When Robert Fico’s Smer won the recent Slovak elections in a landslide, the first instinct for many was to wonder if Slovakia would be in for the same fate as another “one-party” Central European state: Hungary. As TOL and the rest of the international media have detailed, the Fidesz government has seemingly set its eyes on reshaping all facets of Hungarian society as part of a grander plan of supposedly finishing the 1989 revolution and ridding the country of the influence of leftist forces. So now that Smer had gained a majority of seats in parliament, should the party’s opponents start preemptively appealing to European institutions to monitor the coming takeover?

Last week, I came across a convincing article that made me worry much less. Tomas Valasek, who works as director of foreign policy and defense at the Centre for European Reform (CER), has long been a keen observer of his native Slovakia and the rest of the region, as well as a gracious interviewee for articles that I’ve written over the years. In “Oh no, Orban clone? The EU ponders Slovak elections”, a post on CER’s website, he argues that “on closer inspection, the differences between the two countries’ political situations outweigh the similarities.” Some excerpts from Tomas’s article:

In contrast to Orban’s euro skepticism, Fico ran on a platform of turning Slovakia into a responsible EU citizen…

There are few signs for now that SMER is planning to build a one-party state, as many suspect Orban of doing in Hungary. Throughout the campaign, Fico stressed ‘stability’, implicitly rejecting radical reforms, political or otherwise. In keeping with the tradition, the prime minister-designate has offered two deputy chairmanships as well as a number of key committee chairmanships in the parliament to the opposition. Fico said that he would seek no changes to the constitution, which disperses power between the prime minister, parliament and the president…

People familiar with the prime minister-designate’s thinking say that he wants the respect and recognition of his EU peers, and fears that his past record and Orban’s presence across the border will taint him. Whether by agreeing to share some power with the opposition or by selecting respected Eurocrats for ministers, Fico is signalling that he is not Orban, and Slovakia is not Hungary.

Tomas avoids getting into the always tricky comparisons of character traits (none of us or almost none of us really know these politicians to say anything definitive about their motivations). But it has always seemed to me Fico is more of a “pure” populist than Orban, more intent on power for power’s sake without the missionary zeal to remake his country that his Hungarian counterpart often displays. The silly “patriotic” stuff that we saw during Fico’s last time in office – a widely ridiculed attempt to instill national pride in the country’s citizens through new legislation, a discriminatory language law, and some foolish attempts to rewrite history – struck me as more of a calculated attempt to pander to nationalist voters and satisfy a coalition partner, the Slovak Nationalist Party, than anything heartfelt. That’s a far cry from the revolution that Orban and his party think they have been implementing in Hungary, as I’ve written about on this blog.

At this stage, given the positive signs that Tomas has described, I’d be far more worried about the impact of a one-party state on corruption and cronyism than on things such as remaking the judiciary or the education system. As he says, “The party’s shady past may yet catch up with the prime minister-designate: SMER’s financial backers will expect lucrative government contracts, so corruption could rise and fiscal discipline falter.” But it goes way beyond that.

I spoke last week to a young Slovak journalist who reminded me that the clientelism in Slovakia runs just as deep, if not deeper, than here in the Czech Republic. Party politics helps determine the leaders of state-controlled companies, both on the national and local levels, and whom one knows still carries enormous weight. Smer’s record the last time in power was horrific, with cronyism simply a way of life and clientelism the “basic modus operandi” of the ruling coalition, as Freedom House’s most recent Nations in Transit report put it.

So perhaps the EU won’t have to worry anymore about the Slovaks destroying fiscal unity or coming up with laws that increase government control over the media. Without the nationalists in the coalition, perhaps relations with Hungary won’t degenerate to the hysterical levels seen during the last time Fico was in power. But as Fico plays nice on the international level, one has to wonder whether there are enough safeguards in place at home to prevent party cronies from gobbling up every cranny of economic benefit.

As that young journalist warned, “Smer can own all of Slovakia”. Surely that was just hyperbole, right?

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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