Tag Archives: Slovakia

Slovakia – Relations between the President and Prime Minister reach a low point

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.

Presidential Profile – Andrej Kiska, president of Slovakia (06/2014-present)

Slovak President Andrej Kiska in National Council | photo via prezident.sk

Andrej Kiska assumed office as the 4th president of Slovakia on 15 June 2014 following a surprise victory against Prime Minister Robert Fico. To this date, Kiska – who has never held membership in any political party – has remained remarkable true to the mantra of his electoral campaign: ‘The first independent president’. Yet, there are a number of other characteristics that make Kiska an interesting president for analysis. Kiska’s Czech counterpart, populist (and nominally left-wing) Miloš Zeman might have received considerably more attention due to controversial statements and label as a European version of Donald Trump (and has thus also had his fair share of coverage on this blog). Nevertheless, Kiska – a politically conservative former businessman who has so far refrained from using any populist rhetoric and steered clear of collusion of interest – arguably provides an equally fitting and timely point of analysis and comparison.

Business career and ‘Good Angel’ charity

Kiska’s business career began shortly after the fall of Communism in 1990. Having previously worked in a state energy company, Kiska went to the United States from mid-1990 to December 1991 where he worked in a variety of jobs – a time which he claims to have strongly influenced him in his business career. His first business venture in Slovakia as subsidiary of an American jewellery company proved unsuccessful; his breakthrough only followed in 1996 with the foundation of TatraCredit. Emulating catalogue sale models from the United States, the company specialised in direct-to-consumer sales of electronics and providing short- and long-term financing options. The selection of good was later expanded to other consumer products and was followed by foundation of Quatro which offered consumers the opportunity to lease products bought in store, with both companies eventually providing financial services to close to a fifth of the Slovak population. After a transformation and merger of the different companies in 2004, it was eventually bought by the ‘Všeobecná úverová banka’, a Slovak bank owned by the Italian Banca Intensa.

Following the sale of the companies, Kiska retired from business and focussed on charity work. His foundation ‘DOBRÝ ANJEL’ (Good Angel), which Kiska led as chairman until he resigned in May 2013 to focus on his presidential bid, was founded in 2006 and specialises in care for children in orphanages and cancer support as well as help for poor families and individuals. Through his business activities and charity, Kiska reached a certain level of name recognition among the Slovak public while steering clear of any controversies.

Entering politics: The 2014 presidential election campaign

Since 1999, Slovak president are elected by popular vote in a two-round runoff system. Then incumbent Ivan Gašparovič, who had built significant ties with Prime Minister Robert Fico and his SMER party during his time in office, had been elected for a second term in 2009 and was thus not able to run again. Kiska already announced his intention to run for president in October 2014, almost 18 months before the first round of election and 10 months before any other candidate declared themselves. Kiska’s previous involvement in politics had been limited to the promotion of his charity ‘Good Angel’. Although having spent a decade of his adult life in Czechoslovakia and finding work in a state-run company, Kiska never became member of the Communist Party and also refrained from joining or publicly supporting any political entity after the fall of Communism in 1990 and creation of the Slovak Republic in 1993.

Andrej Kiska’s election slogan: “The First Independent President”

During the presidential campaign Kiska quickly established himself as the main contender to Prime Minister Robert Fico (whose motivation to run for president is not entirely clear to this day) thanks to the fact that the splintered centre-right opposition parties failed to even consider a joint candidate. Nevertheless, he consistently polled less that Fico and also finished the first round of elections as runner-up with 24% – 4% less than Fico whose result failed to match the higher predictions of the opinion polls. Kiska’s campaign centred on challenging the power of the governing centre-left SMER party of the Prime Minister (which held 83 of 150 seats in parliament at the time) and a number of malaises that characterised Slovakia (and party still do), in particular corruption and an ineffective judiciary. In this, he not only successfully managed to ‘sell’ his experience as a business manager but also establish himself as an anti-establishment candidate. This, together with his solid performance in the televised debates and the fact that Fico’s campaign ‘Prepared for Slovakia’ largely hinged on past successes, eventually transported him to a decisive 59.4% victory in the run-off.

Kiska in office: Inevitable cohabitation

Kiska’s election started a new phase of cohabitation between president and government. To this day, cohabitation based on party affiliation has been rare in Slovakia, but has rather emerged from presidents’ personal opposition to the government and rejection of particular parties. First Slovak president Michal Kovač (1993-1998) spent most of his term in office in cohabitation with Prime Minister Mečiar although both came from the HZDS. President Rudolf Schuster (1999-2004) officially ran as the government candidate, yet once elected rid himself of membership in his SOP (a coalition party) and positioned himself as the antagonist of the governments. Ivan Gašparovič was formally member and leader of the originally right-wing, extra-parliamentary HZD, yet during his term formed close personal ties with Robert Fico and left-wing SMER and subsequently was in cohabitation with the centre-right government of Iveta Radičova in 2010-2012. Given Kiska’s political self-placement as a moderate conservative, cohabitation with any government including SMER should be seen as a given.

