In Slovakia, the 2006 parliamentary elections resulted in a change in government and catapulted a leftist-populist government into office. Led by Prime Minister Robert Fico, it consisted of the leftist-populist Smer-Social Democracy (Smer-SD) and two smaller parties, the nationalist People’s Party-Movement for Democratic Slovakia (L’S-HZDS), headed by the former Prime Minister Vladimir Mečiar, and the extreme rightist Slovak National Party (SNS), led by Ján Slota. The credentials of the three parties and their campaign announcements raised substantial concerns about a return to the illiberal streaks of the Mečiar era, a shift in foreign policy from a clear euro-Atlantic to a more erratic and pro-Russian orientation, and a reversal of the successful socioeconomic reforms of the preceding Dzurinda government. As the second half of the Fico government’s term shows, at least some of these fears were justified.
Concerns voiced about the quality of democracy in particular have been justified. From 2008 to 2010, the Fico government continued its hands-on approach towards the media and the judiciary; corruption and party-cronyism flourished; the government limited access to government information and weakened the participation of NGOs in environmental decision-making. In other developments, new provisions regarding expropriation in the amended Highway Act, the threats made to foreign energy companies and the restrictions on private health insurance funds demonstrated a disrespect for private property rights, and the Roma population was subjected to growing discrimination as the 2009 State Language Act and the 2010 Patriotism Act infringed upon their rights. By evoking a dichotomy between “real Slovaks” and the rest (Hungarian and Roma) in its rhetoric, the government polarized society and exacerbated ethnic tensions.
Fears regarding developments in foreign policy have also been confirmed. During the review period, Slovak-Hungarian relations deteriorated, reaching their lowest point in ten years. Slovakia’s rapprochement with Russia, marked by extended cooperation in the military and energy sectors, Slovakia’s siding with Russia in the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict, and Slovakia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence, also led to irritations on the international scene. Unlike the Czech Republic and Poland, however, Slovakia was quick to ratify the Treaty of Lisbon.
By contrast, in the field of socioeconomic policy, fears of a large-scale policy reversal have turned out to be exaggerated. The Fico government left untouched key reforms introduced by the Dzurinda government so as not to jeopardize foreign investment, the introduction of the euro and the country’s favorable economic performance. The single most important case-in-point is tax policy. Although the parties of the government had long criticized the tax system for its liberal bias and unjust effects, the Fico government confined itself to introducing minor changes only. In the case of pensions and health care, reforms went further, yet did not do away with the predecessor’s core reforms.
Due to its high level of dependence on foreign investors and a limited number of economic sectors, the Slovak economy was hit rather hard by the global economic crisis. The Fico government was slow in responding to the crisis. It adopted two relatively small fiscal stimulus packages in November 2008 and February 2009 respectively and relaxed eligibility to unemployment benefits only slowly. Confronted with a deteriorating fiscal stance, the government refrained from preparing credible plans for medium-term fiscal adjustment.
Under the Fico governments, no major attempts at improving the strategic capacity of government through institutional reforms were undertaken. Prime Minister Fico capitalized on his personal popularity and his position as party leader, and relied largely on informal means, such as patronage or deals with the leaders of his coalition partners, in coordinating government activities. Compared to its predecessor, the Fico government relied less strongly on scholarly advice and showed much less respect for the discretion of subnational governments.