On December 8 the Slovak parliament will begin debating a no-confidence motion in Prime Minister Eduard Heger’s minority government that could lead to the fall of the centre-right coalition and the appointment of a caretaker cabinet to rule into early elections next spring. The political crisis comes at a time when unrest is growing at the political chaos and the botched response to the worsening cost of living crisis.
Backers of the cabinet fear the return of controversial ex-premier Robert Fico whose leftwing populist Smer-SD party is running second in the polls, behind the new centre-left Hlas-SD party founded by Fico’s former deputy Peter Pellegrini. Fico, the country's dominant politcal figure of the past 15 years, was forced to resign in 2018 following the pressure from protests sparked by the killing of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancé.
A November poll shows Smer-SD sitting at 14.2% and Hlas-SD at 18.6%. Support for both opposition parties has been climbing amid the cost of living crisis, which is set to worsen next year.
The leading coalition party, the populist OLaNO movement of Finance Minister Igor Matovic, would currently struggle to even cross the 5% threshold to make it back to the parliament.
Thursday’s session will open with discussions about the motion triggered by the former ruling coalition party, the neoliberal SaS, but the vote itself is expected not to take place until possibly December 13.
Slovak President Zuzana Caputova said she will dismiss the cabinet it if loses the vote of confidence but she is not interested in putting together a technocratic caretaker cabinet. If she sticks to this stance, it would force the parliamentary parties to come up with a solution if the government falls.
Given the deep political divisions, it is difficult to see how any group of parties will be able to form a stable future government. Even a coalition designed mainly to keep Fico from returning to power would be difficult to form, because many parties continue to refuse (at least publicly) to contemplate working with each other.
The political chaos may also prevent the passing of the 2023 state budget next week, which could force the administration to continue with the same budget totals as this year, making fighting the cost of living crisis even more difficult.
The opposition camp is scrambling to secure the 76 legislators in the 150-member parliament needed to topple the two-party cabinet. The final vote will come to independent MPs, with the government only backed by 40 members of OLaNO and 20 MPs from the radical rightwing We are Family movement.
Opposition parties can rely on 70 legislators, with another 13 MPs being varying types of independent. Many of these oppose the government but some will be wary of snap elections, where they are likely to lose their seats.
Tomas Valasek, a former government MP who has joined the non-parliamentary liberal Progressive party, said he will back the no-confidence motion, arguing that the cabinet’s struggles to secure support for its agenda and frequent reliance on independents including former members of the far right LSNS party is “beginning to threaten democracy in Slovakia”.
He will be joined ex-LSNS’ Tomas Tabara together with two other legislators aligned with Taraba. “All three of us will vote to topple the cabinet”, Taraba told the media, though he added that “if the cabinet agreed with the opposition on an early election then we wouldn’t have voted for the no confidence”.
Last week, SaS chairman Richard Sulik invoked heading off a potential return of Fico as the reason for having to act now before Smer-SD “wins regular elections in 15 months” and Valasek appeared to back his view on Tuesday. “The risk of Fico’s return to power together with the fascists does not diminish in time, but quite the contrary”, Valasek was quoted as saying by public broadcaster RTVS.
Heger’s media advisor, former journalist Ivan Stulajter, told bne Intellinews that “the risk of Fico’s return is quite realistic”. He added that this could come from Smer-SD and Hlas-SD cooperating. “The split [into Smer-SD and Hlas-SD] raises concerns” that this has been done “on purpose”, he said.
Stulajter explained that “Smer-SD has moved into a more extremist direction”, demonstrated by Fico’s pro-Russian and anti-vaxx stances, while “Hlas-SD posed as a somewhat social democratic party”, thereby reaching a wider spectrum of the electorate than if the two ex-premiers had remained in the one party.
Stulajter said that the no confidence motion could also backfire against SaS, which may be seen as “a toxic party” after trying to bring down a second government after helping to bring down the cabinet of Iveta Radicova in 2011. "SaS can struggle to make it back to the parliament too", Stulajter pointed out.
The former RFE/RL journalist is worried that a situation where a handful of legislators decide over the cabinet’s fate is leading to unhealthy behind-the-scenes deals.
“It is an ideal situation for bargaining with the government,” Stulajter told bne Intellinews, pointing to the controversial legislative amendment to the criminal law filed by Taraba. The amendment also includes a provision that EU fund frauds are not punished if the offender returns the money, something that would likely complicate Slovakia’s drawing of EU funds.
In recent weeks Slovakia’s high-profile anti-corruption drive suffered a major reverse after charges of criminal conspiracy against Fico and his ex-interior minister Robert Kalinak were dropped, though Fico and Kalinak may yet see more charges pressed against them.
Last week, charges against Jaroslav Hascak, the founder of the controversial Penta financial group, were renewed, as well as those against the former head of the state property fund Anna Bubenikova and ex-minister of economy Jirko Malcharek.