Pursuant to his electoral campaign, Kiska has mainly tackled problems in the judiciary and healthcare. For instance, he rejected five out six candidates nominated by parliament to fill vacancies on Constitutional Court, vetoed legislation on that would have made elections in the Judicial Council (self-government of the judiciary) secret and refused another judge’s appointment due to irregularities in the selection process. Particularly, the first decision resulted in a lengthy and (partially) yet unresolved tug-of-war between parliament and president. In terms of healthcare, Kiska mainly used his position to raise awareness of waste of resources, including buying of overpriced hospital equipment. Kiska also used his legislative veto on a bill that abolished fees for priority medical examinations as well as on a number of other laws, ranging from amendments to minimum pensions, to the the Labour Code and the Public Procurement Act. While the president’s amendatory observations can be included as part of the veto review process, a veto can also be overridden by an absolute majority in parliament so that these tactics have been less successful. Nevertheless, his more sparing use of vetoes (especially compared to Rudolf Schuster) at least allows him to use this power to increase awareness of the issues. Interestingly, Kiska has been relatively silent on his election promise to curb corruption – particularly during his first year in office he was criticised for failing to speak out on a number of scandals. Kiska’s actions on the international stage have largely focussed on strengthening and repairing ties with NATO and Western EU leaders which have been strained thanks to Prime Minister Fico’s opposition against Russian sanctions and refugee quotas. Among the political leaders of Central and Eastern Europe, Kiska remains one of the few to argue in favour of accepting refugees.

Remarkably, Kiska has not yet formed an alliance with any political party. Even during the 2016 parliamentary elections, Kiska remained largely neutral. He launched a webpage to promote participation in the election and highlighted issues in schooling and healthcare. Although this first looked like the attempt to build a more organised political basis, the page is now defunct and Kiska appointed another government led by Robert Fico after the elections. Until now, Kiska has fared reasonably well with his declared non-partisan strategy and regularly tops opinion polls, but it remains to be seen how voters will evaluate his record come 2019. Should a united centre-right coalition present a single candidate, this might well prove dangerous for Kiska.

Perspectives: Another model of multi-millionaire president?

Andrej Kiska is a prominent millionaire businessman turned politician – a model which (although far from unusual, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe) not the least since the election of Donald Trump has come under increased criticism and scrutiny. However, Kiska is far from creating the same controversies as the above shows. Kiska gave up business more than a decade before entering politics (while the relatives with whom he founded several of his companies continue to be active in the business world, there is not direct involvement in any of their projects either). This is also a great difference to Czech finance minister Andrej Babiš who not only founded his own party but also continues to be involved in his businesses. Also, Kiska’s anti-establishment stance is largely supporting the introduction of values and practices of the political systems of Western Europe; it is not the same anti-establishment (and particularly anti-EU) rhetoric used by the populist far-right in other European countries. Last, Kiska continues his charity work by donating his entire net salary to charity – every month it is distributed to families or individuals in need that have been nominated by Dobry Anjel and other charities operating within its remit. Although the PR value of this must not to be disregarded, it stands in stark difference to other multi-millionaire presidents (and politicians) around the world.

Voice of dissent or singing in tune? Visegrad presidents and the refugee crisis

The refugee crisis facing Europe continues to make headlines as more and more refugees arrive at the South-Eastern borders of the EU and European leaders still battle to find a common position, let alone a solution to this problem. This is not my first post about presidents and the refugee crisis, having written about Austrian president Fischer’s intervention in a coalition conflict over managing influx of refugees into the country from Hungary two months ago. In recent months, the Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán has been particularly vocal in rejecting further acceptance of refugees and recently even closed its borders with neighbouring Serbia (having already built a fence along the border). Orban was joined by heads of governments in other Central and East European states, particularly other members of the Visegrad Group (consisting of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland) in a refusal to agree on an EU-wide quota system. While the countries’ Prime Ministers have naturally been the dominant actors with regard to the crisis so far, it is worth looking at presidents’ reactions as well given their that their position – irrespective of constitutional powers – also entails the role of moral authority. In this post I contrast and compare the public statements and positions of presidents with regards to the refugee crisis.

visegrad presidents prespow

Presidents of the Visegrad group countries (from left to right): Janos Áder (Hungary), Andrej Kiska (Slovakia), Milos Zeman (Czech Republic) and Andrzej Duda (Poland).

