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Election Slovak Presidential Elections: The Greatest Miscalculation of PM Fico in his Political Career

The final run-off, between the country’s prime minister, Robert Fico, and an independent candidate, Andrej Kiska, has ended with a spectacular victory for the latter. As a result, Slovakia shall, for the first time in modern history, have a president who hadn’t been a member of not just the communist, but any political party in his life.

Published on balticworlds.com on april 3, 2014

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Slovaks have, for the fourth time since the fall of communism, elected their president in two rounds of voting on March 15th and 29th. The final run-off, between the country’s prime minister, Robert Fico, and an independent candidate, Andrej Kiska, has ended with a spectacular victory for the latter. As a result, Slovakia shall, for the first time in modern history, have a president who hadn’t been a member of not just the communist, but any political party in his life.

Conduct of the Election

Despite Slovakia’s past experience with vote-buying, with usual targets being members of the poorly educated and societally marginalized Roma community, this time no significant allegations have resurfaced. The police is nevertheless investigating allegations that votes have been purchased in a small number of isolated villages in the Eastern part of Slovakia where the Roma constitute a majority.[1] On another note, in an attempt to discredit the election, a well-known activist released a video on the day of the first round of the election where he explained how each citizen could, in fact, vote three times. Accordingly, the first ballot could be cast in a person’s place of residence using his/her identity card and twice in any different districts, using a passport and claiming to have permanent residence abroad (Slovaks can hold two passports). Rather than seriously impacting the course of the election, the activist now faces five years in prison for advising to commit fraud.[2] Overall then, there have been no significant disruptions, with both rounds of the election turning out to be free and fair.

The first round

Although the office has attracted a total of fourteen contenders prior to the first round,[3] only a few were ever considered as having a real chance of making it to the second round. The clear favourite among them was the current Prime Minister and leader of the leftist-populist party Smer-SD, Robert Fico. His decision to run for president came as a surprise for two reasons. First, he enjoys much more power in his current role, as presidents in Slovakia are comparatively weak with their main instrument – vetoing legislation – easily overturned. Second, the government that he leads, other than being the first one-party government in Slovakia’s post-communist history, is in the middle of its term with next parliamentary elections scheduled for 2016. To his disliking, the mantra of Mr Fico’s campaign – the need for stability and cooperation between top political figures during the tough, crisis-ridden times – has proven much less mobilizing than the fear that the country will become completely dominated by his party. This was already visible from the outcome of the first round, which showed that around a third of Smer’s electorate did not turn up to vote. Below is a chart that shows the outcome of the first round (candidates that received less than 3% of the vote were left out).

Consistent with prior polls, Andrej Kiska, a philanthropist and a successful businessman who made his wealth in leasing companies, turned out to be the second candidate to make it to the final run-off. His biggest appeal lay in the fact that he is a complete political outsider, without affiliation to any political party. Through his charity work, Kiska claimed to have witnessed time and again how the state failed to provide for the people, which prompted him to do something about it. The ideological ambiguity surrounding Mr Kiska – lack of clarity whether he is more right or left leaning – has not deterred his voters. Along with a clean slate in terms of political past, it may have actually added to his popularity.

Although stopping short of entering the second round, Radoslav Procházka ended up with twice the support polls prior to the election gave him. Indeed, from the perspective of a centre-right voter, he has offered the most comprehensive and consistent programme. Though running as independent, Mr Procházka has been an MP for the Christian Democrats (KDH) for almost three years, having left the party more than a year ago. Citing the more than 400 thousand votes cast for him, Mr Procházka has shortly after the first round announced his intention to build a new party, giving up his mandate as MP, while seeking to perform in the autumn regional elections.

Despite winning in the region of the Bratislava capital, Milan Kňažko, an actor with political experience from the turbulent 1990s, came fourth with just under 13% of the vote. Campaigning on vague references to more direct democracy, tackling corruption and less state, Mr Kňažko happened to be, in a way, a blessing for PM Fico. Should Kňažko not run and thus his support divided equally between his two biggest rivals – Kiska and Procházka – then the clear favourite of the election, PM Fico, would have failed to qualify to the second round.

The first round of the election thus brought no great surprises, though the overall turnout of 43.4% was a little disappointing. It nevertheless presented a deeply worrying outcome for Slovak political parties. The second, third and fourth most popular candidates, together commanding almost 60% of the vote, were all non-partisans. Indeed, the joint candidate of the parliamentary centre-right parties, Pavol Hrušovský, has ended with a total fiasco, after receiving just 3.3% of the vote. Although coming first, Mr Fico, the supposed strongman of the election, has ended up going to the second round from a much less secure position than he anticipated. On the other hand, the long and intensive campaign of the political outsider Andrej Kiska has paid off. With a good reason to believe that a large part of the voters of the unsuccessful independent candidates would back him in the second round, Mr Kiska emerged as the clear favourite before the second round.

Campaign prior to the second round and final outcome

The two weeks between the first and second round of the election have naturally been the most intense in terms of campaigning. Newspapers, public as well as private TV stations and radios all delivered opinions, articles or debates concerning the two candidates. The real pressure was on Mr Fico to mobilize his electorate, following their rather disappointing turn-out in the first round, as well as to deter potential voters of Mr Kiska from casting their ballot. From Mr Fico’s perspective, only one tactics lent itself fit for this purpose – attempt to completely destroy Mr Kiska’s public profile.

