Au Revoir Mafia — Ordinary People and the New Slovak Government

Au Revoir Mafia — Ordinary People and the New Slovak Government

2020 04 | Ágnes Vass | EU-V4 Department | Foreign and Security Policy

The election in Slovakia at the end of February this year were expected to revamp the current political system shaken after the murder of investigative journalist, Ján Kuciak and his fiancé, Martina Kušnírová in February 2018. The continuous stream of scandals, in which some of the party leaders and top politicians were also involved, encouraged new political actors to enter into and actively take part in politics. However, it has remained an open question until the elections who the voters will entrust to govern the country in the next four years.

Eventually, the results of the election were particularly surprising. First of all, the turnout was the highest in nearly two decades—65,8% of eligible voters casted their ballot on 29 February 2020. The For a Decent Slovakia (Za slušné Slovensko) movement, emerged after the murder of Kuciak and his fiancé, successfully mobilised tens of thousands of people and organised protests all over Slovakia. The movement’s demands are to have proper, independent and transparent investigation of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová, new and corruption-free government, and return to decency in public life of Slovakia. The protests have resulted in the resignation of Slovakia’s prime minister Robert Fico and in other significant changes in the government and in the country’s public life. As one of their activists referred, this election could be understood “as a referendum about what kind of country Slovak people really want.” 

 

Candles on SNP Square in Bratislava, commemorating Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová.

Source: Wikipedia

Although the last ballots predicted that the ruling SMER would be able to keep its position as the strongest party, the results revealed that the decisive majority of voters were in favour of ousting the Social democrats. As a result, the most popular party among voters became Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (Obyčajní Ľudia a nezávislé osobnosti, OĽANO), who won the 25,02% of the votes, gaining 53 seats out of 150 in the National Council. This can be understood as the thrilling victory of a party established by a self-made millionaire and a former media boss, which analysts or polls failed to predict. Based on opinions from the end of 2019, OĽANO was supported by 5-6% of the voters, while in January, the party  inched up to 8%  just to rise two weeks before the election to around 13-15%. Due to several remarkable campaign moves of the party leader Igor Matovič, OĽANO gained popularity with the voters. The communication of very simple and very clear messages, together with the use of effective tools to explain its aims to the voters are considered being behind the party’s extraordinary success. In January 2020, for instance, Matovič posted a video on Facebook in which he was standing in front of a villa owned by the former Minister of Finance, Ján Počiatek, who had been involved in several corruption cases but was never prosecuted.  “Bonjour, mafia” he said in the short video, and left a written message in front of the house saying that the property should belong to the Slovak state and not to Počiatek. Thus, the most important element of OĽANO’s campaign was, that instead of fighting against extremists represented by Marian Kotleba and his People's Party Our Slovakia (Kotlebovci—Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko, ĽSNS)—also known as Kotlebists—as the progressive PS/Spolu did especially during the last days of the campaign, the party created a clear and direct communication with its voters indicating its ability to win over SMER and promising clean governance, direct democracy and radical transparency in government. As Matovič himself explained, “extremism cannot be stopped by yelling at Kotleba’s supporters during their legally organised rallies, earning the trust of Kotleba’s voters and promising fairness for all could be more effective in the fight against Kotlebovci.”

Igor Matovič, the new PM of Slovakia after the election.

Source: Facebook page of OĽANO 

The party that came in the second place was SMER, with 18,29% of the vote, a drop of about 10%  compared with its results in the 2016 election. On the top of that, none of SMER’s coalition partners, the Slovak National Party (Slovenská Národná Strana, SNS), and the Slovak-Hungarian inter-ethnicarty Most-Híd were able to pass the 5% threshold and get into the parliament: SNS was supported only by 3,16% of the votes, while Most-Híd plummeted to 2,05%. The third strongest party was Boris Kollár’s We Are Family (Sme Rodina) with 8,24% of the votes, while Freedom and Solidarity (Sloboda a Solidarita, SaS) and Za Ľudí (For the People) gained 6,22% and 5,77% of the votes, respectively. Another big surprise is the failure of the alliance between Progressive Slovakia (Progresívne Slovensko, PS) and Together (Spolu): although the ballots predicted 10% of the votes for them, at the end, they were not able to make it to the parliament. With the narrowest defeat in history (926 votes), the coalition gained 6,96% of the votes, whereas the minimum threshold for coalitions is 7%. 