In stark contrast to Prime Minister Orbán, Hungarian president Janos Áder has by far been the least active with regards to the refugee crisis. Apart from stressing that Hungary would only accept refugees fleeing from war and persecution but not those migrating in search of work as well as a joint statement with Slovenian counterpart Borut Pahor calling for a – rather undefined – European solution, Áder has been relatively silent on the issue in public appearances. While addressing the issue once again during his speech at the UN general assembly in September where he called for global refugee quotas that would involve the US, Canada, Australia and China, his visit was dominated by the news that UN general secretary Ban Ki Moon expressed concern about the Hungarian response to the crisis in a meeting with him. Overall, Áder has aligned himself with the government and has given no indication that he disagrees with its policies. Given that Áder belongs to the governing Fidesz party and is a long-time ally of Viktor Orbán, this should not be surprising – Áder has generally not publicly shown himself to be an active check-and-balance on the government (see also my post ‘Hungary – Presidency lost?!‘ from last year). While a significant portion of public opinion disagrees with the government’s policies, they are not part of Fidesz’ electorate. Furthermore, being indirectly elected Áder relies on the parliamentary majority for re-election in 2017 – becoming too active not supporting the government in the current situation would mar his chances to remain president.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and his government, similarly to his Hungarian counterpart, has been very vocal in opposing a European quota system. Although Slovakia temporarily accepted 500 refugees to ease the pressure for neighbouring Austria and refusing to accept a significant number of refugees. One government spokesperson even declared that the country would only accept Christian refugees as Muslims ‘would not feel at home’ given the lack of mosques or local Muslim population. In contrast to other Visegrad presidents, Slovak president Andrej Kiska’s position comes much closer to that of Germany and some other Western European countries. Kiska expressed support for temporary quotas to distribute the burden among EU member states and stressed the EU’s moral duty to help the refugees. Although his call for doing more about the causes of the crisis in the countries of origin chimed with the argumentation of other Visegrad leaders, he notably refrained from making any reference to cultural issues/religion and stressed that more needed to be done to gain the trust of the Slovak population and make them understand why it is necessary to help. Given that Kiska is popularly elected and not affiliated with any political party (although he can generally be classified as belonging to the centre-right), he has more leeway in contradicting the government than Janos Áder. Nevertheless, national elections are due to be held next spring and taking a position that is ‘too Western’ might put him at odds with some of the centre-right parties on whose support he is planning to build in the next legislature.

The position of the Czech government on the refugee crisis deviates only minimally from that of its Visegrad partners. In early September, Prague hosted the meeting of Visegrad Prime Ministers which resulted in a joint statement for “preserving the voluntary nature of EU solidarity measures” and stating that “any proposal leading to introduction of mandatory and permanent quota for solidarity measures would be unacceptable”. Yet here it is the president whose statements have dominated the headlines. Milos Zeman, who once said Islam was the “enemy of euro-Atlantic civilisation” and likened it to Nazi ideology, recently described the refugee crisis as a “tsunami that was going to kill him“. In his speech at the UN general assembly, he avoided mentioning the topic of refugees directly, yet focussed on the need to military strikes against ISIS. Although Zeman’s comment do not put the Czech Republic in the best light internationally (an issue the government has faced since taking office), the government currently has little motivation to oppose them. Apart from the fact that public opinion in the Czech Republic is on their (and Zeman’s) side, individual members of the government have – at least indirectly – provided similarly controversial commentary on the crisis.

Poland is in a special situation among the Visegrad states as is features not only the most recently elected president but also a government facing re-election in just a month’s time. Although the government has so far shown the same position as other Visegrad members, the governing Civic Platform generally pro-European stance during its time in office and close cooperation with Germany might now – in addition to poor approval ratings which will see it losing the upcoming election regardless – be another factor contributing to its demise. President Andrzej Duda who is affiliated with the right-wing and EU-sceptic ‘Law and Justice’ party which is currently set for electoral victory has so far not produced the best track record in foreign policy. However, by speaking out against the quota system and blasting the “EU dictate of the strong” he has hit a nerve among the Polish electorate and found another way to play a strong role in the election campaign. Furthermore, Duda’s argument against accepting more refugees coming to the EU from its south-Eastern borders has been that Poland was already accepting refugees fleeing the conflict in eastern Ukraine. This points the traditionally Russo-sceptic Polish electorate (even more so the core electorate of Law and Justice where many still blame Russia for the tragic death of president Lech Kaczynski in the Smolensk air crash) to another point where he and his party can score points.

In conclusion, while the governments of the Visegrad states stand relatively united with regards to the refugee crisis, presidents exhibit some more variation. Nevertheless, apart from Slovak president Andrej Kiska they are all basically still singing to the same tune to play to public opinion and appeasing their electorate (be it the public or parliament) or that of their parties.

 

Travelling presidents – Slovak presidents abroad

One of the main responsibilities of presidents in any republic is representing the country abroad. A number of presidents (particularly if they are elected by popular vote) also play an official role in (shaping) foreign policy, giving their visits to other countries more relevance. For instance, after Ukrainian presidents paid their inaugural visit to Russia Viktor Yanukovych’s first foreign trip brought him to Brussels in a bid to counterbalance his otherwise pro-Russian stance. Newly elected Polish president Andrzej Duda on the other hand chose Estonia as the destination of his first trip abroad, underlining his Russo-sceptic stance by showing support for the small Baltic nation which due to its border with Russia and sizeable Russian minority has feared to become the victim of further Russian provocation in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Yet even if the government is in charge of a country’s foreign relations presidential visits abroad can carry great symbolic importance and are indicative of political alliances and networks. German presidents traditionally pay their inaugural visits to neighbour and ally France, neighbour Poland (although only more recently) and EU institutions. In this blog post I am looking at foreign visits of Slovak presidents between 1993 and 2015 and map and explain some differences between time periods and presidents.

