. One spectacular case, which illustrates the restrictive interpretation and implementation of the Act on Free Access to Information, was the 2010 Supreme Court decision on the request to release the audio recordings of the first cabinet meetings of the Fico government. Release of these tapes was demanded so as to determine the legality of a controversial dismissal of state secretaries. However, the Court confirmed the lower court ruling that the tapes did not constitute government information and therefore did not need to be released.
In Slovakia, civil rights are largely respected. However, some problems exist with regard to the police’s treatment of Roma suspects, the integrity of the judiciary, the duration of court proceedings and the length of pretrial detention. In July 2009 alone, the European Court of Human Rights issued 13 verdicts against Slovakia for exceeding the “reasonable time” requirement. An amendment to the Highway Act in November 2008, as well as threats by Prime Ministers Fico to expropriate foreign-owned gas companies, raised some concerns about the state’s respect for private property rights. Finally, the Slovak ombudsman has repeatedly asked for a broadening of his competencies along the lines of most European countries. As it stands, he can deal only with a limited range of civil rights.
Political liberties are largely respected and protected by the state. They were violated in 2009 when the government banned a protest against the Chinese president’s state visit, a ban later declared illegal by the Bratislava Regional Court. Moreover, the Fico government substantially weakened public and NGO participation in decision-making regarding highway construction and environmental issues. The European Commission fiercely criticized this development several times, which led to the Commission threatening to cut financial support in February 2010.
When the Fico government came to power, concerns were raised about an increase in the discrimination of Hungarians, Roma and Jewish people. These concerns have largely been confirmed. On the positive side, the government amended the Anti-Discrimination Act in February 2008 and expanded the ban on discrimination. Moreover, the new School Act, adopted in May 2008, clearly prohibits discrimination and segregation in education, and the government presented a comprehensive medium-term program in 2008 targeting improvements to the Roma population’s situation. However, the Fico government stuck to its racist political discourse and did little to ensure that existing anti-discrimination legislation was enforced. With respect to the Hungarian minority, the government even adopted new discriminatory legislation, which was heavily criticized inside and outside Slovakia. The 2009 State Language Act introduced sanctions for violating the standard rules of the Slovak language. The 2010 Patriotism Act calls for “patriotic” education in schools and for placing the Slovak national emblem, flag and anthem, as well as the preamble of the Slovak constitution, in every classroom and every local or regional parliament. As a result of the government’s discourse and measures, public attitudes against minority groups, especially Hungarians, have apparently deteriorated (ECRI 2009). There is also evidence of an increase in racially motivated violence against ethnic minorities.
European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) 2009:, Fourth Report on Slovakia, 26.5.2009 http://hudoc.ecri.coe.int/XMLEcri/E NGLISH/Cycle_04/04_CbC_eng/SVK-CbC- IV-2009-02 0-ENG.pdf;
Legal certainty has suffered from contradictory legal provisions and frequent amendments. The government’s amendments to the pension system represent a good example of this. By twice changing the rules regarding the second pillar (which is mandatory, but private and fully funded), the Fico government undermined the trust in the reliability of the rules, thus complicating attempts to plan and provide pensions for old age. In general, the Fico government showed little respect for the law and ignored it several times. It violated the procedures of rule-making by making heavy use of the fast-track legislation procedure, which limits the parliamentary scrutiny of bills. It also reneged on commitments made to investors and intervened in the pricing of utilities.
Under the Fico government, government interference with the courts’ independence increased. In particular Minister of Justice Minister Štefan Harabin, who became Supreme Court Chair in 2009, exerted strong pressure on the judiciary. This ranged from public comments on the performance of particular courts and justices, attempts to directly influence individual court decisions, to the initiation of disciplinary proceedings against and the suspension of inconvenient justices. While most justices have withstood Harabin’s interventions, the latter have infringed upon the functioning of the judiciary by creating a climate of suspicion and intimidation. Especially at the lower courts, the control function of the courts is further limited by a lack of training and inefficient organization.
The justices of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court are selected by the president on the basis of proposals made by the parliament and without special majority requirements. In June 2009, the sitting Justice Minister Stefan Harabin was elected head of the Supreme Court. This decision was criticized by part of the public. A petition by NGOs pointing to Harabin’s personal contacts with a person suspected of organized drug-related activity and his misuse of disciplinary actions was signed by 12,000 citizens. Critics also argued that, according to the constitution, members of the Supreme Court need to be sitting judges.
Corruption has been a major issue in Slovakia for some time. Corruption claims against the center-right parties contributed to the 2006 change in government. However, the new government did not pay much attention to the prevention of corruption. The fight against corruption did not feature in the government’s program and no official government strategy in the field existed. The Fico government also abolished the special court and the special prosecutor’s office for corruption cases which had been established by the previous government in order to improve enforcement. In the period under review, party cronyism and clientelism flourished. In a number of cases, public subsidies, state contracts or emission rights went to firms close to representatives of the governing coalition. Corruption scandals involved the leaders of two parties in government, Ján Slota, the chair of the SNS, and Vladimír Mečiar, the head of the L’S-HZDS. In addition, three ministers were replaced after being implicated in corruption charges. Popular dissatisfaction with the government’s record was high. In a poll by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) in November 2008, 42% of the respondents said the level of corruption had worsened and another 45% did not see any progress (Bútora et al. 2009, pp. 103-131). According to the poll, corruption was the field in which citizens were the most critical of the Fico government.
