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15 September 2012

Robert Fico Reinvented


The interest of Hungarian citizens and political elites in the latest governmental change in neighbouring Slovakia is hardly surprising given the spikiness of disputes over bilateral issues over the last two decades.

This essay will take a look at the new Slovak government led by Robert Fico, and its key domestic and foreign policy challenges.

 

WHO IS ROBERT FICO?

 

The new Slovak Prime Minister is of course no stranger on the Slovak political scene. Now 48 years old, Fico is a graduate from the Law Faculty of the Comenius University of Bratislava. He then worked at the Institute of State and Law of the Slovak Academy of Sciences before entering political life shortly after the collapse of communism in 1989. Following the Velvet Revolution in 1989 Fico joined the Party of the Democratic Left. Ten years later, the increasingly skilful politician founded his own party: Smer-Social Democracy (SMER-SD), which eventually absorbed its parent party and all other significant political forces on the left.

Fico as opposition leader set about cultivating his popularity during the two terms of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda (1998–2006), until at the 2006 parliamentary elections his SMER-SD party won with 29.1 per cent of the vote. It was not enough to form a government, however, and Fico was forced to cobble together an unusual coalition including two controversial and internationally isolated parties, the fading People’s Party-Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) of Vladimír Mečiar and the ultranationalist National Party (SNS) of Ján Slota. Both junior partners were known for nationalist and populist tendencies, while statements from Ján Slota in particular stirred up controversies both at home and abroad for Fico, almost costing him his membership in the Party of European Socialists.

Aside from his troublesome partners, Fico’s government also received criticism from both domestic democratic forces and the international community due to corruption scandals, and a perceived lack of respect toward the opposition, the media and NGOs. On the plus side, Fico did not meddle with democratic norms or the economic and foreign policy course of the country. He successfully steered Slovakia into both the Schengen zone and the eurozone, and oversaw the granting of a visa-free regime with the United States. His government also dealt successfully with the domestic impact of the Russian–Ukrainian gas crisis. Despite the global economic downturn from 2008, Fico’s SMER remained the biggest party at the parliamentary elections in 2010, but as support for the two coalition partners fell, he was unable to form a government and duly resigned.

He was replaced by Iveta Radičová, who became head of a centre-right government comprising a coalition of four parties. One of these was the Most- Híd party led by the well-known and popular Slovak politician of Hungarian ethnicity, Béla Bugár. Former two-time Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda was appointed Foreign Minister. The formation of this government revived hopes of improved democratic practices, thawed relations between Slovakia and its Western partners, and improved Slovak–Hungarian relations. The strength of Radičová’s government was soon tested though, by the growing financial and political crisis in the European Union, several corruption scandals, as well as friction between coalition politicians and within the parties themselves. In addition, the government was faced by a very strong and able opponent in Robert Fico and his SMER-SD party with a rejuvenated appetite to return to power.

After one and half years Radičová’s government collapsed after a vote on the EU bailout which opened the door for Fico’s return. He convincingly won the March 2012 parliamentary elections and unexpectedly achieved an absolute majority of parliamentary seats (83 out of 150). This overwhelming vote of confidence allowed Fico to create a single-party SMER-SD government, a feat no other political grouping had managed since Slovakia’s independence in January 1993.

 

CAN ROBERT FICO REINVENT HIMSELF?

 

The landslide victory of Robert Fico’s party has created numerous questions both domestically and internationally about the nature of his government. The Slovak strongman and his single-party government were expected in some quarters to use their new power to change key laws, engage in battle with the European Union, and even to have Slovakian history rewritten, but the first five months of their administration support the theory that Fico has evolved into a mature and predictable politician that has learned from his past mistakes and those of other leaders.

Fico won in large part on a pro-social and pro-European platform, by offering voters stability and predictability after the complex coalition dynamics and ultimate collapse of the previous centre-right government. He did not play the nationalist card in his campaign nor did he blame external actors for Slovakia’s problems. He was also ready to admit some centre-right parties into his coalition, although in the end he did not need them to form a government.

Fico’s post-election behaviour has been a positive surprise to many. He has been more open toward the media. In a marked change of style, he no longer lashes out at journalists, accusing them of bias. Second-term Fico has instead been consensual and generous toward the opposition. Although the five centre-right opposition parties (four of which served in the previous government) are weakened and fragmented, they do constitute a competent and credible bloc. Some opposition members were offered parliamentary or governmental posts, most notably the opposition Most-Híd party’s László Nagy, an ethnic-Hungarian as governmental plenipotentiary for minorities.

