Slovakia: September elections likely after failed referendum – TBEN – 23-01-2023

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Prime Minister Eduard Heger’s government was overthrown by the Slovak parliament last December when 78 out of 150 MPs supported a vote of no confidence in the government. Since then, Heger, of the centre-right OLANO (ORDINARY PEOPLE and Independent Personalities) party, has been leading the country as a caretaker and negotiating with parties in an attempt to find a new majority.

But it was Richard Sulik, leader of one of his previous coalition partners, the Freedom and Solidarity Party (SaS), who abruptly ended Heger’s efforts early last week by announcing that he would end the prime minister’s attempt to to form a new cabinet. .

The parties in Prime Minister Eduard Heger’s interim government have agreed to hold elections on September 30Image: INTS KANNINS/REUTERS

“As of today, I am considering all my efforts to rebuild the coalition,” Heger said at a media briefing last week. “I will meet my political partners and discuss the subject of early elections with them. At the moment, the most likely date is September.”

Referendum on early elections

In an effort to reduce the number of votes MPs need to call an early election from 90 to 76, the Social Democratic Smer Party, one of the country’s strongest opposition parties, has held a referendum on whether the Slovakia’s constitution should be amended to ensure that elections are held before the end of the four-year term.

Although the caretaker government had already agreed to early elections, Smer leader Robert Fico argued that elections should be held much earlier than September. “The coalition is giving us only nine months of its incompetence,” he said in a statement.

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Another failed referendum

In Slovakia, a turnout of more than 50% is required for the result of a referendum to be valid. Turnout in Saturday’s referendum was just 27.25%.

Radoslav Stefancik, a political scientist from the University of Economics in Bratislava, said it was no surprise that this threshold was not reached, as Slovakia has a long history of failed referendums. “There was only one successful referendum, the one on EU accession, in which just over 50% of citizens took part, but not since,” he said.

Will early elections bring stability or more uncertainty?

After the result of the referendum was announced, the parties in the caretaker cabinet agreed to hold elections on 30 September.

Stefancik believes that early elections are the only option for the country at the moment and that the decision should have been made earlier. “Parliament has been powerless,” he told TBEN, “it hasn’t been able to pass laws for a long time. It’s better for everyone to put an end to this.”

Nevertheless, uncertainties remain, first of all when the elections will actually take place. While all parties in the interim coalition support the September date proposed by Heger, other parliamentary parties believe the elections should be held as soon as possible, preferably before the summer.

Popular president with little political power

In the midst of all this political chaos, President Zuzana Caputova proves to be a stabilizing factor, although she has limited authority and her role is more ceremonial than political. Caputova, who is meeting with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin on Tuesday, is one of the most openly pro-EU, pro-Western politicians in the country.

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German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) and Slovak President Zuzana Caputova (right) at a press conference in Kosice, Slovakia, April 27, 2022
Slovak President Zuzana Caputova (right) meets German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) in Berlin on Tuesday, January 24Image: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture Alliance

According to polls conducted last fall, she is also one of the most trusted politicians in Slovakia. However, political scientist Aneta Vilagi of the Faculty of Arts of Comenius University Bratislava points out that the president cannot directly interfere in the political process. “The president can talk about her values ​​related to a particular political camp, but she can’t support anyone directly,” she said. “Voters must decide for themselves.”

However, if parliament cannot agree on a date for the early elections, it can appoint a technocratic government to rule until elections take place.

Autumn elections pave the way for new parties

Vilagi thinks an election in the fall would allow new political parties to be formed. Former Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda (in office between 1998-2006) plans to create a new right-wing, pro-EU, pro-Western party. Some experts say such a party could appeal to voters given Dzurinda’s enduring popularity.

However, Dzurinda is not alone: ​​Slovak MEP Lucia Duris Nicholsonova is founding a new party, Jablko (Apple), which will also target pro-EU voters.

There are also rumors that acting Prime Minister Eduard Heger could leave the OLANO party and try to create a new party for conservative, pro-EU voters. Whether these would-be pro-EU parties would join forces and operate as an alliance is unclear, although some politicians believe it would be the right move.

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Liberal democracy at stake?

Former Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, who served from 2018-2020, is currently considered one of the most likely candidates to lead a new government following an early election. Pellegrini, formerly a member of Smer, is now head of a new social-democratic party, Hlas. It has topped opinion polls for months and chances are Pellegrini will be asked to form a government after the election.

Pellegrini describes himself as pro-EU so that he could form a new coalition with other similar parties. Although Pellegrini cooperated with the far-right party Republika (Republic) in last year’s regional elections, he could also reach an agreement with Smer.

Slovak politician and former Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini
Former Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini is considered one of the most likely candidates to lead a new government after early electionsImage: Vaclav Salek/CTK/IMAGO

Radoslav Stefancik fears that early elections could jeopardize liberal democracy in Slovakia. “Looking at the history of early elections in Slovakia, they have always put autocratic parties in power, parties that took us back to the past and did not appreciate the principles of liberal democracy,” he said.

He added that parties like Smer, which has long campaigned against aid to Ukraine and targets eurosceptic, pro-Russian voters, could benefit from an early election. “There is a real chance that Slovakia will choose to follow in the footsteps of [Viktor] Orbán’s Hungary,” he said.

Edited by: Keno Verseck and Aingeal Flanagan

Slovak Prime Minister in TBEN interview

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