Exposure of corrupt network
The murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in February 2018 continued to impact political developments in 2020 and 2021. The investigations and the trials that eventually started in 2020 revealed the unimaginable size of the corrupt network built by businessman Marián Kočner and the involvement of several high-profile state representatives, including the long-serving Prime Minister Robert Fico, in this network. Correspondingly, the main theme in the campaign to the parliamentary elections in February 2020 was corruption and integrity in the political and legal sphere (Haughton et al. forthcoming). The relatively high turnout of 66%, the highest since the 2002 elections, shows just how mobilized the public has been.
In the 2020 elections, the parties of the former governing coalition under Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini lost substantially. The share of votes for Smer-SD, the strongest Slovak party since 2006, fell from almost 30% to less than 20%, and Smer-SD’s smaller coalition did not make it into parliament. The surprising winner of the elections was the center-right party OĽaNO, whose founder and leader Igor Matovič had run an effective campaign on an anti-corruption ticket. Matovič was able to form a coalition with three ideologically distinct parties: the amorphous social-conservative populist movement Sme-Rodina (We are the Family) of the media entrepreneur Boris Kollár, the libertarian SaS party of Richard Sulík and the liberal Za ľudí (For People) of former President Andrej Kiska. Contrary to expectations, Spolu–Občianska Demokracia (Together – Civic Democracy) and Progresívne Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia), two centrist parties which had played a major role in the mobilization of the public after the 2018 murders, failed to enter parliament, as many voters believed that Matovič was the only candidate capable of defeating Fico.
Initial pandemic-management successes
The new center-right government took over at the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. It stuck to the strict lockdown imposed by the outgoing Pellegrini government and succeeded in dampening the output decline by pursuing substantial fiscal expansion and limiting an increase in unemployment by introducing various job retention and short-time work schemes. The government’s response to the second wave of the pandemic was more erratic. While infection and death rates were kept relatively low at the outset of the pandemic, they later exceeded those in many neighboring countries.
Ambitious but vague manifesto; slow progress on anti-corruption agenda
The government manifesto of the new center-right government has been long and ambitious, but also relatively vague. One important priority has been to improve the quality of democracy by strengthening the independence of the judiciary and the media and by fighting corruption. Already at the end of 2020, the government adopted a comprehensive judicial reform. It has included a reform of the Judicial Council, the establishment of a new, Supreme Administrative Court, property checks of justices, an age cap for justices, changes in the appointment of Constitutional Court justices as well as changes in the territorial layout of district and regional appeal courts. However, the implementation of these reforms has faced resistance not only by those justices and prosecutors most affected by such reforms, but has partly fallen victim to struggles within the governing coalition. Progress with media independence and institutional mechanisms against corruption has been slow. While the new Office for the Protection of Whistleblowers, formally created in 2019, eventually started to operate in late 2021, draft legislation on lobbying, “revolving doors,” asset declarations, conflicts of interest of members of parliament and public procurement is still at the initial stage. At the same time, however, the numbers both of initiated proceedings in corruption cases of individuals convicted for corruption offenses have risen substantially in 2020 and 2021.
Along with the short-term pressures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the massive frictions within the governing coalition have also contributed to a delay and a watering down of the many reforms announced in other fields, such as taxes, pensions, healthcare or education. The rifts within the coalition have been aggravated by Matovič’s erratic behavior. A severe coalition crisis over the purchase of the Russian vaccine led to a government reshuffle in April 2021 with Matovič and Minister of Finance Eduard Heger changing their positions. The new prime minister has taken a more conciliatory approach, but has been confronted with Matovič’s heavy-handed attempt to be a backseat driver. The center-right government has failed to improve its strategic capacity through institutional reforms. It has used expert advice rather selectively and has alienated the social partners and the subnational governments through its unilateral decisions.
Haughton, T., M. Rybář, K. Deegan-Krause (forthcoming): Corruption, Campaigning and Novelty: The 2020 Parliamentary Elections and the Evolving Patterns of Party Politics in Slovakia, in: East European Politics, Societies and Cultures (https://doi.org/10.1177/08883254211012765).