The most significant anti-system party, Kotlebovci–People's Party gained 7,97% of the vote, which is a slightly worse result compared to last election, but it was still enough to ensure the party three extra seats, for a total of 17 seats. Despite some anti-Roma outburst, in the last few years Kotleba’s party softened its rhetoric, putting more emphasis on the protection of national pride and traditions, which enabled ĽSNS to broaden its electorate and gain voters from SNS as well.

From 2010, Most-Híd (from the Slovak and Hungarian words for “bridge”) under the leadership of Béla Bugár was the only party in the Slovak parliament representing the interest of the Hungarian community living in Slovakia. Recently the party went through several tough periods, and was harshly criticized for being inactive after the murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová. The fact that after the election four years ago Most-Híd eventually decided to join the government coalition with SMER and SNS caused huge disappointment among its electorate and since then, the support for the party has  plummeted. Already before the election it was visible, that the party will fail to get into the parliament and for this reason, an option was raised to create a coalition with other Hungarian political actors. Last autumn, all the political parties representing the Hungarian minority living in Slovakia proposed the creation of a joint slate. However, the leadership of Most-Híd, the Party of the Hungarian Community (Magyar Közösség Pártja, MKP) and the Hungarian Christian-Democratic Party (Magyar Kereszténydemokrata Párt, MKDSZ)eventually were not able to agree on the formation of a joint party which was going to be named Party of Regions Most MKP. Witnessing the failure of the negotiations between  Hungarian parties, a new movement came into existence, the Összefogás.  Together, three Hungarian political parties, the Hungarian Forum —led by former Most-Híd MP, Zsolt Simon—MKP and Összefogás aimed to create a new party, that excluded to join forces with SMER and, in doing so, also with Most-Híd given its participation in the coalition government with the Socialdemocrats.  After long negotiations, all these three Hungarian parties created a new party named Hungarian Community Togetherness (Magyar Közösségi Összefogás, MKÖ), aimed at uniting Hungarians, overcoming cleavages within the community and eliminating the damaging competition between the parties which in the past resulted in the fragmentation of the votes of those who identify themselves as Hungarian. The programme of the party addressed especially ethnic Hungarian voters and focused mainly on those regions where the presence of Hungarians is more important. The party’s strategic goals are to help the economic development of those regions where the Hungarian community lives, to establish an independent self-regulation system in education, and to protect minority group rights while introducing Hungarian as regional official language.

In fact, unlike during other campaigns, Slovak parties, that seemingly were not interested in addressing ethnic Hungarian voters, realised the weight of the votes of individuals belonging to the Hungarian community in Slovakia (appr. 8-10% of the total electorate). For example, PS/Spolu created a platform within the party’s structure addressing exclusively Hungarian voters, while SaS was also dealing in details in their programme with the situation of ethnic minorities in Slovakia.

As a result, none of the Hungarian parties were able to get into the parliament, and due to this, for the first time in the modern history of Slovakia, the Slovak National Council will function without a Hungarian representation. As already mentioned one of the reasons of this situation is the failure of the Hungarian political forces to reach an agreement which in turn has caused the Hungarian electorate to support Slovak political parties instead. Another reason is associated to identity. In fact, the identity of Hungarians living in Slovakia cannot be described as based only on ethnicity: elections after 1993 has showed that members of the Hungarian minority are strongly supportive of democratic values—a logical condition given the fact that a minority community cannot exist in a society where democratic values and rights are missing. The aim of Slovak people, and Hungarians living in Slovakia as well, to overthrow their corrupt government has drained voters from the Hungarian parties. In fact, the programmes of Hungarian parties were not offering effectively enough alternatives to the current  Slovak political situation, and as a result, a lot of voters with Hungarian ethnicity decided to cast their vote for Slovak parties, mainly for OĽANO and PS/Spolu. 