sk prespow foreign visits

After Slovakia became in independent nation on 1 January 1993 it suddenly had to shoulder many tasks which before then had been performed by the Czechoslovak institutions, most of which – including the foreign ministry – were located in Prague so that hardly any structures were available (the lack of tradition in the foreign ministry is part of the reason that Slovakia is still known among foreign policy officials as ‘the country without protocol’). Although the Slovak presidency still lacked resources, the institution came to play a key role in the country’s recognition abroad – not only because the worldwide recognition presidents Walesa and Havel in neighbouring Poland and the Czech Republic seemed to make presidents the natural contact in the emerging nations of post-communist Europe, but also because Slovakia’s neighbours soon saw inaugural president Michal Kovač as their ally against the illiberal reign of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. Beginning with the term of Rudolf Schuster in 1999 (and after 15-month vacancy in the presidential office from march 1998), Slovakia’s first popularly elected presidents, the presidency’s actual role in foreign policy decreased. Nevertheless, the preparation of the country’s EU accession still gave sufficient reason for presidential travel to summits and international meetings (see peak in 2004). Schuster’s fondness of travelling also earned him notoriety among the country’s politicians and civil servants. Travel activity once again decreased under president Gašparovič (2004-2014), who was also generally less keen to engage in foreign policy. The sudden peak under new president Kiska can be explained by the fact that already shortly after his inauguration he had to attend several summits relating to the Ukrainian crisis.

sk prespow top tenn

When looking at overall numbers, it should not be surprising that neighbours Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany top the list of most visited countries by Slovakia’s presidents. The United States as a traditional ally of most Central European states and Hungary, Slovakia’s neighbour to the South, too, should not be surprising given its proximity. The fact that Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia also appear on top of the president-specific lists is also conditioned by the countries’ association in the Visegrad group which holds regular meetings with locations rotating between member states. Relatively frequent visits to Ukraine, too, appear to result from its geographic proximity.

An interesting pattern are the relatively frequent visits to the Vatican. Slovakia is ca. 62% Catholic with comparatively high church attendance and although although the quick succession of three popes in less than a decade certainly contributed to the number of presidential visits, it underlines the political weight of the church (although – as the anti-LGBT referendum showed – its influence is waning). The fact that Italy appears in the total number of visits more often than a powerful European nation such as France can be thereby likely explained by the ‘convenient’ location around Vatican City. Until now, Slovak presidents have visited 42 different countries, most of which very clearly mark the country’s alliances with others. While presidential visits abroad tend to be organised in close collaboration with the foreign ministry and are often connected to international summits or other events, Rudolf Schusters travels show that there is still some leeway. Schuster completed the greatest number of foreign visits in one term (74) remains the only Slovak president to have ever visited another country in the Americas than the USA, i.e. Canada.

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The data for this article comes from the official website of the Slovak president (http://www.prezident.sk) and Michal Kovač’ biography ‘Pamäti. Môj príbeh občana a prezidenta’ (MilaniuM 2010); it relates to both official visits and ‘working visits’ but excludes private visists. A MS Excel spread sheet with the data for this post can be downloaded here.

Slovakia – One year on, conflict over president’s refusal to appoint judges remains unsolved

In a post last year I discussed Slovak president Andrej Kiska’s first three months in office and in particular his activism in the area of judicial reform. Since then, the conflict over the appointment of constitutional court judges between Kiska and the government has taken a number of unexpected turns which have opened a new chapter in the complicated relationship between presidents, governments and the judiciary in Slovakia.

The Slovak Constitutional Court | photo via www.concourt.sk

On 18 June, Andrej Kiska celebrated his first year in the presidential office. Having beaten Prime Minister Robert Fico, Kiska is the country’s first truly non-partisan president yet given his centre-right policy positions has found himself in cohabitation with the government since his inauguration. While minor conflicts over health care reform and other legislation as well as foreign policy emerged appeared throughout the first year, the most controversial issue has been Kiska’s decision from last July to only appoint one of the six candidates for constitutional court judges proposed by parliament. The Slovak Constitution stipulates that the president chooses candidates from a set proposed by parliament (which is always twice the number of open positions) but offers no guidance on how to proceed if the president fails to do so or by which criteria s/he is allowed to ask parliament for more/other nominees. Since last year, two seats of the constitutional court have thus been left vacant.

After being denied appointment, all three of the judges filed complaints against Kiska in the constitutional court, claiming that his refusal to appoint them had violated their right to take up public office under equal conditions. In March this year, the court’s third Senate ruled in favour of three of the judges, yet apart from determination of guilt and ruling on compensation, it did not issue any further guidance on how the president should proceed (or should have proceeded) – an issue of which some hoped that it would be discussed in the judgement of the other Senate dealing with the separate complaint of the two candidates. However, during the last weeks the two remaining judges have withdrawn their complaint and the court subsequently seized any proceedings in the matter.

The court’s decision in March – although making clear that the president overstepped his boundaries in rejecting five out of six candidates – has unfortunately not brought political actors closer to resolving the issue much closer than a year ago. This is mostly because Kiska and his advisors still question the legitimacy of the ruling. The third Senate includes Jana Baricová -the only judge Kiska appointed last year – who Kiska accuses of being biased as she was involved in the nomination procedure. Nevertheless, a formal complaint and request to hear Baricová as a witness (which would have disqualified her from acting as a judge on the case) was rejected. Yet, eventually a single vote made the difference in the court’s decision which Kiska and his advisors interpret as supporting their claim of bias. These arguments notwithstanding, there are also some problems with the content of the decision as it only insufficiently discusses the way in which the candidates’ rights were violated and failed to spell out criteria under which a rejection would have been lawful (although it should be added that Kiska, too, failed to spell out why exactly he only appointed Baricová). Constitutional experts are currently at a loss of what should be done and by whom. Some argue that Kiska now has to appoint two of the five rejected candidates while others assert that parliament should present four new candidates (i.e. twice the number of open positions) or would only need to present one more candidate as the three nominees from the March decision were still eligible while the remaining two had disqualified themselves by withdrawing their complaint.