Bútora, Martin/Mesežnikov, Grigorij/Kollár, Miroslav (eds.), 2009: Slovakia 2008. Trend in Quality of Democracy, Bratislava: IVO.
The parties forming the Fico government had in the past been critical of the “liberal” policies of the previous administration. During the 2006 election campaign, Fico promised to strengthen the state and introduce social measures to soften the impact of structural economic change. After taking over, however, the Fico government refrained from major policy reversals. For one thing, its room for maneuvering was limited by the structural reforms of the previous government and EU membership. For another, the government did not want to put the strong performance of the Slovak economy at risk. The economic crisis, which hit the Slovak economy rather strongly, revealed the weaknesses of the Slovak economy, especially its high dependence on foreign investors and a limited number of economic sectors. The Fico government failed to address these problems.
Unlike its predecessor, the Fico government put the emphasis on active labor market policy rather on increasing labor market flexibility. It increased the minimum wage several times, with a view to protecting the most vulnerable groups. The Slovakia 21 Modernization Program, approved by the Government in June 2008, included an expansion of employment opportunities for the long-term unemployed. Further measures were adopted as part of the response to the economic crisis. However, the government failed to address the high tax wedge on labor caused by high social security contributions. By and large, the effects of the government’s labor market policy have been modest. The measures failed to prevent a strong increase in unemployment in the wake of the economic crisis, to reduce the high rates of long-term unemployment and to bring down the sharp regional imbalances in (un)employment.
Enterprise policy in Slovakia has largely focused on attracting foreign investment. As a result, the Slovak economy has become highly dependent on foreign investors, most notably in the automotive and the electro-technical sectors, and was hit hard by the economic crisis. The strong output decline in 2009 has underlined the need for diversification and for strengthening the domestic industry. The Fico government paid some attention to this issue in its government manifesto, but failed to do anything about it.
Slovakia’s tax system was overhauled in 2004. It features a uniform (“flat”) tax rate of 19% for personal income, corporate income and consumption (VAT) respectively. Although the governing coalition parties had initially criticized the new system for its liberal bias and unjust effects, the Fico government left the system largely untouched and confined itself to minor changes, because the system has received much international acclaim and has turned out be quite popular in Slovakia as well. At the same time, the government failed to reduce the ballooning fiscal deficit through its unpopular tax increases, and it did nothing to reduce the high non-wage labor costs incurred by social insurance contributions – which are among the highest in the world.
Slovakia’s public debt is relatively low. Strong economic growth in 2008 helped the country in meeting the Maastricht deficit criterion needed to enter the euro zone in 2009. The government reacted reluctantly to the economic crisis, confining itself to adopting two relatively small fiscal stimulus packages in November 2008 and February 2009. Due to the strong decline in output, the fiscal stance deteriorated drastically in 2009. Not the least because of the 2010 elections, the Fico government refrained from launching major attempts at fiscal adjustment. Medium-term fiscal problems are aggravated by the rising hidden debt accumulated by the health care sector, public companies and private-public partnerships, most notably in the field of highway construction.
Slovakia has a mandatory social insurance system that provides all residents with primary, secondary and tertiary care, pharmaceuticals and medical devices. The state covers insurance for children, pensioners and women on maternity leave. Whereas the health care reforms of the previous government emphasized market principles and individual responsibility, the Fico government stressed equity issues. It cut VAT on medicine, abolished the (largely symbolic) extra fees introduced by its predecessor (€0.66 paid for each visit and each prescription) and increased access to health care at spas. The most important structural reform was the controversial move to interdict private health-insurance companies to make profits. Despite promises during the 2006 election campaign, the government did not increase the wages in the health care sector, thus keeping petty corruption alive. Nor did it undertake any significant attempts to increase the quality and efficiency of health care services.
In its rhetoric, the Fico government heavily emphasized social inclusion. The measures adopted focused on providing selective benefits to the elderly and to families with children. In contrast, social protection for the unemployed has been less generous. The government refrained from prolonging the maximum duration of unemployment benefits after the economic crisis, and it took until January 2010 that it relaxed the rather tight requirements for becoming eligible to unemployment benefits. Still, social disparities and (relative) poverty have remained limited since the onset of the economic crisis. However, the Roma minority suffers a high degree of social exclusion.
In Slovakia, traditional notions of the family are still rather strong. Mothers of children under two years rarely work, maternal employment rates are below the OECD average, and working women face an enormous double burden of both professional and domestic responsibilities. This situation is reinforced by the low incidence of part-time employment, income tax splitting and the relatively long duration of parental leave. Child care facilities are limited and have not kept up with the increase in birth rates. The lack of kindergarten slots is felt in larger towns in particular. The family policy of the Fico government focused on improving the financial situation of families with children through the increase of different family and child benefits. However, the government did not pursue a consistent strategy to improve the reconciliation of employment with family and the inclusion of women into the labor market. The abolition of fees for the last pre-school year was too small and isolated of a measure to make a difference.
