Slovakia in chaos before Christmas: the collapse of the government is only the beginning

Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger meets Slovak President Zuzana Caputova after parliament passed a vote of no confidence in his government at the Presidential Palace in Bratislava

Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger meets Slovak President Zuzana Caputova after parliament passed a vote of no confidence in his government at the Presidential Palace in Bratislava

© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Jaroslav Novák

It´s Christmas time, there is war, pandemic, inflation and energy crisis raging in the world, people are looking forward to a few peaceful days with their families. In Slovakia, however, the eagerly awaited escape from all crises during the Christmas holidays was thwarted by a political drama that culminated in the fall of the government. On 15 December, the vote of no-confidence in the Slovak parliament, which had already been postponed several times, resulted in a defeat for the minority government of Prime Minister Eduard Heger. President Zuzana Čaputová dismissed the government the following day. However, the political crisis in Slovakia is far from over. Apart from the fact that Slovakia does not yet have an approved budget for the next year, early elections are now most probably looming, the outcome of which could change Slovakia's foreign policy direction from the West to the East.

At the time of writing, the outcome of this crisis is uncertain. The situation is changing by the hour. Not only politicians within the parties can agree whether new elections or the reconstruction of the government is the best solution. But one thing is certain: Slovak society is overwhelmed, disappointed and tired of crises of any kind. Radical parties are taking advantage of this and gaining in importance.

Why did Slovakia get into this situation?

The never ending story

Christmas 2022 will also be remembered by Slovaks for the definitive collapse of the government led by the right-wing conservative movement OĽANO (Obyčajní ľudia a nezávislé osobnosti, in English Ordinary People and Independent Personalities). After years of mafia-like practices and corruption by the then ruling party SMER-SD (Smer-Sociálna demokracia, in English The Direction – Social Democracy), many placed high hopes for change, development and stability in the winners of the 2020 parliamentary elections. The opposite was the case.

On the one hand, the right-wing conservative four-party coalition took an admirable course from the beginning, especially in foreign and anti-corruption policy. On the other hand, other domestic issues became the subject of constant inter-party and even personal disputes. Conflicts mainly over the person of Igor Matovič, the OĽANO party leader, former prime minister and now former finance minister, led first to his release from the post of prime minister and later, in September of this year, to the resignation of the right-wing liberal SaS party (Sloboda a Solidarita, in English: Freedom and Solidarity) from the coalition agreement and, according to many, ultimately to the fall of the entire government.

The minority government survived three months under constant criticism not only from the far-right opposition but also from its former partner SaS. And it was precisely the SaS party that began to talk constantly about a vote of no-confidence and early elections not long after the party's own resignation, although party members claimed immediately after their resignation that they would support the minority government. In the end, the vote of no confidence was held on the proposal of SaS. Several reasons were given for this: jeopardising the use of funds from the EU reconstruction fund, resignation of hundreds of Slovak doctors, failure to solve the migration crisis and gaps in the new draft budget.

“The three kings” of the crisis

Richard Sulík

Richard Sulík

© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Jaroslav Novák

"Forget Matovič and do not allow Fico to return", writes the editor-in-chief and commentator of the well-known daily newspaper "Denník N", Matúš Kostolný, immediately after the vote of no confidence on Thursday December 15. A statement that represents the whole situation in one sentence.

In the government crisis in Slovakia, which has been going on for ages, three names are heard most often. The "three kings" of this Christmas season in Slovakia are Richard Sulík, Igor Matovič and Róbert Fico.

The origin of the crisis is linked to the personal conflict between the party leaders of OĽANO and SaS, Matovič and Sulík. The governing of the coalition was accompanied by mutual accusations and disputes from the very beginning. In fact, Matovič often governed according to his own whims, without taking into account the expert opinions and coalition colleagues. Richard Sulík was always the loudest voice criticising this approach. In the end, both blame each other for whose behaviour would lead to Robert Fico's return to power. After Sulík's party left the coalition, the criticism became even harsher until SaS proposed the vote of no confidence.

