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.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 13 March 2017

Slovakia – Government loses majority in elections but cohabitation likely to continue

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 7 March 2016

On Saturday, 5 March, Slovakia held its seventh parliamentary election since the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. Although the SMER party of Prime Minister Fico emerged as the clear winner, it lost its absolute majority. Given that SMER only won 49 out of 150 seats in the Slovak National Council (falling short of the 63 seats predicted by the last opinion poll), Fico will have a difficult time forming a government. Nevertheless, a coalition of former and new centre-right opposition parties is unlikely and cohabitation between a (arguably only nominally) social democratic party-led government and the centre-right (yet independent) president could continue at least for another few years.

Party Votes Percent Seats
SMER – sociálna demokracia 737,481 28.28% 49
Sloboda a Solidarita (SaS) 315,558 12.10% 21
OBYČAJNÍ ĽUDIA a nezávislé osobnosti (OĽANO – NOVA) 287,611 11.02% 19
Slovenská národná strana (SNS) 225,386 8.64% 15
Kotleba – Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko (ĽSNS) 209,779 8.04% 14
SME RODINA – Boris Kollár 172,860 6.62% 11
MOST – HÍD 169,593 6.50% 11
#SIEŤ 146,205 5.60% 10
Kresťanskodemokratické hnutie (KDH) 128,908 4.94%
Strana maďarskej komunity – Magyar Közösség Pártja 105,495 4.04%
Others 108,874 4.12%
TOTAL 2,607,750 100.00% 150

When Prime Minister Robert Fico announced in early 2014 that he would run for president, it came as a surprise given not only the presidency’s limited powers but also the fact that his party held an absolute majority in parliament and was on course to form the next government if not alone then easily with support from a minor party. However, since Fico’s defeat in the presidential elections by independent Andrej Kiska, support for his government has dropped and a number of new political parties have appeared on the scene and each attracted a small, but significant share of the electorate. Although the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS), Fico’s coalition partner from 2006-2010, re-entered parliament after having been absent during the last legislature, their 15 seats will not be enough to form a majority government. A potential third partner could be the far-right ĽSNS of regional governor Marian Kotleba, yet its inclusion in the government might be costly for SMER which is already facing internal divisions over its anti-refugee policies and facing criticism from Western European social democratic parties.

Already after the publication of the first exit polls, Richard Sulik – leader of the second-placed centre-right SaS – announced that he would attempt to form a government of right-wing parties. A coalition of moderate centre-right and right-wing parties (SaS, OĽaNO-NOVA, MOST-HÍD, Sme Rodina and #SIEŤ) would however only have 72 seats and thus have to rely on deals with other parties or – more likely – individual deputies from the opposition. Among these parties, the failure of #SIEŤ to garner more votes was the most surprising. Its leader, former KDH-deputy Radoslav Procházka, set up the party after finishing third finish in the 2014 presidential elections with 21% of the vote (only 3% less than first-round runner-up and eventual winner Andrej Kiska). His initial support and momentum did not translate into more seats and the party eventually barely passed the 5% electoral threshold. The other right-wing parties represented in parliament, SNS and ĽSNS, are unlikely to be included in a right-wing coalition – their nationalist views but also their desire for more/continued state intervention in the economy and welfare provision are incompatible with the traditionally economically very liberal Slovak centre-right.

In contrast to previous Slovak parliamentary elections, the president refrained from intervening directly. President Kiska continued to stand by his election promise to be the country’s first non-partisan president (Kiska never belonged to any political party, his policy views can however be described as centrist to centre-right). While the Slovak constitution foresees that presidents appoint the Prime Minister who is then subject to parliamentary approval, no Slovak president to date has used these stipulations to overly involve themselves in government formation and have appointed the party leader who presented a ready-formed majority government (similar stipulations in the Czech Republic have however allowed president Zeman to install the Rusnok government in summer 2013 which lacked any parliamentary support). It is clear that Kiska would prefer a coalition government that does not include Fico’s SMER, yet just like the parties of the moderate right, he might have to be more to gain from an unstable SMER-SNS-ĽSNS coalition. Not only would such a government have greater difficulties in overriding his vetoes (which generally only require a relative majority) but a weak government would also give the opposition parties (particularly new ones such as #SIEŤ) the opportunity to make their mark and win early elections triggered by SMER’s loss of support in a few years, potentially allowing him to win his second term in office on the coat-tails or even with the support of a new centre-right government.

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More detailed information about the election results, including preference votes for individual candidates, can be found at http://volbysr.sk/sk/data02p.html (Slovak and English).

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

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 30 June 2015

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

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 17 September 2014

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

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 17 June 2014

On 15 June 2014 independent Andrej Kiska was inaugurated as Slovakia’s new president, succeeding 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.

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’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.

New posts for presidential-power.com: Presidential elections in Slovakia, round 1 & 2

On 15 and 29 March Slovakia held presidential elections to find a successor for incumbent Ivan Gašparovič who – having completed two consecutive terms – was not allowed to run again. In my two latest posts for presidential-power.com, I present the results, give an overview of the candidates and discuss the implications of the elections for Slovak politics.

