March 28, 2014 1:24PM

Slovakia’s Strongman Heading for a Defeat?

A presidential election in Slovakia is usually a dull affair. The head of state plays a largely ceremonial role and, since 1993, the post has been occupied by fairly pedestrian, aging figures whose footprint on either domestic politics or on Slovakia’s reputation abroad has been negligible. 

Nevertheless, the stakes are higher in the second round of this year’s presidential election that will take place on Saturday. The leading candidate is the current prime minister, Robert Fico, whose party, Smer, has enjoyed a comfortable majority in the Slovak Parliament since the election in 2012. Fico, who has led Smer since its birth in 1999, served one term as prime minister between 2006 and 2010 and has traditionally enjoyed significant public support. A former member of the Communist Party, he once said that he “had not noticed” the Velvet Revolution of 1989, insinuating that free markets and an open political system have brought little good for ordinary people.

While presenting himself as a social democrat, Fico has successfully courted Slovak nationalists. For example, he has been a vocal opponent of recognizing Kosovo’s independence, for fears that the Hungarian-majority areas of southern Slovakia could follow the Kosovar example. While such concerns are baseless, as Slovak Hungarians display very little interest in secessionism, the rhetoric was successful in attracting Slovak voters that had previously supported fringe nationalist parties.

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.

According to some, the presidency is an attractive exit option for Fico, whose two years in government have not produced the results that his electoral base hoped for. The country's chronically high unemployment, especially among young people, shows no signs of receding, and many of the measures adopted by the government—including the repeal of the flat tax or the re-regulation of labor markets—have done little to foster economic growth and sound public finances.

Whereas Fico is a veteran of Slovak politics, his rival in the presidential race, Andrej Kiska, comes from the world of business and philanthropy. Kiska made his fortune in the 1990s with a successful consumer lending business that provided financing for the purchases of household appliances. He later founded a popular charity, Dobrý Anjel ("Good Angel"), that enables Slovaks to make charitable donations to poor households struck by various calamities, typically cancer. Little is known about his specific policy positions, but for voters it seems more relevant that Kiska is not tarnished by the corruption scandals and shady deals that have marked Slovak political life in recent years.

In the election's first round, Fico earned 28 percent of the popular vote compared to only 24 percent for Kiska. But several candidates who failed to make it into the second round have urged their supporters to vote for Kiska. Those include Radoslav Procházka, a graduate of Yale Law School, who is seen by many as the potential leader of the currently fragmented political right, and Milan Kňažko, one of the leaders of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The two jointly received over 34 percent of the vote in the first round, and have pledged to support Kiska’s candidacy in the second round.

Unless Fico mobilizes voters who abstained during the first round of the election, it seems unlikely that his presidential bid will be successful. For many Slovaks that would be a cause for celebration, particularly given Fico’s promise that a defeat in the presidential election would lead him to “reconsider his future in Slovak politics.” While he made that statement in order to energize his supporters, it has also invigorated his opponents.

The election carries a deeply symbolic meaning for many Slovaks. Just like Fico, all Slovak presidents since the country’s independence in 1993 have been former members of the Communist Party. Some, such as Rudolf Schuster who was president between 1999 and 2004, were even former high-ranking party officials. Many in Slovakia feel that it is time to break with that tradition and elect someone untainted by a communist past.