The tug-of-war between president and parliament/government over constitutional court appointments is thus likely to continue. Due to the fact that the term of constitutional court judges runs for twelve years and an increasing number of political conflicts is fought in the court, both sides are engaged in a high-stakes game in which one wrong move could have long-lasting consequences. At first sight, Prime Minister Fico and his government appear to be at an advantage given the court’s ruling in March as well as their strong majority in parliament which lets them control all subsequent nominations. However, with general elections approaching (scheduled for March 2016) Fico and his SMER party will be wary to seek a legislative solution (e.g. by changing the constitution or passing a law specifying the nomination procedures to their advantage) which could backfire in the next legislature. Kiska on the other hand needs to make sure that he does not become too active on this issue, thus spoiling his chances to affect policy change in other areas. Yet as the positions of all constitutional judges are up for renewal during Kiska’s term, he may well try to hold out and wait whether parliament will eventually give in to his demands, thus creating a precedent which would significantly increase his power.

Slovakia – Low turnout thwarts anti-LGBT referendum

On Saturday, 7 February, Slovakia held a referendum on three questions pertaining to same-sex marriage with the aim of further restricting LGBT rights in the country. The referendum was initiated by the Christian right-wing organisation ‘Alliance for the Family’ (Aliancia za rodinu) after it gathered more than 400,000 signatures (50,000 more than required, ca. 8% of all citizens).[1] Despite being supported by the Catholic Church and a great number of other religious and civil society organisations, the referendum eventually failed to succeed due to low turnout.

Questions and result of the same-sex marriage referendum in Slovakia, 7 February 2015

Question Yes No Invalid
1 Do you agree that only a bond between one man and one woman can be called marriage? 94.50% 4.13% 1.36%
2 Do you agree that same-sex couples or groups should not be allowed to adopt and raise children? 92.43% 5.54% 2.01%
3 Do you agree that schools cannot require children to participate in education pertaining to sexual behaviour or euthanasia if the children or their parents don’t agree? 90.32% 7.34% 2.33%
Registered voters: 4 411 529

Turnout: 21.41% (referendum not valid as turnout below 50%)

Source: http://www.volbysr.sk/en/data.html

The ‘Alliance for the Family’ was formed in late 2013 with the aim of enshrining the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman and strengthening the ‘traditional family. In April 2014 started to collect signatures for their referendum initiative after having been supported by the Slovak Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as a number of other churches and religious groups (the Catholic Church even had a letter in support read out during Sunday worship). Parties and political leaders on the other hand were hesitant to support the referendum – the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) was the only party to openly call for voting in favour of all questions, whereas others only asked their supporters to participate in the referendum without indication of how to vote.

Likewise, political leaders were hesitant to affiliate themselves with either side, careful not wanting to scare off potential voters (parliamentary elections will be held in March 2016) as well as not to worsen relations with the churches and grass-roots organisations. Prime Minister Robert Fico, leader of the left-wing SMER party, hinted at being in favour of some form of same-sex unions. However, in June 2014 (and thus while signatures were still being collected) the Slovak parliament – with the votes of Fico’s SMER which holds almost 2/3 of the seats – changed the constitution to re-define marriage as being a man and a woman (a move rumoured to be a deal with the KDH to push through further judicial reforms). President Kiska (independent, politically centre-right) initially declared that he would vote yes on the first two questions and no on the third, yet tried to relativise his statements after public criticism.

Presidents and referenda have difficult history in Slovakia. In 1997, president Michal Kováć and the government clashed over the scheduling of a referendum on NATO entry and inclusion of a question on introducing popular presidential elections. Kováć’s successor, Rudolf Schuster, on the other hand announced a referendum initiated by the opposition which called for the shortening of parliament’s term in 1999. Not only to avoid conflict, but certainly also to remain a more impartial position, rresident Kiska decided to put the questions before the constitutional court – a right the president only gained as part of the 1999-2001 constitutional reforms. In the end the Constitutional Court decided to exclude a fourth question from the ballot, judging it as unconstitutional.[2]

When the results started to come in, it soon became clear that the results of the referendum would be invalid due to low turnout – only the Námestovo Electoral District recorded slightly more than the 50% turnout that would have been necessary. Eventually, only 21.41% of voters cast their vote (i.e. only little more than twice the number of signatures submitted) which mirrors not only Slovak citizens’ turnout in the six previous referenda (only the 2003 referendum on EU entry achieved the required turnout) but also general voter apathy in the country. The referendum as such thus presents a dilemma for Slovak politics. Despite attracting much international criticism (most notably from Amnesty International), it is Slovakia’s first publicly initiated referendum and the ‘Alliance for Family’ is the largest civil organisation since the ‘Public Against Violence’ (the Slovak counterpart to the Czech ‘Civic Forum’) which toppled the Communist regime 25 years ago. Although the Alliance has thus managed what few others have managed to do – namely unite a not insignificant part of the public on a single issue and force it on the national agenda – its failure might eventually lead to even greater voter apathy.