Given that OĽANO was not able to govern alone, to clinch the majority (minimum of 78 seats) in the 150-member Slovak National Council, the parties who succeeded in getting into the parliament began their coalition negotiations right after the election. Four parties, OĽANO, Sme Rodina, SaS as well as Za Ľudí, quickly reached a compromise and with their aggregate 95 seats the new government has a comfortable constitutional majority. The formation of the new cabinet lasted only 13 days, which is a record in Slovakia. As the new prime minister admitted, the breakout of COVID-19 virus and the escalating emergency situation in the country affected significantly the speed of the negotiations.

However, despite its speed, the process was not frictionless. One of the issues parties needed to solve was the assignment of the Finance Ministry post, which led to a clash between OĽANO and SaS, as the latter claimed this position for one of its representatives. The final agreement was, that OĽANO will get the post of the Finance Minister while the leader of SaS, Sulík, will be the first Deputy Prime Minister for Economics and the Minister of Economy.  Another issue that rose during the coalition negotiations regarded the past of Sme Rodina’s leader, Boris Kollár. According to a document from 1990 prepared by secret services, Kollár was in close contact with his childhood friend, Peter Steinhübler, who maintained different illegal activities during the 1990s. In this document, Kollár’s name is mentioned, as an associate of Steinhübler, responsible for organising transport of drug trafficking. Steinhübler later became the leader of Bratislava underworld and was murdered in 1999.  Anyway, the authenticity of the document has not been proved yet and in the meantime Kollár rejected its claims as lies. Nevertheless, he later confirmed that during the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia he had business connections with Steinhübler and they were childhood friends.

As it is already visible, Matovič put himself at the head of a very diverse majority coalition, in the hardest period of modern Slovakia’s history due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Matovič has a reputation for being an unreliable political partner, who has clashed not only with representatives of the government, but also with his allies in opposition and within his party. In fact, OĽANO has a very loose structure, as a result, in the last four years10 of its 19 members left the party’s parliament group because of the hectic leadership within the party. On the other side, Matovič’s coalition partners are leaders of young parties—the oldest of them was formed just 10 years ago. In this sense, the new cabinet is mostly formed by newcomers, with no previous experience in power. However, it is also important to highlight, that the cabinet has a very strong anti-corruption portfolio so far. The new Interior Minister, Roman Mikulec, is the former director of the military’s secret service which exposed an asset-stripping seven years ago, while the freshly appointed Head of the Office of the Investments and Informatization, Veronika Remišová, uncovered some EU funds related corruption scandals while in opposition. Ivan Korčok, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs is an experienced diplomat, who is not affiliated with any of the political parties and who gave up his position as ambassador to the United States in order to join the new coalition.

After all the appointments to the ministries have been made, the new government started its work amid coronavirus pandemic. During the inauguration ceremony, members of the government wore facial masks and protective gloves as precaution against COVID-19. As a fact, the new government could not have started its work at a tougher time. Since 15 March 2020 the country is in a state of emergency introduced by the previous government in order to contain the spread of COVID-19. Furthermore, just few days after taking over the power, Matovič publicly talked about the situation of the country’s  material reserves deposit, where the COVID-19 tests kits were supposed to be stored, but that  was found empty. Due to some irregularities, there were only 3000  functioning test kits available, while the state-owned company responsible for buying protective materials and supplies has signed contracts with obscure companies in the amount of several million euros. In the meantime, the son of the leader of the state material reserves deposit bought two apartments downtown Bratislava, raising suspects  in the corruption-sensitive new government.

The new Slovak Government

Source: Facebook page of Richard Sulík

From an economic point of view, the effects of the suspension of the production due to pandemic on Slovakia, the largest car manufacturer in the world in per capita terms, risk to be devastating. In order to tackle the crisis, the new government has already introduced a first-aid package of economic measures of the amount of 1% of the country’s monthly GDP (app. EUR 1,5 billion). The aim of this package is to support businesses, self-employed and employees. According to the plan, the state will refund 80% of salaries to employees of those companies that have been forced to suspend their activities. Also, bank-guarantees are provided to allow banks to support businesses’ expenditures during emergency situation. While all the quarantined people, and those parents staying at home with their children will also receive 55% of their gross salaries.