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The Cowards in the Backseat

The shadowy figures looming over political life in Romania and Poland offer cautionary tales for Slovakia.

by Martin Ehl 19 March 2018

The Slovak political crisis, caused by the murders of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, could slowly be waning as a reconstructed government without the most controversial figures awaits parliament’s vote of approval. Prime Minister Robert Fico has stepped down, but he will continue as the head of the most popular party in the governing coalition, Smer-SD.


President Andrej Kiska has been the most important player in the crisis, which spilled over onto the streets with tens of thousands of protesters driving Fico into a corner. It is a pity that Kiska does not plan to run for a second term next year because what we have witnessed is not the end of the Fico era in Slovakia. Instead, Fico – prime minister for 10 of the last 12 years – has just assumed a model successfully practiced by his colleagues in places such as Poland or Romania.


To put it simply, the leader of the strongest party – a party with authoritarian tendencies – prefers for different reasons to steer the party and the country from the backseat. Those sitting in the prime minister’s office, those legally responsible for governing the country, are stronger or weaker puppets for the real decision-makers. They, however, irresponsibly stay in the background, still tied to power, as cowards do.


In the case of Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski chose that role voluntarily, no doubt sensing the hostility that would have erupted had he chosen to return as prime minister. In Romania, Liviu Dragnea has been prosecuted for corruption, and the president refused to accept him as the head of the government. Dragnea’s only problem has been finding a loyal enough puppet: Romania now has its third prime minister in one year, because the previous two had started to behave too independently after some time.


The novelty of the Slovak case comes from the combination of political (via Kiska) and public pressure, and the suspected ties of some people around Fico to the Italian mafia (ironically, the new prime minister- designate, Peter Pellegrini, who is totally devoted to Fico, has Italian descendants).


All three leaders have quite a number of other similarities that can, in academic parlance, be described as “part of their governance model.”


They hate journalists from independent and public media, but love those who work for friendly outlets and who do not ask unpleasant questions.


All three avoid any live debates with critical opponents on TV or radio. They always demand exclusive appearances if they ever agree to make public statements or give interviews. Questions approved in advance are the standard procedure.


All three prefer to work in cabinets and make decisions in a very narrow circle of close friends. Since their parties have not followed a standard historical development and rely solely on strong leaders, there is a lack of democratic debate inside their structures. The three have been governing their parties for a long time, and have almost no internal opposition. The existence of the party without them might be problematic because of the way they skillfully manage and counterbalance different internal groups, including those groups’ business concerns.


That leads us to another common feature: the hidden interests connecting these three to different, friendly business groups – the most mafia-life aspect, because many decisions are not made with public interests at the forefront. While this is a common feature of all post-communist societies, Kaczynski, Fico, and Dragnea have honed this model to perfection. In Poland’s case, we are talking more about management and the use of state-owned companies, while in Slovakia and Romania the priority has been siphoning off European funds.


Fico has showed that the backseat model is an attractive opportunity for a politician who seeks power and cannot risk further exposure. Opinions are floating around that the current Czech prime minister, Andrej Babis, should be forced to do the same as Fico and resign, because he has been charged with fraud over the misuse of EU subsidies. Other parties have asked for his departure as a condition to join his party ANO in a coalition.


Taking into consideration the Polish and Romanian experiences, it would be better if Babis stayed on, in the glare of the spotlight. That would keep him busy and at least under some public control, even if his pressure on independent public institutions like the police or the television grows every day.


As for Fico, his apparently well-thought-out retreat to the political backrooms may still be in jeopardy. Mass demonstrations continued on Friday, suggesting the Slovak public may have caught on to the ploy. Perhaps it wasn’t such a smart thing to tell the president, as he handed in his resignation, “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.”

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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