The results of the recent Slovak parliamentary election and the prospects for Igor Matovic’s new government were examined in an April 28 webinar co-sponsored by FOS and the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), “Slovakia: New Government, New Challenges.” The panel was moderated by Jonathan Katz, Senior Fellow with GMF, and hosted by Scott Thayer, Chairman of FOS.
Dr. Kevin Deegan-Krause of Wayne State University in Detroit, one of the foremost observers of Slovak politics, opened the webinar with an analysis putting the February 29 election results in the context of previous elections in independent Slovakia. The results pose challenges in assessing the direction of Slovak politics going forward, as it is not easy to characterize the new governing coalition on any kind of traditional left-right political spectrum. Matovič’s party had previously been in parliament as more of a collection of independent individuals who did not typically operate as an ideologically clear, unified party, as is indicated by its name: OLANO – Ordinary People and Independent Personalities. OLANO has three other coalition partners: Sme Rodina (We Are Family) is a socially conservative and euro-skeptic party; SAS (Freedom & Solidarity) is an economically liberal (i.e. free market) party; and Za Ľudí (For the People), is a moderately conservative party.
The election also saw the outgoing ruling party, Smer or Nový Smer (New Direction), come in second at 18% – a large drop in support – and the extreme right/populist Kotlebists – People’s Party Our Slovakia garner 8%, for the second election in a row.
Deegan-Krause noted the continuing Slovak trend of the proliferation of small parties, as well as the decline of most traditional parties, most of which were left out of parliament. Over one-third of the popular vote went to parties that did not enter parliament. This had the effect of increasing the power, in terms of the percentage of seats garnered, of those parties entering parliament: the governing coalition has a constitutional majority with 95 seats. He also noted that of the parties in the new coalition, none have been in existence for more than 10 years, and each has had only one leader/founder during their existence.
Dr. Grigorij Mesežnikov, President, Institute for Public Affairs, Bratislava, noted the dramatic changes in the political landscape. Prime Minister Matovič is now the surprising dominant force in Slovak politics, but likely not (yet) as dominant as was Fico and his previous ruling party, Smer. While the Hungarian parties, Christian Democrats, and others have failed to enter parliament, the ‘neo-fascist’ Kotleba party has effectively consolidated a substantial position in parliament during the past two elections. He noted that Matovič’s OLANO was dominant across almost all demographic and social groups, and it appears that the major factor was the Slovak public’s desire to fight corruption, with 70% of the electorate saying this was an important factor in their vote. Mesežnikov noted that the four-party coalition will have challenges due to various ideological orientations, but it appears that the coalition supports democratic values, a market economy, and importantly, are clearly pro-EU and pro-NATO.
Mesežnikov also discussed the Slovak response to the novel coronavirus COVID-19. Slovakia was among the most pro-active countries in Europe in responding with measures to limit the disease’s spread, and as a result has had a low number of cases and deaths. The election and turnover in government occurred in the midst of the pandemic; both the outgoing and incoming parties worked well together in handling the transition and managing the pandemic, thus earning favorable poll numbers. Curiously however, Mesežnikov noted, that once the Matovič government was fully in charge, their poll numbers for managing the pandemic inexplicably dropped. He further noted that the new government should be more solidly pro-EU on some issues, in contrast with the sometimes ambivalent responses of the prior Slovak government, as well as those of regional V-4 partners Hungary and Poland.
Martina Hrvolova, Program Officer for Europe and Eurasia, Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) focused on aspects of the economy and the economic response to the coronavirus. She stated that the new government must be focused on corruption, particularly given the current crisis situation. The private sector will play an important role in generating economic recovery, but this may be affected somewhat by the deterioration of the Slovak business environment, as reflected in ratings since 2018 comparing Slovakia with the EU and the world generally. The new government seems to be aware of this problem, as it has appointed several prominent independent economists to an advisory committee to help foster recovery. It will also be important for the new government to address the ‘digital transformation’ of both the business and government sectors with investments in infrastructure, but also with a key focus on issues of data privacy. Ms. Hrvolova commented that during the response to the coronavirus, the Slovak population showed a much more favorable response to the help provided by China, compared with the response of the EU and others. However, this view seems to be reversing somewhat, as the EU response on both health and economic assistance is improving.
Pavol Demeš, Senior Non-Resident Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States, commented on both domestic and foreign policy issues in Slovakia. He noted that in 2019, the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution was commemorated. Since 2019, Slovakia elected its first female president and now has elected Igor Matovič and a new coalition government. He feels the motivating factor behind these political events was the February 2018 murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, which served as an ‘awakening point’ for the Slovak population. It was as if Slovakia acknowledged that in the 30 years since the revolution, it had evolved against many of the goals expressed in that Velvet Revolution. Anti-corruption was the driving force behind the past two elections that installed new, younger, leadership. Yet, Matovič is relatively inexperienced and will have to put in place an effective government and communicate effectively.
Demeš noted that the new government draft manifesto, representing the views of the four parties, totaled 121 pages and appeared to be a patchwork of contributions from the four coalition partners rather than an integrated whole. Yet, given its anti-corruption and open-government orientation, its strong pro-EU stance, and its emphasis on the U.S. as a strategic transatlantic partner (the first time such a reference has appeared in a government manifesto), the new government shows hopeful signs. Demeš spoke favorably about a number of appointments to the cabinet. But the new government will face challenges in establishing itself in the context of pandemic response and economic disruptions.