It is not clear to what extent the results of the referendum can be interpreted with regard to the parliamentary elections next year. Superficially, it might appear that the KDH as the only party which actively supported the referendum might benefit (it with 8.8% it was the second largest party in the last elections), yet the parties on the political right in Slovakia are traditionally splintered and so are their support bases. It is thus unlikely that a single party may gain in a more multi-faceted electoral setting. The transformation of the Alliance into a new party is also unlikely – on Sunday representatives re-asserted their claim to be ‘citizen’s activists’ and not wanting to become politicians.

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[1] In the end 390,000 signatures were judged to be valid.
[2] The fourth question read: ‘Do you agree that no other form of cohabitation shall be awarded the special protection, the rights and the obligations which by legal norms are awarded to husbands and wives as of 1 March 2014 – in particular the recognition, registration or documentation as a form of cohabitation before public authorities, and the possibility of adopting the child of the other parent?’

See also: Croatia – Referendum criticised by the president and prime minister passed with large popular support

Slovakia – Continuing a legacy? President Kiska’s first 3 months in office and the battleground of judicial appointments

The first three months of the presidency of Slovakia’s self-styled ‘first independent president’ (he has not held membership in any political party at any point in his life) Andrej Kiska have been far from inactive, despite the political low season that usually occurs during parliament’s summer recess. Thereby, the issue of judicial appointments has once again returned to the political agenda. While the reform of the judiciary was part of Kiska’s electoral manifesto, it also shows that this is one of the few areas in which the Slovak presidency might still be able to exert decisive influence.

Slovak president Andrej Kiska | photo via prezident.sk

Right from the start of his presidency, Andrej Kiska was thrown in the deep end. Apart from a number of inaugural visits abroad, he had to deal with an invitation to the 70th anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising that his predecessor had extended to Vladimir Putin without consulting the government or the new president-elect. He also had to decide on proclaiming a controversial referendum on issues surrounding same-sex partnerships initiated by a citizens (he opted to ask the Constitutional Court to review the proposed questions) and most recently attended that NATO summit in Wales. While his promise to station NATO troops in the country was met with great opposition by the government and is likely to lead to more conflict in the future, Kiska picked his first fight with government parliament on an issue that already created conflict between these institutions and his predecessor, i.e. the judiciary.

During his first week in office, Andrej Kiska was faced with the decision of whom to appoint as new judges to the country’s Constitutional Court. Parliament had already delivered a list of six nominations to his predecessor (who chose not to concern himself with the issue during his last days in office) from which Kiska – according to Art. 134 II of the constitution – was to appoint three. However, Kiska only appointed one candidate and subsequently demanded that parliament resent him with new candidates, citing their lack of experience with regards to constitutional law and justifying his actions by his oath of office. Naturally, the request was rejected by parliament and government and – partly due to parliament’s summer recess – no further actions have been taken from either side. Only two weeks later, Kiska used his first veto on a bill that among others foresaw to make elections in the Judicial Council (self-governance of the judiciary in Slovakia) secret and later rejected the appointment of a judge due to alleged irregularities in the selection process.

Kiska’s activity in this area thereby does not seem to be solely motivated by his wish to implement his electoral promises, some of which (e.g. the donation of his salary to families in need) he has already been able to implement with publicity effect. The judiciary also presents one of the few areas in which the Slovak president is still be able to exert decisive influence. The president does not have mentionable power over government formation and censure (while presidents can theoretically reject candidates, they have not done so since 1993) or over substantive legislation as their veto of such bills is almost always overridden. Due to the very frequent use of vetoes by Kiska’s predecessors Schuster and Gašparovič, the power has also largely lost its potential to be used as a clear signal to voters.

In contrast, there is only little constitutional practice on president’s discretion in judicial appointments and the precedent case of Ivan Gašparovič’s refusal to appoint a new public prosecutor has shown that Kiska might be able to force his preferences and otherwise has to fear little consequences. Given that Kiska will remain in opposition with the government for the next two years (or even longer should the party of the centre-right continue to fail at uniting against the SMER party of Prime Minister Fico), having well-disposed judges on the constitutional court would certainly strengthen Kiska’s otherwise rather weak position.

Thus, although Kiska’s activism regarding the judiciary may partly be motivated by his wish to fulfill the promises of judiciary reform and fighting corruption on whose basis he was elected, it could not only help to secure his re-election but also strengthen his position vis-a-vis parliament and government. This would particularly be true if he actually plans to remain completely independent politically (i.e. not even form an informal affiliation with one of the centre-right parties) and lets the cohabitation with the government – irrespective of its party composition – continue.

Slovakia – Perils of semi-presidentialism?! Independent Andrej Kiska inaugurated as new president

On 15 June 2014 independent Andrej Kiska was inaugurated as Slovakia’s new president, succeding Ivan Gašparovič who had served as president since 2004. Kiska is the country’s first truly non-partisan president and while his lack of any partisan affiliation was one of the main reason for his electoral victory against Prime Minister Robert Fico, it will also be his greatest obstacle to exerting political influence.

