Fico, Kiska advance to Slovak presidential runoff

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Slovak prime minister Robert Fico led in the first round of the country’s presidential election on Saturday, but he’ll face stiff competition in the March 29 runoff from political neophyte Andrej Kiska.slovakia flag

Fico won 28.0% of the vote and Kiska took 24.0% — both contenders were expected to finish in the top two spots and advance to the final round.  The big surprise in Saturday’s election, however, was the strength of third-place finisher Radoslav Procházka, a Christian democratic independent who won 21.2% of the vote.  Milan Kňažko, an actor, also a Christian democrat, and a top Slovak leader of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, won 12.9% of the vote.

The results mean that Fico (pictured above) will face a very tough time winning an absolute majority against Kiska in two weeks’ time.

The outcome of the election itself isn’t as significant as the surrounding context.  Slovakia’s presidency is essentially ceremonial, though the president formally nominates the prime minister and some members of Slovakia’s constitutional court and other judicial offices.  Though the president can veto routine bills passed by the unicameral Národná rada (National Council), a simple majority of the National Council can override the presidential veto.

That means that the Slovak presidency is much more like the ceremonial German presidency instead of the truly powerful French presidency — and even, from a constitutional perspective, weaker than the Czech presidency.

Accordingly, the election is important for two reasons.  First, the election has now become a referendum on Fico and his governing center-left party, Smer – sociálna demokracia (Direction — Social Democracy).

Second, if Fico wins, his elevation to the presidency will necessitate the selection of a new prime minister and government. 

Fico, who is just 49 years old, has been Smer‘s leader since 1999, and he previously served as prime minister between 2006 and 2010.  He returned to power after the March 2012 parliamentary elections, in which Smer notched Slovakia’s most lopsided victory in post-independence history.  Smer won 83 of the National Council’s 150 seats, and it won five times as many votes as the nearest party, the Kresťanskodemokratické hnutie (Christian Democratic Movement).  The party of outgoing prime minister Iveta Radičová, Slovenská demokratická a kresťanská únia – Demokratická strana (SDKÚ-DS, Slovak Democratic and Christian Union – Democratic Party) fell to fifth place and won just 11 seats in the National Council.  Radičová, the runner-up in the previous 2009 presidential election, ruled out another presidential bid this year, which left the SDKÚ and the Slovak center-right grasping to unite behind a single candidate in the election’s first round.

Fico’s government is one of the few in contemporary Europe that hasn’t pursued ‘austerity’ measures, which has garnered him a reputation as one of Europe’s strongest pro-growth politicians.  Fico ‘unflattened’ Slovakia’s flat tax, with rates that have risen from 19% up to 25%, but Fico has otherwise avoided the kind of budget cuts that many other countries have been forced to take (or otherwise chosen to implement).  That’s given Slovakia one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe today — an economy that is growing much faster than the Czech economy, for example (Slovak GDP grew by 2% in 2012, while Czech GDP contracted by 1.3% in the same year).

Fico and Smer lost power after the 2010 elections not because his policies were unpopular, but because Fico was implicated in a 2002 scandal whereby Smer benefitted from a parallel (illegal) campaign finance structure, one of the most egregious examples of corruption in the country’s short history.  After two years of Radičová’s center-right coalition government, however, Slovak voters turned back to Fico in fierce numbers.

The spectre of Smer‘s campaign finance scandal is one of the reasons that Fico isn’t a lock to win the Slovak presidency in the runoff later this month — and, arguably, is now the underdog against Kiska.  But if Fico loses the runoff, it doesn’t mean that Slovak voters are necessarily unhappy or dissatisfied with his record as prime minister.

Fico is the first sitting prime minister (or former prime minister, for that matter) to contest the presidency, which has been selected through direct election since 1999.  If Fico wins on March 29, it could alter the fundamental dynamic of the ceremonial presidency.  Slovak voters have doubts about how ‘ceremonial’ the presidency would be with Fico occupying the office.  Although the National Council, under Smer‘s control, would choose a new prime minister, Fico would ultimately be viewed as the real power calling the shots of Slovakia’s government.  That prospect is especially troubling given the aggressive posture that Miloš Zeman, a former social democratic prime minister, has taken as the Czech Republic’s president over the past year.  Just as Zeman has pushed to concentrate more power within the Czech presidency, many Slovak commentators have voiced concern that Fico might do the same — or even try to push through a constitutional change to transform Slovakia from a parliamentary republic into a presidential one.

Though Slovakia joined the eurozone in 2009 on Fico’s watch, Fico has also been something of a ‘bad boy’ among EU leaders.  In addition to his deviation from the dominant ‘austerity’ approach to economic policy, Fico has criticized the EU for its approach to Ukraine’s political crisis, has cultivated closer ties with the Balkan states and Russia, and he has sided with Serbia by refusing to acknowledge Kosovo’s independence.

No one in Brussels will be upset to see Fico lose the presidency — or to see Fico’s premiership weakened by a failed presidential bid.

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Kiska (pictured above), a 51-year old businessman, is a newcomer who has gained popularity in the presidential race precisely because he has no associations with the past two decades of tumultuous and often corrupt Slovak politics — it also helps that he’s untainted with the kind of ex-communist past shared by many within Slovakia’s political class, including Fico.  Kiska made his fortune in the consumer credit industry, but turned a decade ago to philanthropy.  Even Fico supporters worried about the Slovak left’s power grab could hedge their bets by voting for Kiska — even if Fico loses the presidency, Fico and Smer will still drive Slovak policy through at least 2016.

Procházka, a 41-year-old constitutional attorney, entered the National Council only in 2010 as a member of the Christian Democratic Movement, though he later left the party.  It seems likely that Procházka will ultimately back Kiska in the runoff, and if he does, it seems even likelier that Fico will fail in his quest to win the Slovak presidency.

The incumbent, Ivan Gašparovič, who is term-limited, has served as president since June 2004.  A criminal law professor and a supporter of Alexander Dubček during the 1968 Czechoslovakian Prague Spring, he served as speaker of the National Council from 1993 to 1998 as a top ally of former conservative prime minister Vladimir Mečiar, Slovakia’s first leader after the 1992 ‘velvet divorce’ with what is now the Czech Republic.  

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