They faced each other in the runoff in the 2014 presidential elections. They occasionally exchanged critical remarks and engaged in a bitter dispute in late 2017 over the perks of the presidential office and the policy record of the country’s coalition government. Now, Slovak media are extensively reporting that President Andrej Kiska and Prime Minister Robert Fico may be getting closer to a deal that would effectively mean their departure from Slovak politics.
When Andrej Kiska, a political novice with no previous experience of elected office, ran for the presidency in 2014, even his supporters acknowledged that his inexperience was his main weakness. His opponents, including Prime Minister Fico himself, tried to exploit the issue in the campaign. Nevertheless, Slovak voters elected him to the office with overwhelming support. Four years later, they do not seem to regret their choice: Kiska has been the country’s most trusted politician, largely abstaining from the heat of everyday politics. There were rumours that Kiska would set up his own political party and contest the parliamentary elections scheduled for Spring 2020. Last year, Kiska ruled out such a possibility. He also stated that he had not decided whether to run for a second five-year term as President. Throughout February 2018, various media outlets claim Kiska has made up his mind and will not seek re-election.
People close to the president, quoted by the media under the condition of anonymity, cite Kiska’s desire to spend more time with his family as the main reason. While the President spends most of his time in Bratislava, his family lives in Poprad in northern Slovakia. Some people suggest that he dislikes day-to-day political struggles, including his exchanges with Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, an unpopular but powerful player and an undisputed No. 2 in Robert Fico’s Smer-Social Democracy Party (Smer-SD). For over a year, Kaliňák has criticized President for using a government plane for weekend flights to his family. The President insisted he had used the plane at the Interior Minister’s request since the pilots had logged too few flying hours. Last April, the President stopped flying and has used a car ever since. Kaliňák even claimed his ministry sent an invoice to the president to pay for the service but it turned out no invoice was ever sent. In any case, it would have no legal basis since the president was entitled to use the plane throughout his term.
Since the beginning of the year, the President has met separately with the leaders of all relevant political parties (with the exception of the neo-Nazi People’s Party-Our Slovakia). While most of them declined to comment on the content of what was said, at least three opposition politicians did indirectly confirm that the president told them he would not run again and instead advised them to start searching for their own candidates. Leaders of two main opposition parties recently announced they already had suitable candidates should President Kiska not seek re-election.
Representatives of the governing parties were considerably less open to sharing details of their meetings with President. Several media outlets reported that Prime Minister Fico approached the President with the idea that he would step down as the Prime Minister, should Kiska appoint him to lead the Constitutional Court. In February 2019, a twelve-year term will expire for nine of the thirteen judges of the constitutional court, including the present Chairwomen. As specified in the Constitution, the Parliament will have to elect 18 candidates for the top court, and the president will have to choose nine. The resignation of the Prime Minister would automatically mean the entire cabinet must step down. Fico is said to have suggested to the President that Interior Minister Kaliňák would not need to be in the new cabinet. That would meet President’s earlier demands that Kaliňák should not hold any ministerial post, given his damaged reputation.
Neither the President nor the Prime Minister has commented on these reports. The scenario, however, was confirmed to the media by several well-informed sources in the Smer-SD party. The President’s spokespersons reiterated that Kiska would make his decision public by the end of September at the latest, but admitted it may be announced as early as March. The Prime Minister’s Office stated that Fico planned to lead his party into the 2020 parliamentary elections.
There is a general perception that should he run, Kiska would easily win a second term. If he really decides not to run again, the election outcome would be wholly unpredictable. For their part, the governing parties face grave difficulties in finding viable presidential candidates. While potential candidates of the two junior parties have little chance of winning, Smer-SD, as the most successful party of the last decade, is expected to field a strong contender. However, with Robert Fico vigorously ruling out another presidential bid, there are no obvious candidates to represent the party in the presidential contest. Miroslav Lajčák, a respected Foreign Minister who currently chairs the UN Parliamentary Assembly, stated in an interview that he would not run for the presidency. Maroš Ševčovič, another career diplomat, who is one of the Vice-Presidents of the European Commission, also hesitantly denied any presidential ambitions, even though many in his party believe he may eventually run.
Fico’s possible departure from national politics would be a litmus test for his Smer-SD’s ability to adapt to new conditions. He has been his party’s main asset and few observers believe there is a politician of comparable talent ready to replace him at the party’s helm. Kiska’s retirement may not have a direct impact on the party political scene, but it would open the possibility of a new (non-party) president with a potential to bring new dynamics into intra-executive relations.