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Andrej Kiska giving his inaugural address in the concert hall of the Slovak Philharmonic | photo via nrsr.sk

Since 1993, Slovakia has experience three different presidents – indirectly elected Michal Kovač (1993-1998; indirectly elected), Rudolf Schuster (1999-2004) and Ivan Gašparovič (2004-2014; both directly elected) – all of which declared to stand above parties and act as presidents of all people. Kiska, too, declared his ambition to be a president above parties, yet in contrast to his predecessors he is – in his own words – “the first president without political or partisan past”. Non-partisan presidents are not an unusual phenomenon and given that constitutional stipulations or constitutional practices in most European republics foresee that presidents give up their party membership a number of presidents could be classified as such. Nevertheless, Kiska is exceptional in so far as he never served in any other political office and has never been member of a political party. His predecessors were all experienced politicians and (at least up until their inauguration) party members. In a European context, the only real point of comparison for such apolitical and non-partisan candidate even entering the second round of a popular presidential election would be Stanislaw Tyminski, a Polish-Canadian businessman who surprisingly advanced to the second round in the 1990 Polish presidential elections but eventually lost against Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

Kiska’s lack of a political past together with his background as a self-made man proved to be his most important asset and unique selling point in the presidential campaign. However, Kiska’s independence will now likely be an obstacle to his success as a president. The political left, almost exclusively represented by the governing SMER-party of Prime Minister Robert Fico, sees Kiska as a representative of the right and will generally be hostile towards the new president (not only because he defeated Fico). While this might not lead to open conflict between government and Prime Minister, the refusal of outgoing president Gašparovič to meet with his successor is reminiscent of the way the semi-authoritarian government of Vladimir Meciar (1992-1998) tried to sabotage the work of president Michal Kovač and shows how the government could try to prevent Kiska from becoming an effective check-and-balance. The fragmented political right on the other hand is wary of the new president and despite the support Kiska received from the third- and fourth-placed centre-right candidates, Radoslav Procházka and Milan Kňažko, he can hardly count on any party to act as his support base.

With the next parliamentary elections still two years away and SMER holding a majority of 55% in the assembly, Kiska is in a difficult situation. On the one hand he is in cohabitation with the government and should therefore be more active to show his closeness to and build alliances with the centre-right in parliament. On the other hand, although SMER’s approval ratings have been falling since their victory in the snap elections of 2012, it is currently unlikely that an alliance of centre-right parties will emerge that can topple the current government. Furthermore, if Kiska wants to play at least some role in everyday politics in the next two years, he needs to stay on neutral terms with the government and parliamentary majority. Although the contents of Kiska’s inaugural address should be interpreted with caution, his announcement to support political ideas from whichever political side they come from appears to be a signal in this direction.

Kiska

Kiska’s campaign poster [slogan reads: ‘The first independent president’] | image via andrejkiska.sk

In their discussion of presidentialism, Linz (1990) and Mainwaring and Shugart (1997) agree that popular presidential elections are more likely to bring political outsiders into power which can have negative consequences for political stability and presents one of the theoretical perils of presidentialism. Due to the limited powers of the Slovak president, a destabilisation of the political scene is unlikely – even the extremely frequent use of vetoes by president Rudolf Schuster who vetoed more than 10% of all legislation did not affect the parliamentary character of the system. Rather, the outsider status appears to have a negative effect on the president’s ability to influence policy and thus represents a peril for the president, not democracy.

For now, Kiska’s most likely course of action appears to be to continue stressing his philanthropic activities – he is founder of the “God Angel” charity, declared that he was willing to give his salary to the poor (see also here) and invited a number of socially disadvantaged people to the first dinner he hosted as president – while looking for a viable political partner. The new centrist formation ‘Sieť’ (Net) of third-placed presidential candidate Radoslav Procházka (the only of the centre-right candidates to unequivocally support Kiska in the second round) could be an option. According to a recent poll, its approval stands at 13% and is thus only second to Prime Minister Fico’s SMER (34.6%). Nevertheless, Kiska will likely remain cautious in affilliating himself with any political party (even inofficially) and probably wait how ‘Sieť’ fairs in local election in autumn before deciding on further steps.

 

Slovakia – Independent Andrej Kiska wins presidential elections, turbulent times ahead

On Saturday 29 March Slovakia held the second round of presidential election. After Prime Minister Robert Fico had still emerged as the winner of the first round, he was now clearly defeated by independent candidate Andrej Kiska. As Kiska lacks both political experience and a support base in parliament, conflicts between the president and other institutions appear to be inevitable.

Results 1st and 2nd round Slovak presidential elections2

Robert Fico’s bad performance in the first round had already come as a surprise as all polling firms had predicted at least a 10% lead for the Prime Minister. No polls for the second round were made public, yet the fact that candidates from the political right (including Kiska) claimed the majority of the vote in the first round made Kiska’s victory over Fico (leader of of the leftist SMER-SD) more likely.

The two weeks leading up to Saturday’s election were largely characterised by Fico’s aggressive and negative campaigning. He and his team repeatedly raised accusations that Kiska was a member of (or had at least close contact to) Scientology in a bid to win over conservative voters and tried to shed doubt on Kiska’s business success. At the same time, Fico tried to present himself as an internationally recognised and experienced candidate with the backing of Czech president Zeman, French president Hollande and European Parliament speaker Schulz to highlight Kiska’s lack of political experience. He even tried to increase his appeal with ethnic Hungarian voters by putting up bilingual billboards. However, in 2009 Fico and his then-coalition partner, the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS), had mobilised voters to elect president Ivan Gašparovič for a second term by telling them ‘not to let the Hungarians elect their president’. It is therefore questionable how successful this move was but it can defintely be interpreted as a sign of desperation on Fico’s part.