First round (15 March)

Second round (29 March)

1st round screenshot 2nd round screenshot

 

Slovakia – The 2014 presidential elections and prime minister Fico’s candidacy

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 22 January 2014

The first round of the next Slovak presidential elections has been set for 15 March 2014 and with the deadline for registering candidates passing two weeks ago, the presidential race has begun. Recent opinion polls suggests that the race could be a done deal for prime minister Robert Fico, who announced his candidacy shortly before Christmas last year. Yet, Fico also remain the largest unknown in the contest and its aftermath.

Among the 15 candidates for the 2014 presidential race are Ján Čarnogurský and Milan Kňažko, two politicians well-known for their involvement in the Velvet Revolution and membership in the Dzurinda government (1998-2002) which brought an end to the tenure of borderline-autocratic prime minister Vladimir Mečiar. They are joined by former speaker of the Slovak National Council Pavol Hrušovský (one of the few candidates who has managed to gain official backing from a number of political parties), and entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrej Kiska. While the latter is runner-up in the latest opinion poll (admittedly from November 2013) and seems to continue the trend of wealthy businessmen in the region to run for political office (see e.g. Frank Stronach in Austria and Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic), none of the candidates is expected to receive as many votes in the first round as prime minister Robert Fico. Kiska is currently the only candidate predicted to win if he entered a second round against Fico, yet this does not take into account the eventual support for the runner-up from other, failed candidates for either of the two. In 1999 and 2004, when above-mentioned Vladimir Mečiar entered the second round, voters grudgingly united in voting for his respective opponent as the ‘lesser evil’. While Fico is far from being the ‘greater evil’ in any combination with one of the potential runner-ups, he might still become a less preferred candidate should his plans for the future of the presidency not find public approval.

Prime Minister Robert Fico (right) on a poster for incumbent Ivan Gašparovič’s re-election campaign in 2009 | photo via wikimedia commons

It is exactly these unknown plans – potential changes to the presidential office or the general mechanisms of power in Slovakia and thereby Fico’s motivation to run for office – that have been subject to debate among experts (and it is unknown how the public would react to any of them). The Slovak presidency – despite its upgrade to popular elections in 1999 and extensive use of the easily overturned suspensive veto by its incumbents – remains a rather weak one and there are only few loopholes through which the president can block governmental or parliamentary decisions. Thus, it is surprising that Fico as a powerful prime minsiter (whose SMER party currently holds 55% of seats in the Slovak National Council) would choose to run.

On his blog, Kevin Deegan-Krause suggests several reasons: Except for the small likelihood of Fico actually wanting to withdraw from playing an active role in politics (either due to a) blackmail or b) health issues), there are also scenarios in which he could gain in power. He could accomplish this for instance by changing the constitutions (classified as less likely as SMER does not dispose of the necessary majority). In a post on his blog in March 2013, Robert Fico still declared the mismatch of the president’s lack of actual powers and the strong (compared to the president’s election in parliament between 1993 and 1998) electoral mandate, yet also acknowledged that it is unlikely that a super-majority to change the constitution could be reached in the next 20 years. For as much as this can be taken his actual views, one could at least assume that constitutional amendments are on Fico’s radar.

Fico could also retain power within the framework of the existing institutions (seen as more likely by Deegan Krause) – either through accepting the splintering of his (then leader-less) party with him as guarantor of stability above the chaos (relatively unlikely) or through using the stipulations of Art 102 r) of the Slovak constitution that would allow him to chair cabinet meetings and demand reports from cabinet ministers (classified as relatively more likely).

Nevertheless, even if it is relatively most likely that Fico would retain control over his party in some way, the stipulations of Art 102 r) will probably not be part of his strategy. On the one hand, chairing cabinet meetings is a rather formal affair and while important policy decisions are officially taken at these meetings, they have been prepared elsewhere – in the ministries or in negotiations between a subset of government members. On the other hand, the example of Slovakia’s first president Michál Kováč – who despite backing from the constitutional court (which also ruled that the president had no influence over the content of the reports and could not even set a deadline for their completion) was unsuccessfully in obtaining any reports from the government – shows that Fico would need to exert control differently.

Rather, Fico might imitate some of the strategies of former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski (1995-2005) in dealing with his party, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). While Kwaśniewski was not prime minister but ‘only’ party leader and chairman of the parliamentary party, his control over the SLD was still wide-reaching. After becoming president and resigning as party leader, he remained the major point of orientation for his party for the next years (which would be even more the case for Fico, who faces hardly any intra-party competition) and then supported the SLD-led governments while also building a wider than merely partisan appeal. Even though the SLD lost the 1997 parliamentary elections, Kwaśniewski’s popularity eventually rubbed off on the party and so guaranteed its support for his re-election in 2000. After the SLD’s return to government in 2001, Kwaśniewski faced opposition from the new party leader and prime minister Miller yet was able to retain a sizeable influence due to the personal loyalty of a large number of SLD deputies.

Thus, should Fico want to hold on to power or expand it within the existing framework of institutions, it would need to be – at least publicly – more ‘hands-off’ and depend on informal connections and loyalties as well as a change of his public image rather than the use of formal powers and constitutional loopholes.