Slovakia’s wobbly coalition government finally crashed on December 15 after losing a no-confidence vote in parliament by 78 votes to 20. Lawmakers for the main governing party walked out in protest before the vote took place.
The administration, which had already cycled through two prime ministers and lost its majority in September, was undermined by personal conflicts which emerged soon after its formation in March 2020.
The government, with the backing of President Zuzana Čaputová, has been resolute in its support of Ukraine ever since the all-out Russian invasion in February, with Slovakia ranking among the top five donors to Ukraine in GDP terms.
The opposition parties, by contrast, have been non-committal or taken openly pro-Russian positions, seeking to capitalize on and further stoke the popular ambivalence towards the war expressed in public opinion poll surveys: a recent survey of central European countries by GLOBSEC, a Bratislava-based think tank, suggested that Slovaks have a more negative opinion towards Ukrainian refugees than any of their neighbors. A new government that includes some of the Russia-friendly opposition elements might result in Slovakia softening its hitherto prominent position among the European states backing Ukraine. But it is unlikely to fundamentally change the country’s position.
Given Slovakia’s fractured political scene, a fresh election, which would require backing from 90 of Slovakia’s 150 lawmakers, is likely to produce another multi-party parliament and multi-party coalition. The President plans to appoint an interim government and has said she seeks elections by summer next year.
The leading opposition parties, Smer, led by former prime minister Robert Fico, and Hlas, a splinter party led by former Fico protégé Peter Pellegrini, are ahead in opinion polls, but neither has more than 15-20% support and a recent survey suggested that no fewer than nine parties would clear the 5% threshold to make it into parliament if an election was held in December.
Those opposition parties, including Fico’s Smer, may now enter government in the event of a new government being formed or – more likely – contest an early election.
The outgoing coalition initially comprised Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO), a populist party that unexpectedly captured 25% of the vote by running on an anti-corruption ticket in 2020; Sme Rodina (We Are Family), another populist party that serves mainly as a vehicle for its high-profile businessman leader; Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), a free-market center-right party that is also dominated by its leader, Richard Sulík; and a small fourth party that has since mostly disintegrated.
OĽaNO’s leader, Igor Matovič, served as prime minister until April 2021, when his erratic behavior during the pandemic — at one point he flew to Moscow to purchase a plane-load of Sputnik vaccines from the Russian government without consulting his own cabinet; most of the doses were never used — led to a coalition rift that was only resolved by his agreeing to swap places with Eduard Heger, his party colleague, as finance minister.
Heger, a more conciliatory figure, struggled to establish authority over his cabinet subordinate (but party superior) Matovič, whose politics in office have been characterized by emotional outbursts on Facebook, followed by long, self-exculpatory press conferences at which he has made further attacks on political rivals.
Chief among these is Sulík, who has also earned a reputation as a social media warrior. By the summer, the deteriorating relations between the pair led to SaS demanding that Matovič leave the government, and then quitting the coalition when he refused.
Most of the disputes have been only tangentially related to policy, and much more about style and personal interests (for instance, two MPs for the governing party Sme Rodina voted to bring it down on December 15 because they face criminal charges and want the interior minister, who refuses to drop them, fired.)
Slovakia emerged relatively unscathed from the first wave of the pandemic in spring 2020, but was severely hit by the second and subsequent waves. Covid has claimed almost 21,000 lives in Slovakia (out of a population of 5.4 million.) The economy has since recovered fairly strongly and the country is due to receive several billion euros in further assistance over the next three years as part of the EU Recovery Plan.
Since 2020, the law enforcement authorities have been granted significantly more freedom to pursue investigations into the activities of senior politicians and officials, resulting in scores of corruption indictments and the conviction of a senior prosecutor. This process culminated in the charging of former prime minister Fico with serious criminal offences in April this year — only for the charges to be dropped in controversial circumstances last month.
James Thomson is a columnist for The Slovak Spectator, the Bratislava-based English-language newspaper and website.
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