During the televised debates, and echoed in some periodicals friendly to the ruling Smer-SD, Mr Fico launched four main lines of attack against Mr Kiska. The first one consisted of accusing Mr Kiska of making his wealth through usury, claiming his leasing companies charged unjustified interest on their loans, thus impoverishing countless families. Second, far from being a benign philanthropist, Mr Fico claimed that Mr Kiska set up and misused his charity for his personal political interest. Third, Mr Kiska allegedly belongs to the sect of scientologists, and, as president, his access to secret files would be a serious threat to Slovakia’s national security. And finally, drawing on the main reason for Mr Kiska’s popularity, the fact that he’s apolitical, Mr Fico announced that Slovakia cannot afford to have a president who is politically completely unexperienced, citing the escalation of the situation in Ukraine, Slovakia’s Eastern neighbour, or Mr Kiska’s support for independent Kosovo (Slovakia being one of the 5 EU countries that have to date not recognized the state) as key areas for concern.

It comes as no surprise that throughout the two weeks between the first and second rounds of the election, Mr Kiska has mainly been on the defensive. He claimed, supported by a number of independent journalists, that the interest charged by his leasing companies was perfectly within the norm, that his decision to run for president came only after he, through his charity, witnessed ordinary people being abandoned by the state, that he is not a scientologist and doesn’t have any links to the sect, while he also attempted to justify his foreign policy objectives. Mr Kiska also invoked some scandals of Mr Fico’s previous government that ruled between 2006-2010, and accused Mr Fico of trying to escape the promises he gave to his electorate in the 2012 general election.

In the end, the election has ended with a decisive victory for Mr Kiska. With a slightly higher turnout in the second round of 50.5%, Mr Kiska has received almost 60% of the vote – his more than 1.3 million votes granting him a stronger mandate than what the incumbent president has enjoyed. Mr Fico’s 40.6%, or less than 900 thousand votes, must have been a massive disappointment for him. Put-off by the strongly confrontational rhetoric and instead siding with the ‘victim’ Kiska, or indeed desiring to see Mr Fico in an executive position with much greater impact on policy, Mr Fico has failed to do both – sufficiently mobilize his electorate and deter Mr Kiska’s voters.[4] Mr Kiska has been particularly successful in the cities and in Slovakia’s Western, Northern and Southern regions, the latter consisting to a large extent from ethnic Hungarians. Far from repeating the success of his party during the 2012 general election, Mr Fico won in the second round only in the very Eastern part and a few central regional districts of Slovakia.[5]

Looking ahead

Although Mr Fico still remains the head of government, the election has presented a severe blow to his popularity. But it is more than just that. The young, energetic politician who has throughout his career successfully criticized the incumbents has suddenly found himself on the other side of the barricade. He now represents the old, established elite that needs to give way to a new, younger generation. Mr Fico is set to follow the fate of the once mighty movers of Slovak politics – Vladimír Mečiar or Mikuláš Dzurinda – and is, sooner rather than later, set to fall into obscurity. His current government may undergo some restructuring, with the minister of culture and head of Mr Fico’s campaign, Marek Madarič, having already offered his resignation. Contrary to the sweeping victory achieved in 2012, the position of Smer-SD is much less secure ahead of the 2016 general election.

Understanding his substantial support as a form of commitment, Mr Procházka has announced ambitious plans to rally Slovakia’s fractured and incoherent centre-right. Although he is not the first one to come to the task, his strategy of working bottom-up – that is establishing the structures of his new party from the local and regional levels – is indeed more promising than the previous attempts. The symbolic gesture of giving up his parliamentary mandate may have earned him some admiration, however, with it he has also sacrificed a substantial part of media coverage that comes with being an MP. The extent to which he can build a successful centre-right party that may present a real alternative to Fico’s Smer-SD remains to be seen.

Ultimately, Mr Kiska, the new Slovak president who is to be inaugurated in June this year, has mainly benefited from Mr Fico being such a polarizing figure. In his first press conference after winning, the new Slovak president has declared his intention to unite and motivate people, as well as ‘make politics more human’. However, despite his strong mandate, Mr Kiska lacks any parliamentary support in the form of his own political party. The co-existence of Mr Kiska, in the role president, and Mr Fico, as prime minister, has indeed a lot of potential for conflict. Whether Slovakia’s political environment will indeed become more conflictual, and really who, in political terms, have Slovaks elected as their president, shall be revealed in the near future.

references

  1. Jesensky M., ‘Podozrenie z kupčenia s rómskymi hlasmi vyšetruje kriminálka’ in SME (29 March 2014), accessible at: http://romovia.sme.sk/c/7152807/kupcenie-s-romskymi-hlasmi-riesi-kriminalka.html (Accessed 31 March 2014)
  2. Aktuality, ‘Za podvod vo voľbách mu hrozí väzenie’ in Aktuality.sk (17 March 2014), accessible at: http://www.aktuality.sk/clanok/249310/prezidentske-volby-2014-martin-dano-volby-podvod/ (Accessed 31 March 2014)
  3. Ministry of the Interior of the Slovak Republic, Candidates for the Office of Slovak President available at: http://www.minv.sk/?prezident-kandidati (Accessed 31 March 2014)
  4. Detailed data on the outcome of the first and second rounds of presidential election (also in English) can be found here: http://prezident2014.statistics.sk/ (Accessed 31 March 2014)
  5. Comprehensive map of showing detailed analysis the support of the two candidates in regional districts can be found here: http://www.sme.sk/c/7154024/cervena-je-uz-len-tretina-okresov-volby-v-cislach-grafoch-a-mapach.html (Accessed 31 March 2014)
  • by Daniel Kral

    Postgraduate research student in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London.

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