Slovakia – The 2014 presidential elections and prime minister Fico’s candidacy

The first round of the next Slovak presidential elections has been set for 15 March 2014 and with the deadline for registering candidates passing two weeks ago, the presidential race has begun. Recent opinion polls suggests that the race could be a done deal for prime minister Robert Fico, who announced his candidacy shortly before Christmas last year. Yet, Fico also remain the largest unknown in the contest and its aftermath.

Among the 15 candidates for the 2014 presidential race are Ján Čarnogurský and Milan Kňažko, two politicians well-known for their involvement in the Velvet Revolution and membership in the Dzurinda government (1998-2002) which brought an end to the tenure of borderline-autocratic prime minister Vladimir Mečiar. They are joined by former speaker of the Slovak National Council Pavol Hrušovský (one of the few candidates who has managed to gain official backing from a number of political parties), and entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrej Kiska. While the latter is runner-up in the latest opinion poll (admittedly from November 2013) and seems to continue the trend of wealthy businessmen in the region to run for political office (see e.g. Frank Stronach in Austria and Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic), none of the candidates is expected to receive as many votes in the first round as prime minister Robert Fico. Kiska is currently the only candidate predicted to win if he entered a second round against Fico, yet this does not take into account the eventual support for the runner-up from other, failed candidates for either of the two. In 1999 and 2004, when above-mentioned Vladimir Mečiar entered the second round, voters grudgingly united in voting for his respective opponent as the ‘lesser evil’. While Fico is far from being the ‘greater evil’ in any combination with one of the potential runner-ups, he might still become a less preferred candidate should his plans for the future of the presidency not find public approval.

Prime Minister Robert Fico (right) on a poster for incumbent Ivan Gašparovič’s re-election campaign in 2009 | photo via wikimedia commons

It is exactly these unknown plans – potential changes to the presidential office or the general mechanisms of power in Slovakia and thereby Fico’s motivation to run for office – that have been subject to debate among experts (and it is unknown how the public would react to any of them). The Slovak presidency – despite its upgrade to popular elections in 1999 and extensive use of the easily overturned suspensive veto by its incumbents – remains a rather weak one and there are only few loopholes through which the president can block governmental or parliamentary decisions. Thus, it is surprising that Fico as a powerful prime minsiter (whose SMER party currently holds 55% of seats in the Slovak National Council) would choose to run.

On his blog, Kevin Deegan-Krause suggests several reasons: Except for the small likelihood of Fico actually wanting to withdraw from playing an active role in politics (either due to a) blackmail or b) health issues), there are also scenarios in which he could gain in power. He could accomplish this for instance by changing the constitutions (classified as less likely as SMER does not dispose of the necessary majority). In a post on his blog in March 2013, Robert Fico still declared the mismatch of the president’s lack of actual powers and the strong (compared to the president’s election in parliament between 1993 and 1998) electoral mandate, yet also acknowledged that it is unlikely that a super-majority to change the constitution could be reached in the next 20 years. For as much as this can be taken his actual views, one could at least assume that constitutional amendments are on Fico’s radar. 

Fico could also retain power within the framework of the existing institutions (seen as more likely by Deegan Krause) – either through accepting the splintering of his (then leader-less) party with him as guarantor of stability above the chaos (relatively unlikely) or through using the stipulations of Art 102 r) of the Slovak constitution that would allow him to chair cabinet meetings and demand reports from cabinet ministers (classified as relatively more likely).

Nevertheless, even if it is relatively most likely that Fico would retain control over his party in some way, the stipulations of Art 102 r) will probably not be part of his strategy. On the one hand, chairing cabinet meetings is a rather formal affair and while important policy decisions are officially taken at these meetings, they have been prepared elsewhere – in the ministries or in negotiations between a subset of government members. On the other hand, the example of Slovakia’s first president Michál Kováč – who despite backing from the constitutional court (which also ruled that the president had no influence over the content of the reports and could not even set a deadline for their completion) was unsuccessfully in obtaining any reports from the government – shows that Fico would need to exert control differently.

Rather, Fico might imitate some of the strategies of former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski (1995-2005) in dealing with his party, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). While Kwaśniewski was not prime minister but ‘only’ party leader and chairman of the parliamentary party, his control over the SLD was still wide-reaching. After becoming president and resigning as party leader, he remained the major point of orientation for his party for the next years (which would be even more the case for Fico, who faces hardly any intra-party competition) and then supported the SLD-led governments while also building a wider than merely partisan appeal. Even though the SLD lost the 1997 parliamentary elections, Kwaśniewski’s popularity eventually rubbed off on the party and so guaranteed its support for his re-election in 2000. After the SLD’s return to government in 2001, Kwaśniewski faced opposition from the new party leader and prime minister Miller yet was able to retain a sizeable influence due to the personal loyalty of a large number of SLD deputies.

Thus, should Fico want to hold on to power or expand it within the existing framework of institutions, it would need to be – at least publicly – more ‘hands-off’ and depend on informal connections and loyalties as well as a change of his public image rather than the use of formal powers and constitutional loopholes.

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