Has Slovakia’s coalition government overplayed its hand?
Ever since Slovakia’s OLaNO party parlayed promises of an anti-corruption crackdown into a resounding victory in the February 2020 parliamentary elections, the coalition government it formed has lurched from crisis to crisis and misstep to misstep. While political infighting, a botched pandemic response and a plagiarism scandal have all eroded trust in the OLaNO-led government, the coalition hasnever been on shakier ground than at the moment, in the wake of a failed attempt to put opposition leader Robert Fico in prison for allegedly running a criminal group while he was in office as prime minister.
By refusing to waive Robert Fico’s parliamentary immunity so that he could be taken into pre-trial custody, the Slovakian parliament denied the OLaNO government their hoped-for photo op with Fico in handcuffs. As the ramifications and recriminations continue to spread following the failed attempt to imprison the former prime minister, the future of Slovakia’s ruling coalition is in doubt—as is the future of an anti-corruption campaign which increasingly appears like political score-settling.
An anti-corruption campaign on ever-shakier ground
Robert Fico was supposed to be the biggest “scalp” in an aggressive pyramid of prosecutions that has ensnared everyone from prominent entrepreneurs Miroslav Vyboh and Josef Brhel to former interior minister Robert Kalinak. As the number of indicted individuals connected to the political opposition has snowballed, so has the controversy surrounding these prosecutions.
Many of those facing corruption charges have argued that the allegations against them are part of a political witch-hunt. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine ulterior motives underpinning the judicial broadside against the Slovakian opposition. Public support for the parties in the ruling coalition is cratering, and trust in leading OLaNO politicians is foundering in parallel—some 70% of Slovakians distrust current PM Eduard Heger, while a startling 87% do not trust finance minister and OLaNO party leader Igor Matovič. Special prosecutor Daniel Lipšic, whose close ties to the ruling party caused corruption watchdogs to caution against his appointment, is also distrusted by the majority of the Slovakian population.
The shaky foundations on which many of the corruption cases rest only makes matters worse. Slovakian prosecutors are relying unusually heavily on testimony from indicted individuals who’ve agreed to testify for the government in exchange for leniency, a practice which legal experts have warned may produce false testimony. It has certainly produced inconsistent testimony—in the proceedings against Miroslav Vyboh, for example, cooperating witnesses alleged that a bribe was handed over in an office which did not even exist at the time of the alleged corruption. “Witnesses have a motive to deceive in order to reduce their punishment, or to avoid it altogether”, emphasized Richard Donoghue, a prominent American attorney who recently joined Vyboh’s legal team.
Fico vote exposes fault lines in ruling coalition
This existing controversy over Slovakia’s wayward anti-graft drive has been sharply ratcheted up by the charges against Robert Fico. Even some of Fico’s political enemies are cognizant of the risks of pushing forward with the high-profile prosecution if the case against the former PM isn’t watertight, with current Prime Minister Eduard Heger saying that he hoped the decision to charge Fico was supported by evidence.
The vote on Fico’s parliamentary immunity evinced a widespread reluctance to remand the Smer party leader into custody. Sme Rodina, one of the parties making up the ruling coalition, abstained entirely from the vote, while two OLaNO MPs actually broke with their party and did not vote to allow Fico’s arrest. The two MPs, Katarina Hatráková and Romana Tabak, were summarily ousted from the OLaNO party following the vote and branded “traitors” by one OLaNO MP, a swift retaliation which belied OLaNO party cadres’ earlier pledges that party members could vote freely according to their conscience.
“In this case, it was not about corruption,” Romana Tabak explained after deciding not to vote for the measure to remove Fico’s immunity. “I told myself that I would not take part in political revenge.” With no love lost for Fico and his politics, Tabak nevertheless opposed the campaign to imprison him—“I don’t want to sign my name under something that was hastily done to show voters that we locked up Fico”, she underlined.
On the edge of a fresh coalition crisis
The parliamentary vote does not change the fact that Fico still faces serious criminal charges, but the political implications extend far beyond his individual case. The ruling coalition, already described as “hanging by a thread” even before the Fico affair made international headlines, now seems on the verge of implosion.
The mudslinging began soon after the failed vote. OLaNO leader Matovič lobbed blame at coalition partner Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), while SaS in turn suggested that there was no point in remaining coalition partners with Sme Rodina, the party which abstained entirely from the vote. SaS leader Richard Sulik, the current Economy Minister, doled out a harsh assessment of Matovič as well. “This is the biggest loss of OLaNO’s political career”, Sulik ventured.“[Matovič] was defeated not only by his favourite coalition partner, but also by his own deputies. They will never be able to talk about the fight against corruption again”.
The ruling coalition has little else but the fight against corruption to tie it together, however. Indeed, the government in Bratislava has doubled down on its anti-corruption crusade in recent months in a bid to stave off snap elections that would almost certainly see the opposition return to power according to recent polls. By moving too aggressively against Fico, however, they may have fragilzed the patched-together government beyond repair, opening the door to the very possibility they fear most.