October 13, 2014 | by OLGA GYARFASOVA
The election of the political newcomer Andrej Kiska as fourth president of the Slovak Republic was a blow to Prime Minister Robert Fico. Kiska’s first actions in judicial and foreign affairs might even signal a change in the country’s political atmosphere.
In the 1990s Slovakia faced tough criticism for democratic deficits, and it lagged far behind its neighbors in integration and democratization processes. After 1998 the country managed a dramatic shift that moved it ahead of countries that had previously been seen as high achievers.
Those dynamics are still there. A key finding of the latest edition of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project, which examines democratic quality in 41 European Union and OECD nations, is that from 2011 to 2014 Slovakia made the largest improvements in terms of quality of democracy among all countries in the assessment.
This does not mean Slovakia is a champion in every respect; it still has room for improvement. The SGI survey shows that the country has remained below-average in several dimensions of quality of democracy (it ranks 25th on overall democratic quality). One of the main concerns here is corruption, although rule of law and the state of the judiciary system are also problematic. Nevertheless, its rapid rise in the ranks gives good cause for a closer look.
On June 15, 2014 the presidential palace in Bratislava got a new resident when Andrej Kiska became the fourth President of the Slovak Republic and its third president to be directly elected by popular vote. Kiska clearly defeated Prime Minister Robert Fico, whose presidential candidacy came as a surprise for many analysts. Yet voters preferred the political newcomer, a former entrepreneur who made a fortune, became a philanthropist, and then in his early fifties decided to enter politics.
The election outcome was a clear signal that the people did not want to have all key government positions in the hands of one party. Kiska campaigned for the office as a non-partisan, and he is the first Slovak president who was never a member of the communist party (25 years after the Velvet revolution!). His victory brings high hopes for political culture, transparency, and especially the balance of power in Slovakia.
A new era in judicial affairs and human rights?
The Slovak president largely plays a ceremonial role. He does, however, appoint the judges of the Constitutional Court, is able to veto laws and represents the country abroad. One of Kiska’s first decisions in office addressed then also hopes for changes in judicial affairs – and let to a first clash with the governing party.
The judiciary plays an essential role for countries' institutional checks and balances. In Slovakia, however, this pillar of democracy has been a hobbling leg. In recent years the Supreme Court and the judiciary have been almost completely controlled by the President of the Supreme Court, Štefan Harabin. He is a former member of the People’s Party-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS), which was established and led by Vladimir Meciar for over two decades and dissolved in 2014, and he was the party’s nominee for the position of justice minister in the first Fico cabinet. This man came to symbolize the general mistrust towards the judiciary and its dependency on political power.
Kiska here sent a strong message: He nominated only one out of the six candidates selected as judges by parliament, which is dominated by the prime minister’s Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD) party, for three seats at the constitutional court. Kiska only appointed Jana Baricova arguing that the other Smer-candidates were not sufficiently qualified for the position.
The appointment of new judges to the constitutional court was one of the most important steps by the new president. It was significant in particular for the overall political atmosphere, the nature of relations between the constitutional institutions, as well as for the credibility of the constitutional court and rule of law in general. The recent elections of Jana Bajankova as new Judicial Council chair and Daniela Svecova as new Supreme Court chair hopefully brought a final close to the Harabin era.
Another problematic area concerning respect for the rule of law in Slovakia is the law enforcement. This applies in general and in some selected cases in particular. One such case is the violent police intervention in the Roma settlement in Moldava nad Bodvou in June 2013. Slovakia’s ombudswoman, Jana Dubovcova, has clearly identified human rights violations by the police there, which were also condemned by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, but her report has been repeatedly disregarded by the ministries and the coalition MPs in the National Council.
As the SGI Slovakia report points out, not only are marginalized groups in Slovakia at risk of being discriminated against by the police but during the economic crisis the negative attitudes of the majority towards the Roma have also increased. “This makes it politically risky for politicians to address the issue,” write the SGI experts.
However, during his first weeks in office, the president openly supported the ombudswoman’s efforts to defend the human rights of minorities and disadvantaged groups in instances where the executive has been blind and deaf to their needs.
President and prime minister clash over foreign policy
The second area in which the new president has raised a loud voice is foreign policy – and it often runs contrary to that of the prime minister.
Recent sanctions against Russia imposed by the European Union (EU) and the United States in the wake of the Ukraine crisis have brought large differences between the president and the prime minister to the surface. As an EU member state Slovakia agreed to the sanctions, but Prime Minster Robert Fico repeatedly said they were senseless and harmful to the country. Kiska, however, wrote on his Facebook page that “business interests mustn’t be put above the fundamental values of freedom and democracy.”
Naturally, Fico’s statements were addressed to his domestic audience rather than to the international community. Yet they can be considered an important message to the outside world regarding where Slovakia stands in this polarizing conflict. This is why it was so important for the president to counterbalance Fico’s stand by saying that while the EU sanctions against Russia may bring certain economic losses; the country needs to be prepared to make sacrifices.
To sum up, Slovakia’s new president provides a strong anchor for its quality of democracy, one that could further accelerate the country’s already rapid pace of the last few years. Yet, there is still room to improve.
Olga Gyarfasova is lecturer at the Institute of European Studies and International Relations at Comenius University in Bratislava and analyst at the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava.