Today, two days after his five-year presidential term expired, former Slovak president Andrej Kiska officially announces the launch of his new political party. This is an unprecedented step in the country whose directly elected but largely ceremonial presidency normally represents a destination for ambitious politicians who wish for an honorable culmination of their political careers. Things seem to be changing, though: Kiska, a novice himself, was replaced by another political newcomer, an environmental activist Zuzana Čaputová, who also started her political career by winning the country’s presidency. Moreover, since 1918, when the Czechoslovak Republic was established, no Czechoslovak, Czech, and Slovak president ever returned to active party politics.
Earlier last year, Kiska decided to complete his term and quit active politics altogether. After the murder of an investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée in February last year that exposed links between elements of the criminal underworld and representatives of some state institutions, he announced he would forge a new political party. That was the only way, he claimed, that would allow him to fight against what he came to call “the mafia state.”
Although Kiska departed from the tradition of outgoing presidents retiring from political life, while in office, he nominally remained above party politics: He formally started collecting the required 10.000 signatures needed to establish his new party only after his presidential term ended.
Kiska acknowledged that he was in regular contacts with the former Prime Minister Iveta Radičová, a popular politician who quit politics in 2012. However, despite some speculations, Radičová said she would not return to politics and claimed she only provided political consultations to the outgoing president. Kiska’s new associates include a former Member of the European Parliament, a former spokesperson of the For Decent Slovakia civic initiative, a former Slovak Ambassador to NATO, and mayors of several towns elected in the 2018 local elections. It is widely expected that a few more senior politicians will join the party in the coming weeks and months.
Early opinion polls suggested potentially wide support for the project. In March 2019, some 9% voters said they would “definitely” vote for Kiska’s new party, and additional 31% said they would “probably” vote for it. Subsequent polls brought more mixed results: In May, the same agency reported a 10.8% support, while in June, another agency reported 6.2% support for the party. It would be a mistake to make far-reaching conclusions based on these assessments. Chances are the new party will become a relevant player in the parliamentary elections scheduled for March next year. As the massive anti-government protests in 2018 indicated, there has been widespread dissatisfaction with the parties of the current governing coalition. Furthermore, as first indicated in the November 2018 local elections, a new generation of political leaders can challenge the positions of the governing parties independently of the current parliamentary opposition.
This “new wave” politicians represent a natural ally and also a potential competition for Kiska’s new party. The presidential aura and a level of “natural support” for the head of state are Kiska’s substantial assets, as is the fact that as a well-off former businessman, Andrej Kiska has money to finance the early period of his party. On the other hand, his competitors-cum-natural-allies have been in the campaign mode since late last year and were able to score two crucial victories at the national level: Zuzana Čaputová, who won the March presidential elections, was a nominee of the Progressive Slovakia (PS), a new liberal party, where she served as the deputy chairwoman until her election victory. And an electoral coalition of Progressive Slovakia and Spolu (Together), another new center-right formation, won the May European Parliament elections, gaining 20.1% and four out of 13 Slovak seats in the European Parliament. The PS/Spolu alliance now regularly polls double-digit numbers. Leaders of the two parties have been in contact with Kiska since 2018 and reportedly offered him close cooperation, but their talks did not result in any tangible arrangement. On June 14, just before Kiska’s presidential mandate expired, the two leading representatives of the coalition held a joint press conference. There they announced they would form a formal electoral alliance for the 2020 parliamentary elections. They also repeatedly appealed to Kiska to join them. This time, however, the tone, timing, and wording of the appeal suggested the PS/Spolu gained more confidence and they no longer talked to Kiska from the positions of junior partners.
Kiska’s new party will also face formidable opponents in other parts of the political spectrum. The governing Smer-Social Democracy, still led by the former Prime Minister Fico, misses no opportunity to criticize Kiska for his performance in public office. Smer’s electoral performance has been worsening ever since its landslide victory in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Earlier this year, Fico himself unsuccessfully attempted to exit party politics by running for a post in the Constitutional Court. Despite defeat in the EP elections, Fico has withstood pressures to give up the party leadership and is set to lead the party to the next elections.
Furthermore, opposition to the current government comes both from liberal/moderate PS/Spolu positions and from the anti-system quarters. The extreme-right Peoples Party our Slovakia (ĽSNS) scored its best result, reaching 12% and gaining two seats in the EP. Besides, supporters of the controversial judge Štefan Harabin, who finished third in the presidential elections, also work on establishing a new party. Both ĽSNS and Harabin portray Kiska as the agent of anti-Slovak cosmopolitan interests, and their message is spread by the country’s expanding disinformation websites.
Kiska’s new party is to be called “Za ľudí” (For People) and is projected as a centrist force, appealing to both conservative and liberal voters. It is too early to guess its electoral prospects and political future. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that high approval ratings enjoyed by President Kiska are unlikely to be translated into equally high support for party chairman Kiska.