Andrej Kiska, an entrepreneur and philantropist, on the other hand stayed relatively uncontroversial. The direct confrontation with Fico in several TV debates demonstrated that he is less eloquent than the experienced Prime Minister, yet this might have rather added to his appeal as a true outsider (previous presidents Schuster and Gašparovič had officially run as independent candidates yet were both still leaders of their own parties during the campaign). Kiska also managed to receive the official (albeit less than whole-hearted) backing of the third- and fourth-placed candidates from the first round, Radoslav Procházka and Milan Kňažko. 

In the end, the second round drew 290,000  (7%) more voters to the polls, yet it was mostly Kiska who profited from this. He could almost triple his absolute number of votes, whereas Fico failed to even double his number of votes from the first round. Fico only received a majority of votes in the strongholds of his party SMER-SD, yet these electoral districts also tended to be those with the lowest turnout.

The question is now how – to use one of Kiska’s campaign slogans – ‘the first independent president’ will change the politics of the presidential office once he is inaugurated on 15 June. At the moment, a scenario similar to the clashes and conflicts between president Schuster and Prime Minister Dzurinda in 1999-2004 seems most likely. Even though Schuster had been the government candidate, he cut all ties with his party (which participated in the government until 2002) and started to challenge the government and almost every occasion. Lacking a parliamentary support base (and thus bargaining weight vis-a-vis parliament and government), Schuster soon became isolated and resorted to his veto power with unprecedented frequency.

Kiska faces similar problems: He has never held a political office before and maintains no affiliation with any party. While the latter might allow him to garner support from a wider range of right-of-centre parties, the fragmentation of the political right in Slovakia will make it difficult for him to build alliances. Given the limited powers of the Slovak presidency, Kiska will have problems to implement his electoral promises and is thus limited to highlight his policy positions by returning bills to the assembly where – at least until the 2016 parliamentary elections – his vetoes will inevitably be overturned by the absolute majority of Fico’s SMER-SD government.

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More information about the elections is available on the website of the Slovak Statistical Office (in English): http://prezident2014.statistics.sk/Prezident-dv/home-en.html

Slovakia – First round of presidential elections

On Saturday, 15 March, Slovakia held the first round of presidential elections; it is the third presidential election since the country changed from indirect to direct elections in 1999, As expected, none of the 14 candidates came close to a majority of votes and Prime Minister Robert Fico and independent candidate Andrej Kiska, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, will face each other in the second round. Nevertheless, the result can still be seen as surprising and makes predictions about the outcome of the second round even more complicated.

Results 1st round Slovak presidential elections

All recent polls had predicted Fico and Kiska to advance to the second round, yet most had seen Fico  at 35-38% and thus 9-15% in the lead. The relatively small gap between the two front-runenrs as well as the fact that candidates from the political (centre-) right (Procházka, Kňažko) to which Kiska belongs, appear to make Kiska’s victory more likely. At least one opinion poll – albeit from last December – saw Kiska win again Fico should they compete in a second round of voting.

While the Slovak centre-right has long been fragmented, Procházka as well as the SDKU (whose candidate only received 3.3%) have already declared their support for Kiska. Some further candidates might declare their support for either Kiska or Fico (although the latter’s potential is smaller), but the bigger question is which candidate will able to mobilise more voters. On his blog, Kevin Deegan-Krause shows how different shares of voters staying home or coming to the polls can drastically change the situation and even though most scenarios would see Kiska as Slovakia’s next president, could also lead to Fico’s victory.

Campaign slogans of Robert Fico ('Ready for Slovakia') and Andrej Kiska ('The first independent president')

Campaign slogans of Prime Minister Robert Fico (‘Ready for Slovakia’) and independent contender Andrej Kiska (‘The first independent president’).

During the campaign, Fico has failed to clarify his intentions with regards to the future role of the presidency (see also here). Thus, even voters who would generally vote for Fico’s SMER party (which currently holds 83/150 in the Slovak Parliament) might be deterred by this uncertainty or would rather have Fico continue as Prime Minister. Andrej Kiska, with his campaign slogan ‘The first independent president’, could potentially capitalise on Fico’s vagueness on this point. In his campaign, Kiska also promised to be an active check-and-balance on government and parliament. While he would have difficulties attempting to implement most of his policy promises due to the limited powers of the presidency and the lack of partisan representation in parliament, promising to be more active might resonate well with voters who have been disappointed by outgoing president Gašparovič and his growing closeness to SMER (which either meant large-scale inactivity or the controversial exploitation of constitutional loopholes).

Nevertheless, despite their popular mandate, Slovak presidents since 1999 have not been able to establish themselves as important political players. The continuously low turnout (staying always below participation in parliamentary elections) in presidential elections is evidence of the fact that Slovaks see the contest as a second-order election.

The second round of elections will be held in two weeks on 29 March 2014. Results can be expected from 9pm GMT.