With the support of the Atlas Network, CapX is publishing a new series of essays, podcasts and interviews on the theme of Illiberalism in Europe, looking at the different threats to liberal economies and societies across the continent, from populism to protectionism and corruption.
The recent election of Zuzana Caputova to the Slovak Presidency was widely welcome as an affirmation of Slovakia’s good standing within the “liberal” wing of the European Union’s member states and a repudiation of right-wing populism à la Poland and Hungary – the rise of which so vexes the great and the good in Brussels. Caputova, an environmentalist and a child-welfare advocate, is a progressive. Moreover, she is untainted by corruption – a truly rare feature in a country the criminal political elite of which has been gorging on the public purse and the EU’s largesse for decades.
To top it off, she’s a solid pro-European who will not stand in the way of Ursula von der Leyen’s masterplan for a United States of Europe. But scratch under the patina of respectability that Caputova’s election provides and note that her largely ceremonial role will change nothing about the rotten and nasty state of Slovak politics. Only a new parliamentary election, which is to be held next February, can be the harbinger of change and an indicator of the electorate’s liberal-mindedness.
Slovakia is a parliamentary democracy, with free and fair, though never “clean”, elections. The tri-partite governing coalition consists of the largest parliamentary party Smer, which is ostensibly beholden to social democratic values, the Slovak National Party, which is beholden to anti-Hungarian historical grievances and pan-Slavism, and Most, which started as a party beholden to the interests of the Hungarian minority and now promotes peaceful coexistence of Slovaks and Hungarians. If the three seem like unlikely coalition partners that’s because they are.
The key to understanding Slovak politics is that, as a general rule, political ideology is subservient to the powerful personalities of their, exclusively male, leaders. The alpha male in the Slovak political jungle is Robert Fico, a former communist, who was Prime Minister between 2006 and 2010, and again between 2012 and 2018. Whilst forced from office by a massive scandal that started as an investigation of corrupt practices of some of his closest associates and ended in the ghastly murder of a journalist and his fiancée, Fico continues to disburse patronage and dominate the political scene through his personally selected successor.
By no stretch of the imagination could Fico be described as a liberal (of any kind). He is a political opportunist, whose latest incarnation combines tax hikes and ever-increasing social spending (to buy support from the relatively poor and the retired), with strong opposition to immigration (especially of the Muslim and African variety) and occasional (if mostly pro-forma) appeals to national sovereignty. Andrej Danko, the leader of the nationalists and head of Parliament, is a semi-literate buffoon fixated on civilisational threats posed by immigrants and homosexuals. When taking a break from lecturing the nation on the state-owned television channel, he can be found in Russia – a country that he visits with alarming frequency (someone has to!).
The last member of the ruling triumvirate is the amiable but Machiavellian head of Most, Bela Bugar. Bugar is a political survivor who partook in a number of center-right and center-left governing coalitions in the past. Previously recognised as a decent man and a reliable voice of reason, he threw his lot with Fico and Danko after the last parliamentary election in 2016. Why he did so is anyone’s guess, though personal antipathy toward the current opposition leaders may have played a part in Bugar’s delivery of the votes needed to give Fico a governing majority.
Given what’s known about Fico, Danko and their respective parties, the Slovak government should “enjoy” press that’s at least as critical as the coverage that the media reserves for the governments of Poland and Hungary. But that ain’t so. Why? Part of the reason rests in the minute size of Slovakia, and its economic and military insignificance. Frankly speaking, few are bothered by the “quality” of the country’s government. But surely the most important reason for ignoring Slovakia’s cartoonish misgovernment is its obedience to Brussels. Yes, the Slovak leaders do occasionally complain about diktats from Berlaymont.
Yes, they have stood shoulder to shoulder with the other Visegrad countries on immigration, resisting Angela Merkel’s attempts to distribute her million refugees from North Africa and the Middle East throughout the EU. But, in the final analysis, their attitude to Brussels is one of relative accommodation. Slovakia’s leaders lack the ideological commitment to illiberalism that the likes of Viktor Orban possess, or the geopolitical heft of Poland to cause much trouble to their EU overlords. Fico and his lot may be bastards, but they are the EU’s bastards.