Slovakia has a three-pillar pension system with a strong mandatory second pillar that has won much international acclaim. The Fico government’s pension policy largely focused on strengthening the financial situation of the first pillar by inducing those who have opted out of the first pillar to return. Breaking with the original rules, the second pillar was “opened” twice in 2008. However, the government’s campaign against the second pillar largely failed, with only few people returning to the first pillar. The popularity of the second pillar amidst declining returns partly rests on the possibility for policyholders to bequeath savings. Moreover, the National Bank of Slovakia bolstered the support for the scheme. Rejecting claims by the government, it publicly emphasized the sound supervision and the high efficiency of the scheme. Except for the opening of the second pillar, the Fico government did little to make the first pillar more financially viable.
The number of foreign residents has increased by about 10,000 persons annually in recent years and has doubled since 2005. Because of Slovakia’s accession to the Schengen area in late 2007, the number of illegal border crossings has fallen. The Fico government paid little attention to the integration of migrants, and migrants have only very limited opportunities to participate politically or to reunite with their family. Employers complain that the procedures for recruiting foreign workers are overly bureaucratic and too time-consuming.
Slovakia is well integrated into NATO and the EU, and it has participated in a number of peacekeeping missions, including Afghanistan, Cyprus, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The capacity of the Slovak army has suffered from a decline in military spending, which reached a mere 1.4%of GDP in 2009. A particularly intense problem is troop transport. Slovakia withdrew from the Strategic Airlift Capability project coordinated by the U.S. Army and instead took part in the competing Airbus project. Since the latter has not been completed yet, Slovakia must rely on other countries to move troops to remote destinations. The Fico government’s foreign policy, namely its rapprochement with Russia, led to some irritations abroad, thereby weakening the country’s international position. Slovakia’s cordial relationship with Russia was illustrated by the government’s decision to extend cooperation in the military and energy sectors, Slovakia’s siding with Russia in the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict, its refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence, and the government’s confrontational approach to Hungary, which culminated in the diplomatic row over the entry of the Hungarian president in Slovakia in August 2008.
Slovakia’s accession to the Schengen group in December 2007, associated with training programs and foreign assistance, most notably from Austria, has resulted in a professionalization of the Slovak police force and border control. However, the Fico government did not close important loopholes in legislation, including witness protection. Moreover, the efficiency of the police force still suffers from underfunding, corruption and a low level of trust among the population.
The Fico government’s record in environmental policy is mixed. On the one hand, it adopted some much-awaited measures such as an amendment to the Law on Waste (2008), a new Law on Packaging Waste (2008) or an Action Plan for Biomass Use for the period 2008-2013. On the other hand, the implementation of environmental programs in Slovakia has remained patchy. The number of infringements on EU environmental legislation doubled from 8 in 2007 to 15 in 2008. Moreover, the high dependence on Russian gas and the resulting shortages in the wake of the Russian-Ukrainian gas war in winter 2008/2009 led the government to consider some controversial measures in order to improve Slovakia’s energy security. Prime Minister Fico pushed for restarting the Jaslovské Bohunice nuclear plant, which had been shut down at the end of 2008 for security reasons within the framework of EU accession. While this plan eventually fell victim to broad domestic and international protest, the government approved the building of a new coal-fired power plant, which will increase total greenhouse gas emissions considerably and is thus difficult to reconcile with the country’s international commitments to limiting climate change.
Slovakia has suffered from a low volume and quality of R&D activities. The research and innovation policy of the Fico government, which approved a reform program for 2008-2010 in February 2008, was broadly in line with that of the previous government and aimed at strengthening R&D in enterprises through the creation of regional innovation structures involving enterprises, municipalities, universities and other public research institutes. Financial assistance has focused on technology transfers, business and technology incubators, R&D cooperation and risk capital schemes supporting SMEs. The Fico government increased the share of EU funds devoted to the support of research and innovation, but failed to raise overall spending on R&D. At nearly 0.47% of GDP, R&D spending has remained low by EU and broader regional standards, and failed to meet the targets set by the previous government.
Education reform was one of the main policy items left from the previous governments. The Fico government amended the School Act in 2008, but refrained from instituting major reforms. It presented a number of well-sounding policy papers on improving education of the Roma, but failed to implement them. The 2010 Patriotism Act introduced a re-nationalization of education. The Fico government did nothing to expand tertiary education, which has been characterized by strong regional disparities and the lowest enrollment rate in the OECD. Public spending on higher education decreased in 2008 and stayed at a relatively low level in 2009.
Governments in charge
SGI 2011 review period (May 2008 to April 2010) is outlined. Shown are: Prime minister or president, type of government, and ruling parties. Asterisks indicate national parliamentary or presidential elections.
Country scores and texts were produced by the country coordinator, based on comprehensive assessments by two country experts.
Dr. Frank Bönker University of Cooperative Education, Leipzig
PD Dr. Marianne Kneuer University of Eichstätt
Prof. Darina Malova Comenius University, Bratislava