Moreover, as none of the nationalist (Slovak or Hungarian) or xenophobic political parties crossed the five percent threshold necessary to enter parliament, Fico is unlikely to be influenced by extremist, or anti-EU elements.

He has also invited experienced non-party personalities to serve as ministers of Justice, Health, Economy, and Foreign Affairs in his new cabinet suggesting that avoiding improvisation and mistakes and tackling domestic and international problems appear to be the priorities rather than building his party’s power base. The nomination to the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs of the well-known and experienced diplomat Miroslav Lajčák, who until recently served in EU High Representative Catherine Ashton’s team, underpins Fico’s pre-election promise that one of Slovakia’s strategic goals is to remain strongly anchored in European and transatlantic structures.

Slovakia is not only a member of NATO and the EU but is also the only eurozone member among the Visegrád Four (V4) countries. Due to the eurozone membership, Fico is not expected to experiment with unique economic models or ignore the views and recommendations of economic experts, experienced practitioners and standard EU rules. During his visit to Berlin and at several other meetings, he unambiguously declared that Slovakia’s main strategic interest lies in remaining at the core of the EU. Highlighting the importance of the EU, the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be renamed in the autumn as the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. The move has not only symbolic meaning. The re-baptised ministry has taken on new competencies – coordination of EU affairs and foreign investments along with the human rights agenda, and also the affairs of Slovaks living abroad. At the same time the Minister of Foreign Affairs was appointed Deputy Prime Minister, thereby receiving greater powers and a higher degree of responsibility.

Fico seems to be aware of the political risks that can arise from single- party governance in a period of socio-economic hardship and appear sready to promote public-private partnerships to an unprecedented degree. He invited the so-called social partners – trade unions, employers, academia and churches – to participate in the formation of governmental projects. He then created a new consultative body called the Council of Solidarity and Development, comprising the social partners as well as representatives of NGOs. His government also started a dialogue with the main coalitions of Slovak NGOs (some of them previously critical of Fico’s policies), which led to the establishment of the Government Council for Non-Profit Organisations, consisting of representatives of ministrier (at state secretary level) and leaders of key NGO platforms. The government did not abolish the post of Plenipotentiary for Civil Society, created during the previous government, who will cooperate with the Minister of the Interior in the direction of the Council. All of these moves would have been simply unthinkable during the first term of Prime Minister Fico.

 

CHALLENGES AHEAD OF ROBERT FICO

 

Fico became Prime Minister on the threshold of the 20th anniversary of the Slovak Republic, which will be celebrated on 1 January 2013. After more than two decades at the top of politics, he is apparently still full of strength and ambition, and still enjoys significant public support. It will be a difficult four year mandate for him (assuming he does not decide to run for President in two years) due to the multiple domestic and international challenges. The policies of the centre-left SMER-SD party are aimed at the creation of a stronger state and state guarantees. However, the unfavourable economic and financial situation in Slovakia and across the eurozone works against those aims. Fico simply has to start taking unpopular measures and instituting reforms which will affect large segments of society. Moreover, the future decisions of the EU may also have unpredictable knock-on effects in its member states.

The worsening situations in the education, science and health sectors are among the most critical problems the new government has to deal with. Many also worry about the state of the judiciary, one of the institutions least trusted by Slovaks. Endemic corruption and the complicity of political and business circles in perpetuating corruption has encourageddeep-set negative public attitudes toward the state and democratic institutions. Fico and his cabinet will also be judged on the basis of their success in increasing transparency, fairness and justice in the country.

To end on a positive note, a look at the parallels between Hungary and Slovakia. The two neighbours share a common history, and membership of Euro-Atlantic structures and the V4 group. Both countries are run by single-party governments, with second-time Prime Ministers of around the same age. It is perhaps a hopeful sign in the relationship between the two countries that Robert Fico and Viktor Orbán, both passionate football fans, met cordially in Bratislava at the Europa League football match between Slovan Bratislava and Videoton at the end of July. It should not be ruled out that they will find new approaches to pragmatic and mutually beneficial collaboration and dialogue that would open a hopeful new chapter of Central European history.




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