Election produces weaker, but stable government
In the parliamentary elections in March 2016, Prime Minister Robert Fico’s social-democratic party, Smer-SD, lost its absolute majority of seats. While Smer-SD remained the strongest faction in parliament and Fico was sworn in as prime minister for the third time, the governing coalition only won a marginal majority of 78 out of 150 seats. The coalition also includes “strange bedfellows,” namely the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS) and Most-Híd, a centrist party representing the Hungarian minority. To the surprise of many observers, the coalition turned out be rather stable in its first year in office. The first coalition crisis only broke out in August 2017. Prompted by the decision of SNS leader Andrej Danko to withdraw from the coalition, the crisis lasted just two weeks. Its main result was the resignation of Minister of Education Peter Plavčan, a SNS nominee involved in a scandal about the misuse of EU funds.
Democratic-quality concerns persist
As for the quality of democracy, no significant progress was achieved in the period under review. The country has continued to suffer from intransparent media ownership, a strong politicization of courts and public administration, and rampant corruption. As evidenced by the controversial change in the leadership of the public broadcaster RTVS in June 2017, political pressure on the media has further increased. Despite some legal steps in the right direction, widespread discrimination against Roma, women, LGBTI persons, refugees and Muslims has persisted. On a more positive note, reforms introduced by Minister of Justice Lucia Žitňanská have made the judiciary more transparent, and the long-standing stalemate between President Kiska and the parliament over the appointment of Constitutional Court justices has been overcome.
Strong growth helps reduce unemployment
With GDP growing by almost 3.5% in 2016 and 2017, the Slovak economy remains among the strongest growing EU and OECD countries. The stronger-than-expected economic growth has brought a further decline in the unemployment rate and helped the government to reduce the general government fiscal deficit to below 1.5%. By contrast, there was little progress with much-needed health care, education and R&D reforms. In the case of education and R&D, the implementation of reforms was delayed by resignation of Minister of Education Peter Plavčan in summer 2017.
The change from a one-party to a coalition government after the 2016 elections resulted in some differences between the second and third Fico governments. In the latter, ministerial compliance has become more precarious, particularly since SNS-nominated ministers are not party members and lack experience. After the coalition crisis in August 2017, more formal coordination mechanisms were introduced to improve communication and consultation among the coalition partners.
While Prime Minister Fico pursued a rather confrontational approach toward the European Union in the context of the 2015 refugee crisis, his attitude changed during 2017. In the face of a regression of democracy and rule of law, and the eurosceptic positions of Hungary and Poland, Fico sought to pursue a different policy course. Fico emphasized that he is very much interested in regional cooperation within the Visegrad-4 but that Slovakia’s vital interest is with the European Union. He expressed a desire to cooperate in the reform plans of France and Germany, and to be part of a deeply integrated “core” European Union.