Dominant party losing support. Crisis, PM resignation clears way
Since autumn 2017, the political scene in Slovakia has changed. The regional elections in early November saw a continuation of the trend of declining support for Prime Minister Fico and his once dominant Smer-SD party, which set in with Fico’s surprise defeat in the 2014 presidential elections and continued with Smer-SD’s loss of its absolute majority in the 2016 parliamentary elections. Fico’s Smer-SD lost four of six regional governors and a considerable share of chairs in the regional councils. Fico’s core message of strength and dominance has begun to fail. His one-week silence after the regional elections raised questions and unrest in his party has grown, as evidenced by the resignation of Marek Maďaric, the vice-chair of Smer-SD, in December 2017. In mid-March 2018, Fico resigned after the murder of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, who had uncovered links between people in government, the mafia and his fiancée, which sparked mass protests and a coalition crisis. The resignation of Fico and some other concessions by Smer-SD cleared the way for a continuation of the coalition of Smer-SD, SNS and Most-Híd, now led by former Deputy Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini. Contrary to opposition and public demands, no early elections were called and Smer-SD has gained an opportunity to win back credibility. This will require Smer-SD to take a clearer position on corruption, and to end its interventionist approach to the media and public institutions.
Frustration with political class remains
The resignations of Minister of Interior Robert Kaliňák and Prime Minister Fico will not be sufficient to overcome public frustration with the political class. One critical issue will be dealing with the audit of Slovak anti-corruption legislation, which Fico and the OECD had agreed on at the beginning of 2017. What is also required is the continuation of the reform of the judiciary started by Minister of Justice Lucia Žitňanská (who resigned in March 2018), and a de-politicization of specific public bodies – such as the Public Procurement Office, the Prosecutor General and the Supreme Audit Office – and public administration more generally. In the case of the Constitutional Court, the rules for the appointment of justices should be amended with a view to strengthening professional requirements.
Long-term economic challenges
While Slovakia’s short-term economic and fiscal situation looks favorable, the country faces a number of policy challenges. Long-term economic prospects are limited by the poor state of the infrastructure, a lack of skilled labor and limited R&I activities. All these aspects require an improvement in order to sustain the economic course in the mid- to long-term perspective.
Centrist parties beating back far-right challenge
As for the next parliamentary elections, party competition is likely to focus on the political center. Defying widespread fears, right-wing populist and extremist parties scored poorly in the regional elections in November 2017. Marián Kotleba, the extremist governor of the Banská Bystrica region, was ousted by an independent candidate. This suggests that the good results of far-right parties in the national elections in 2016 do not reflect a deeply anchored attitude in the Slovak public, but were primarily a consequence of the aggressively anti-migration and xenophobic discourse nurtured by Fico and his party in the electoral campaign. As the recent formation of two new centrist and programmatic parties – Spolu – Občianska Demokracia (Together – Civic Democracy) and Progresívne Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia) – indicates, the next elections might bring about substantial changes in the party landscape.