21st Feb 2024

Slovakia's government stares into the abyss

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When a pro-western coalition swept to power in Slovak elections in 2020, many saw it as the start of a new era. Firebrand campaigner Igor Matovič promised to root out corruption and restore faith in Slovak politics.

Yet fast forward two-and-a-half years, and the four-party coalition is teetering on the brink of collapse. Tense negotiations have so far offered no way out of the crisis, and little hope is held out for another round of talks scheduled for Saturday (20 August).

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Matovič, the leader of the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO) party, is again the centre of attention.

His position as prime minister became untenable last year after initial excitement about his leadership faded into distaste at his divisive approach. But he continues to infuriate coalition partners in his current role as minister of finance.

Richard Sulík, the leader of the Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party, has finally lost patience, accusing Matovič of "raping the legislative process." Sulík says he will take SaS out of the government if Matovič doesn't agree to leave by the end of August.

Viera Žúborová, a researcher at the Bratislava Policy Institute, told EUobserver that the feud is a result of Matovič's Trump-like attitude.

"He believes what he is doing is good for society, even though many of his steps undermine democratic traditions and trust in the government," she said.

Yet analysts agree that a minority government resulting from SaS's departure would "have a lifespan of only a few weeks," and the leader of another coalition party has already suggested that early elections might be the only way out of the impasse.

Personal spat?

Indeed, a public vote may be necessary to resolve the democratic problem posed by the personal nature of the dispute between Matovič and Sulík.

OĽaNO members say Sulík has no right to dictate terms given that his party won only six percent of the vote in 2020. And defence minister Jaroslav Naď has condemned Sulík for letting a "personal problem" threaten the collapse of a democratically-elected government.

Prime minister Eduard Heger is meanwhile left with an unenviable choice. He must either remove the leader of his own party from his cabinet or be left with a shaky minority administration unlikely to see out the year.

But for Žúborová, the choice is clear: "If OĽaNO is not willing to sacrifice Matovič to save the coalition, we will have a snap election".

Early elections would likely favour an opposition representing Slovakia's controversial previous administration. The HLAS (Voice) party led by Peter Pellegrini leads the polls after splintering from SMER (Direction), which ruled Slovakia until 2020.

SMER retains a strong supporter base despite accusations that it allowed corruption to run rampant while in power. Party leader Robert Fico is also under investigation for allegedly collaborating with police to smear political opponents.

Fico's nationalist stance and criticisms of the West have "become more radical" since Pellegrini formed the more moderate HLAS, according to Žúborová. But many suspect the pair could still work together, even though Fico's calls for an electoral alliance have so far met with stony silence.

The outcome of a snap election may therefore be decided by the many "anti-establishment" Slovaks who are increasingly cynical about mainstream narratives on issues such as the war in Ukraine.

Fico appeals to this disenchanted group by claiming the West has "gone completely mad" in sanctioning Russia and by calling on the government not to "allow Zelensky to threaten the interests of the Slovak Republic".

Such rhetoric proves that as a bitter personal feud drives the coalition apart, Slovakia's political discourse is being driven to extremes.

And with Matovič's wild success in 2020 now a distant memory, the country faces turbulent times ahead.

Author bio

William Nattrass is a Prague-based British journalist and Visegrád Four current affairs commentator, who has written for the Independent, the Spectator and Cap X.

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