Robert Fico’s attempt to extend his control over both the Slovakian parliament and presidency failed Saturday, when former businessman and philanthropist Andrej Kiska (pictured above) overwhelmingly defeated Fico in the second-round runoff.
Though Fico narrowly led in the first round, Kiska won a decisive victory with 59.38% of the vote. Fico, the incumbent prime minister, won just 40.61%. Kiska, an electrical engineer by training, made his fortune in the installment payments / credit business. Eight years ago, he founded Dobrý anjel (Good Angel), a charitable organization that helps provide funds for the seriously ill.
Kiska’s victory parallels the rise of Andrej Babiš, also a former businessman, who became the deputy prime minister and finance minister of the Czech Republic after his new center-right party nearly won last October’s Czech parliamentary elections. Babiš, interestingly enough, is Slovak by birth. Though Kiska will have a relatively circumscribed role in Slovak politics, due to the largely ceremonial nature of the Slovak presidency, the emergence of figures like Kiska and Babiš could augur the rise of a new, pragmatic center-right in central Europe whose leaders come from the business world and not from the fraught economics and tainted politics (on both the right and the left of the immediate post-Cold War period).
Fico, the leader of Slovakia’s main center-left party, Smer – sociálna demokracia (Direction — Social Democracy), has led the country’s government for six of the past eight years. His defeat on Saturday will undoubtedly weaken his position as prime minister, given that his critics can argue the election was a referendum on Fico’s record. Smer won’t face voters again until 2016, but it was Fico’s choice to contest the presidential election, making his defeat on Sunday almost entirely self-inflicted.
Fico’s record in government is mixed. Slovakia’s recent GDP growth is been higher than the average throughout the European Union, and the European Central Bank estimates that in 2014, Slovakia’s GDP growth will be around 2.3%, much stronger than in the neighboring Czech Republic or the rest of Europe. Slovakia’s public debt load, however, has increased from around 30% in 2008 to 55% today, and Fico’s government has assiduously avoided the kind of budget cuts that so many other European countries have adopted. What’s more, he ‘unflattened’ the country’s flat tax, introducing some slight progressivism to the income tax system.
While 2.3% growth might be impressive in relative terms, it isn’t incredibly impressive in absolute terms, and Slovakia’s relatively strong economy hasn’t been strong enough to dent its unemployment rate of 13.8%, as of January 2014, also one of Europe’s highest.
Fico has also resorted to Slovak nationalism in the past, and he’s one of the few European leaders who opposes recognizing Kosovo’s independence. (Kiska openly supports recognizing Kosovo as an independent state).
None of that has particularly endeared Fico to other EU leaders.
But as Dalibor Rohac and Marian Tupy write for the Cato Institute, Fico also has a troubling record on press freedom:
Fico’s cabinets have adopted several controversial policies, including the 2008 press law, which enabled politicians and companies to file successful lawsuits against newspapers. That has resulted in grossly disproportionate sanctions against Slovak media. One Slovak weekly was recently ordered to print a 54-page apology to a former member of parliament. In 2009, the weekly published an article about the parliamentarian’s company that allegedly received large payments from the European Union’s structural funds. Another weekly is currently being sued over another piece of investigative journalism. The €20 million in damages sought exceed, by an order of magnitude, the earnings of the magazine.
Smer lost power between 2010 and 2012 mostly due to an illegal funding controversy, but not because Slovaks were necessarily so unhappy with the government’s policies — unlike in the Czech Republic, where the previous center-right coalition was trounced in the October 2013 election.
So it’s not enough to ascribe Fico’s defeat solely to disapproval of his performance as prime minister — or even whether they will elect Smer to another term in the future. Instead, many Slovak voters seemed uncomfortable with placing so much power in Fico’s hands.
Traditionally, major political figures have not contested the largely ceremonial Slovak presidency. So when Fico decided to run for president, it could have given him and Smer unprecedented power — with Fico in the presidency and a hand-picked Fico protégé to succeed him as prime minister.
That’s one of the reasons Fico’s first-round performance — he won just 28% of the vote — was so poor.
In the neighboring Czech Republic, the example of president Miloš Zeman may have made Fico’s task even harder. Since winning the first direct presidential election in Czech history, Zeman has at nearly every opportunity tried to claw back power for the Czech presidency at the expense of the Czech parliament. A former leader of the Czech center-left Česká strana sociálně demokratická (ČSSD, Czech Social Democratic Party), Zeman used the resignation of prime minister Petr Nečas last summer to install his own ‘technocratic’ replacement, Jiří Rusnok. When Rusnok lost a confidence vote, thereby precipitating new elections, Zeman so weakened the ČSSD leader, Bohuslav Sobotka, that the Social Democrats, split between pro-Zeman and anti-Zeman wings, nearly lost the October election to Babiš’s new center-right, anti-corruption party.
Needless to say, it’s been a messy year for Czech politics, and Zeman is a major reason for that tumult. Slovak voters were certainly aware that Fico could become Slovakia’s version of Zeman.
In the two weeks between the first round and the runoff, Kiska amassed a broad cross-ideological coalition, united in the fear that a Fico presidency would be too disruptive to Slovak institutions. Radoslav Procházka, a Christian democrat who won 21.2% of the vote in the first round, endorsed Kiska, as did Milan Kňažko, a center-right figure and a top Slovak leader of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, who placed fourth in the first round.
Kiska, as an independent with no strong ties to any Slovak political party, won’t immediately become the center of Slovakia’s politics. But he will certainly find common cause with Babiš, whose party, Akce nespokojených občanů (ANO, Action of Dissatisfied Citizens), leads polls in the Czech Republic for the May European parliamentary elections. ANO’s successful rise over the past year and Kiska’s victory on Sunday may signal wider difficulties to come later this spring for Fico and Smer.