Slovakia’s new government braces for the challenge ahead

Three weeks after a landmark parliamentary election celebrated across Europe, the situation looks dire for Igor Matovič, Slovakia’s newly appointed prime minister. Indeed, there has probably never been a more daunting time in the history of democratic Slovakia for a government to take office.

Mr Matovič managed to defeat the ruling Social Democrats by running on a populist, anti-corruption platform. OL’aNO, his centre-right movement, scored a larger-than-expected victory on February 28 and was supposed to immediately set about delivering on its original promise to crack down on corruption. Instead, it is the way that he deals with the coronavirus outbreak which will determine his legacy.

“You are not taking power, but responsibility,” Slovakia’s president Zuzana Čaputová told him on March 21, stressing that saving lives is the new government’s most important job. The swearing-in ceremony itself was hitherto unimaginable, with all participants wearing facial masks and gloves. Moreover, Ivan Korcok, the country’s former ambassador to the US who will now serve as foreign minister, was unable to attend since he s stuck in the United States due to travel restrictions.

The new Slovak government, which consists of 16 members, is supported by a multi-party coalition of OL’aNO, Sme Rodina (We Are Family), a Eurosceptic and socially conservative party, SaS (Freedom and Solidarity, a libertarian political force, and Za L’udi, the centre-right party of former Slovak president Andrej Kiska.

“Let’s go to battle,” Mr Matovič said after he was sworn in, noting that Slovakia has a remedy for the coronavirus – solidarity, responsibility and the determination of all people caring about the country.

“Even though the pandemic did not delay the nomination of the new government and the process of political transition, prime minister Matovič and his cabinet face a very difficult situation,” Nikolett Garai, a research fellow at Hungary’s Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade tells Emerging Europe, noting that “the top priority for the new government is now to contain the spread of the virus and to manage the crisis. Therefore, the implementation of their political programme could be prolonged and hindered.”

This political programme was supposed to start with constitutional anti-graft measures in response to the previous, Smer-led government’s failure to contain the fallout after Jan Kuciak, an investigative journalist who exposed corruption in Slovak political and business elites, was shot dead in 2019. “The current state of emergency will pose a huge challenge to this programme,” Ms Garai adds.

As in every other country hit by Covid-19, preventing the healthcare system from collapsing, ensuring supply chains of critical products and supporting digital education are now the main priorities. Marek Krajčí and Branislav Gröhling, the country’s new ministers for healthcare and education, are also to announce new measures to deal with the outbreak early this week.

On his first day as head of government, Mr Matovič accussed Peter Pellegrini, the erstwhile caretaker prime minister, of “leaving empty [medical protective gear] warehouses behind.”

However, despite despite being the head of a party accused of corruption and populism, Mr Pellegrini has been credited for the swift and transparent management of the outbreak in Slovakia. With only 16 confirmed cases of coronavirus as of March 12, he was among the first EU leaders to announce school and business closures, restricting movement and closing borders. Unlike in European other countries at that time, his government said that every Slovak citizen had to be considered potentially infected and ordered everyone to wear protective masks when outside. The country still has fewer than 150 confirmed cases of the virus.

However, since Mr Pellegrini is now out of the picture, his successor will take all credit (or blame). This will be reflected in how Mr Matovič’s government will handle the economic fallout that is already hitting Slovakia hard. Based on GDP per capita, the country has the world’s largest car industry and all four of its car factories have suspended production.

“The transition between the two governments delayed the introduction of swift economic decisions such as the approval of economic stimulus packages, which have already been introduced in neighbouring countries like Poland, Czechia and Hungary,” Ms Garai says, adding that an increase of unemployment, which is certain to follow, could lead to political instability.

Taking the four-party governing coalition into account, [political instability] has been a key issue from the very beginning for the new government. The last time Slovakia had such a multi-party government of centre-right parties was in 2010 under former prime minister Iveta Radičová, which collapsed only a year later.

“Poor crisis management can lead to political instability. Therefore, the new government needs to address the current health, economic and societal challenges related to the coronavirus with a great effectiveness. In order to do so, coalition partners need to work together in unity,” Ms Garai continues.

She does not expect tensions to arise within the ruling bloc as long as the country is in crisis mode. However, they could appear when it is over.

“The main parties in the coalition express rather conservative views regarding social policies, and are rather sceptical towards the question of immigration and the rights of sexual minorities. Perceptions towards the European Union could also serve as a source of disagreement,” she adds.

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