The surprising victory of Andrej Kiska in the March 2014 presidential elections in Slovakia has, until recently, not had any major negative impact on the stability of intra-executive relations in the country. The main executive authority rests with the government headed by the Prime Minister, who is backed by a parliamentary majority. The directly elected president has important but limited powers, especially in the realm of appointing public officials, including the Prime Minister and government ministers. Nevertheless, his room for maneuver is restricted by the party composition of the parliament. As a result, President Kiska has kept a low profile, respected the agreements of political parties, and appointed (as well as dismissed) all the ministers as proposed by the Prime Minister Robert Fico, whom he defeated in the presidential elections. Following the March 2016 parliamentary elections, Kiska promptly appointed the new four-party coalition government led by Fico’s Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD), and publicly supported its goals of fighting extremism and deepening European integration.
The president has more leeway when it comes to the judiciary. During the first weeks of his presidency, he rejected five out of six candidates proposed by parliament for Judges of the Constitutional Court, thus filling just one out of three vacancies at the Court. Moreover, another spot at the Court became vacant in February 2016. Although the parliament proposed, in line with the Constitution, two new candidates for the post, Kiska again refused to choose either of them, citing their lack of adequate qualifications. The Constitutional Court accepted the constitutional complaints of five unsuccessful candidates for further deliberation but so far has not ruled on the matter.
The conflict over the Constitutional Court has been the most visible exercise of formal presidential powers vis-a-vis the government and the parliament. The president has, on several occasions, invited individual ministers to voice them his concerns over the development of their portfolios. However, he normally uses more traditional tools available to ceremonial heads of states: media statements and speeches at various public events. Since his election, President Kiska has become a vocal proponent of increased transparency and anti-corruption; he regularly criticizes what he perceives to be the systematic failure of the state to take care of its socially deprived citizens. Kiska recently ruled out setting up a new party or joining an existing one in order to run in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Despite some suggestions that he may not seek reelection, he stated he would announce his decision in September next year. By and large, the relations between government and president seemed cooperative and respectful. In recent weeks, however, tensions between the Prime Minister and President have emerged.
In September, several media outlets anonymously received reports of a 2015 tax inspection in the KTAG firm, which is owned by the President and his brother. As it turned out, the tax authorities concluded in 2016 that the KTAG had violated the law, since it paid some €27,000 less than it should done on taxes. The company did not object to the findings and paid the sum as well as the penalty. In a series of brief statements, President rejected any personal wrongdoing but did not offer any detailed account, thus ignoring allegations that the company may have used the money to finance his 2014 presidential campaign. The head of the tax authority later apologized for the information leak and claimed an “individual failure” was behind it. However, Kiska implicitly accused the government, stating: “If a head of state can be attacked in such a way, no single person in Slovakia can be sure that such gangland-style blackmailing practices will not be used against him or her.”
The Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák called the president “a tax fraudster” and the Prime Minister even accused Kiska of trying to influence the investigation by approaching the Prosecutor General. In response, the Prosecutor General stated he had talked to the President back in 2015 on a whole range of issues but strongly denied the Prime Minister’s allegation that President had intended to influence the investigation or discussed his firm’s problems with him.
the Interior Minister’s remarks, however, should be viewed in a broader context of Kiska’s anti-corruption agenda. Minister Kaliňák has faced a series of allegations for his business with Ladislav Bašternák, an entrepreneur who was recently accused by the police of tax fraud. Kaliňák himself has benefited from business with Bašternák but the police did not start an investigation due to the lack of evidence. In addition, Prime Minister Fico rents a flat from Bašternák himself, for which he has been heavily criticized by the opposition. The opposition parties organized a series of demonstrations throughout 2016 and President Kiska also suggested Kaliňák should step down to give the police free rein to properly investigate the case. In 2017, several anti-corruption marches organized by students took place. One of their key demands was the resignation of the Interior Minister and the Police Corps President.
In November, the Prime Minister attacked the President again, claiming the government was “ready to send the President an invoice” for €1.000.000 to pay for using the government’s plane to fly to his hometown Poprad (where the president’s family lives). The statement came as a surprise, since the President, following an unbinding parliamentary resolution issued in April, stopped using the plane and uses his car instead. When faced with the “airplane problem”, Kiska has always explained that he was using the plane at the Interior Minister’s suggestion. Kaliňák, according to President, asked him to use the plane because the pilots had logged too few flying hours. In April, Kiska effectively accused Interior Minister of plotting against him and suggested the Minister should deal with his suspicious business links instead. In November, when PM Fico re-opened the case against him, Kiska retaliated by saying that he understood the Prime Minister’s frustration over growing tensions within his party and falling public support for his policies.
Why have the relations between President and Prime Minister become so tense? There are several possible interpretations. Firstly, they may be pre-emptive steps to damage Kiska’s chances in the 2019 presidential elections, should he decide to run again. The President’s approval ratings are unmatched by other active politicians, and Prime Minister Fico may feel that a negative campaign against President Kiska will improve the chances of his party’s future candidate. Secondly, following a poor performance of Fico’s party in the November 2017 regional elections, when four out of six Smer-SD-backed regional governors lost to opposition candidates, media attention has focused on how the largest Slovak party will react. Several prominent party members suggested personnel changes at the top should follow, including a possible departure of the increasingly unpopular but powerful Interior Minister Kaliňák. Fico, after a week of silence, claimed that his party, in fact, won the election, gaining a plurality of regional deputies. Reopening Kiska’s “airplane problem” may be an attempt to change the main subject of the public debate. Moreover, Kiska’s past problem with the tax authorities has been a welcome development for Smer-SD, since both Kaliňák and Fico can use it to divert public attention from themselves to the President. Thirdly, it may be a simple tit-for-tat tactic, a reaction to Kiska’s recent criticism of how the Smer-SD-led government has handled several high-profile social policy issues. These include the occurrence of serious flaws in the management of resocialization facilities, leading, among other things, to the unnecessary detention of children, and under-age sex between staff and children. Kiska stated that Slovakia was not a functioning welfare state, by which he effectively questioned the policy record of left-leaning Smer-SD, the party that has been in power for over a decade.
Whatever the true reasons, government and president are entering uncharted waters of open political confrontation. However, any escalation to the levels reached in the mid-1990s between the then President Kováč and Prime Minister Mečiar seems unlikely.