Sulík justifies his actions: "Unfortunately, this government lost its raison d'être, this government harms the whole of Slovakia. What an action, what a fiasco". The primary condition for further support of the government by the SaS and ultimately also by the opposition, namely the resignation of Matovič, was never fulfilled. To give all the legitimate reasons why Igor Matovič really should have resigned long ago could fill a separate multi-page analysis, or even a book. For example, one of Matovič's "highlights" was the secret purchase of Russian Sputnik vaccines without prior consultation with other leaders in the country. Although OĽANO clearly won the elections thanks to their leader, he afterwards permanently lost support after two years of arbitrary and selfish way of governing. However, his ego never allowed him to admit his mistake and resign.

Both the MPs and the President, who always indirectly criticised Matovič's way of governing, as well as Slovak society, are gradually fed up with Matovič's "bungling". The voices of the disenchanted went over to the social-democratic Smer-SD, which had previously ruled for almost 12 years without interruption and has recently moved significantly to the right. Indeed, the former long-time prime minister and leader of Smer-SD, Robert Fico spoke out several times against the sanctions against Russia, proclaiming: "If SMER appears in the government, I will not allow another single bullet to be exported to Ukraine." The Social Democrats openly collaborate with the Slovak neo-fascists, express sympathy with Hungary and Russia and spread pro-Russian disinformation (see our section on disinformation). They even managed to collect and submit signatures for a referendum on early elections, which is very likely to take place.

A government with Fico is therefore a nightmare not only because of the party's corrupt history. The politicians who were supposed to replace the SMER government at that time and finally bring order to Slovakia failed completely and, on the contrary, contributed to the resurrection and return of SMER to the scene.

The fall of the government is only the beginning

Whoever thought that things could not get worse, was mistaken. It is clear that Matovič's behaviour even in the last moments before the vote further led to the loss of no-confidence vote for the government. Matovič in fact offered his resignation last week on condition that SaS would approve the budget for the next year without further changes. However, no agreement was reached on this issue. Matovič insisted on his position and signed his resignation in the presidential palace shortly before the vote in parliament on Thursday. When the president's chancellor took the papers from Matovič, Matovič suddenly grabbed them from his hand and tore them up, as the President herself confirmed. After that, the parliament passed a vote of no-confidence for the government.

On the following day, the President dismissed the government and charged the ministers to continue the government's business for the time being. At the same time, President Čaputová demanded an agreement on early elections in the first half of the year. The MPs were given the ultimatum until the end of January, otherwise Čaputová can appoint an interim government herself. As late as Friday afternoon, new elections were the most likely solution for the majority of the political elites. A constitutional majority must vote for new elections. In the meantime, however, intensive intra- and inter-party consultations have begun, which should negotiate other options. The OĽANO movement (which several members left after the no-confidence vote) and, all of a sudden, the SaS again want to avoid the early elections in order to prevent the return of the social democrats. Indeed, the two social democratic parties, SMER and Hlas (The Voice), have been leading in the election polls for a long time. And the coalition parties? They don't even have a two-figure percentage at the moment. The liberal party Progresive Slovakia is consistently getting around 10% in the polls, but it is closely followed by the far-right Republika.

While the latest rivals are trying to achieve a miracle in the form of a government reconstruction, without Igor Matovič, and while the liberals are asleep, Fico and Pelegrini are already working on the campaign and preparing for the ceremonial return. The last time the Slovak government of Iveta Radičová was overthrown in 2012 after a vote of no-confidence, also with the help of the SaS, SMER took the opportunity to return to power with a single-colour government. During the 10 years, Slovakia was dominated by corruption, the exposure of which cost the lives of a young journalist and his fiancée. And on what, or on whom, does Slovakia's future depend? Well, what Igor Matovič expects for himself, or does the SaS change its mind again?

Barbora Krempaská is a project manager at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in the Central European and Baltic States Office in Prague.