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Slovakia at a Democratic Junction: The 2024 Presidential Elections

As Slovaks choose their next president, DR BARBARA PIOTROWSKA warns how victory for the current front-runner could lead to weakening of democratic checks and balances, putting Slovakia on a collision course with the European Commission.

The upcoming first round of the Slovak presidential elections on March 23rd follows the decision of the incumbent, Zuzana Čaputová, not to seek re-election for a second term. In the Slovak system, president does not have a lot of power: their strongest ability is to veto bills and proposals by the Slovak parliament (National Council), but this can be reversed by a Council majority. However, as visible in the recent weeks, the president can also fulfil a monitoring role, allowing them to direct bills suspect of being illegal to the Constitutional Court. Given the attempts of PM Robert Fico’s coalition to weaken democratic checks and balances, the president’s oversight capabilities are increasingly vital in safeguarding Slovakia's legal system against attempts to weaken its democratic fabric, especially given the regional trends towards democratic backsliding.

Rober Fico’s Smer-SD (Direction – Social Democracy) party originates in a split from the post-communist Party of the Democratic Left in 1999. Hence, as opposed to some of the other illiberal parties in the region, such as Hungary’s Fidesz or Poland’s Law and Justice, the party stems from an authoritarian successor party, rather than from the communist opposition. In contrast to these parties, it is also described as social-democratic and left-wing nationalist political party. However, its left-wing label should be viewed with caution. Fico himself has been characterized more as a pragmatic leader than a strict ideologue. Moreover, the party's commitment to left-wing values has been questioned, leading to its suspension from the Party of European Socialists due to controversial coalition partner choices.Since its inception, Smer has been supported by a network of party loyalists and oligarchs. This relationship reached a tragic peak with the assassination of investigative journalist tracking one arm of the Smer-linked network, Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, in 2018. In the wake of these murders, Smer-SD was removed from power and replaced by anti-corruption parties, which however did not succeed in bringing stability to Slovakia. Last October, Smer-SD returned to power in coalition with Hlas-SD (a Smer splinter-party) and a radical-right Slovak National Party, enjoying a majority (79 seats) in the 150-seat parliament.

Weakening of checks and balances

The return of Fico's coalition has seen concerted efforts to weaken Slovak checks and balances. First, the PM is in conflict with the liberal media, labelling critical voices as the “enemy media”. In a potentially related development, Slovakia’s main commercial television, Markiza, has decided to include less politics in its news programme. Second, on 8 February, Fico’s government approved an amendment to the Criminal Code that would abolish the Special Prosecutor’s Office and significantly reduce penalties and the statute of limitations for serious crimes, including bribery and rape, respectively. This development suggested that Fico's primary concern was to safeguard associates of the Smer-SD party, along with their business and oligarchic supporters, from legal action.

In a move highlighting the power of the presidency, Zuzana Čaputová contested the amendment and brought it before the Constitutional Court, leading to the halting of several proposed changes in the legislation. Nonetheless, the court's decision did not affect the provisions that would lead to the dismantling of the Special Prosecutor Office, which is responsible for investigating high-profile cases of corruption. This aspect of the law could potentially protect members of the ruling party and public officials under investigation.

Monitoring role could become more important

This case demonstrates that the Slovak president, beyond their formal powers, can monitor legislation in search for unconstitutional bills. This is usually not necessary, however given the illiberal tendencies of the Fico government, this monitoring role could become more important. While the role can be performer by other bodies, the presidency holds the separate source of authority that makes its voice stronger.

How likely then is this election to limit attempts at weakening checks and balances? The current polls look positive for Fico. The current front-runner Peter Pellegrini is Fico’s close ally, having served as a deputy PM in Fico’s previous government. While it looks unlikely that he will win outright, there is a good chance that he will win in the second round. This is because, at c.a. 10% of support, the third most popular candidate, Štefan Harabin, is also Fico’s associate, having served as the Chief Justice and Minister of Justice under him. Hence, he is likely to endorse Pellegrini, giving him a majority, in the absence of any major last-moment news that could change the political landscape. If, as seems less likely, victory goes to the liberal former foreign minister, Ivan Korčok, Fico’s agenda implementation might be delayed. However, unless any proposed changes are openly unconstitutional, ultimately their adoption will likely be successful.

This victory would further weaken checks and balances in Slovakia and deprive the country of an important monitor of democracy, in a region struggling with democratic backsliding. After last year’s electoral defeat of the Law and Justice in Poland, it looked like the backsliding might have been arrested. However, the striking victory of Fidesz in 2022 and return of Fico to power in 2023, are a strong signal that the situation in the region is far from stable and democracy remains fragile. Hence, Slovakia might replace Poland as another country (in addition to Hungary) on a collision course with the European Commission over ‘Rule of Law’ violation concerns.

In this story

Barbara Piotrowska

Barbara Piotrowska

Lecturer in Public Policy

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