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Slovakia’s Remade Government: Old Wine In A New Bottle – Analysis

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Eduard Heger’s more consensual style of governing may have diminished the prospect of early elections in Slovakia, though the new premier will have his hands full dealing with his predecessor as finance minister and other unresolved coalition issues.

By Edward Szekeres

In many respects, Slovakia’s new prime minister, Eduard Heger, appears to be the polar opposite of the person he swapped jobs with – his party leader and now finance minister, Igor Matovic.

Given his predecessor presided over one of the least trusted governments in the country’s history, this can only help Heger in his task of keeping the unwieldy coalition together and avoiding early elections, though many of the stresses and strains that characterised the previous administration remain.

After a near month-long coalition crisis marred by back-and-forth political wrangling, ministerial departures and a botched vaccination campaign, Slovakia finally entered calmer waters with a new government in place as of April 1.

Still, describing Heger’s cabinet as “new” is arguably a step too far. Heger from the OLaNO (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities) movement merely swapped seats with party leader Matovic, and five of the six ministers who resigned during the crisis have since returned to their posts, with the only new face at the health department.

“It’s the same ruling coalition with the same four members. OLaNO has kept its dominant position and the root of the conflict within the coalition – namely Matovic’s political style – remains,” political scientist Juraj Marusiak from the Slovak Academy of Sciences tells BIRN.

Marusiak notes that Matovic’s government was symbolised by “chaos” and the “dissolution of institutions” – conditions in which the former prime minister enjoyed ruling. The OLaNO leader was also known for his showmanship and aggressive political communication, which eventually triggered the crisis in the coalition that led to his removal. In early March, Matovic put on a spectacle at a local airport when he announced the delivery of 200,000 Sputnik V jabs via military planes, a stunt unbeknownst to his coalition partners.

This style of politics left Matovic trailing in the latest polls as the second least-trusted politician in the country with an approval rating of just 19 per cent, broadcaster TV Markiza informed. “Never before has a prime minister plummeted so fast in trust rankings like Matovic did,” Viera Zuborova, political analyst and director of the Bratislava Policy Institute, tells BIRN.

The man with no face

By contrast, the new prime minister – a former restaurant manager, vodka dealer and self-proclaimed Christian activist – has the reputation of being an esteemed, consensual and perhaps even boring bureaucrat.

“We don’t know [Heger] as a politician at the very top. But he is someone who likes consensus and avoids conflict, which has proved to be a good strategy during the pandemic that is dividing society. This was obvious with the likes of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern from New Zealand or with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany. Heger has the personality traits to make use of communication that unites society and lays out the next steps,” Zuborova believes.

Some analysts say it is precisely Heger’s unexciting persona that has propelled him to the top, because Matovic does not recognise him as a political rival with enough popular appeal to escape his shadow.

“[Heger] has not shown much authority so far, he is struggling to sell himself as a politician, making him the ideal candidate in Matovic’s eyes,” political scientist Radoslav Stefancik, from the University of Economics in Bratislava, recently told BIRN.

Question marks hang over his relationship with Matovic, who as party leader effectively remains his boss. “Heger is more acceptable for the coalition partners because of his personality. But the other thing is how he will be able to manage his party leader Matovic, who remains in the government and has one of the most important ministries,” says political scientist Marusiak. “Most OLaNO members know they have no political future without Matovic.”

At the same time, Heger has acknowledged the difficulties that come with the “motley” nature of the four-party coalition he now leads. “I honestly don’t expect this appointment to be a wave of a magic wand after which everybody comes to their senses and abandons their behaviour, years-long habits and manners,” he said in a video interview with the SME daily shortly after becoming prime minister.

If the new prime minister is unable to stand up to his coalition partners or even his own party and leader, new conflicts in the cabinet are likely to erupt, Zuborova predicts. “But in a society that’s tired not only of [Matovic’s] government, but also of more than a year-long COVID-19 crisis, Heger’s clear-cut communication style could eventually earn him political points that could see his popularity surge above Matovic’s,” she says.

It would not be the first time a protégé prime minister has supplanted his political teacher. In 2018, Petter Pellegrini replaced Robert Fico at the head of the SMER-SD government following the contract murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée.

With his consensus-seeking approach that bears similarities to Heger, Pellegrini gained the trust of the public and eventually split from his parent party together with a number of other members to establish his own political force that now leads all polls with around a quarter of the projected vote. “And yet he was completely invisible before he became prime minister and was not even considered the crown prince of SMER-SD – he was more of an assistant. Now he’s the leader of one of the strongest political forces in Slovakia,” Zuborova points out.

For his part, Heger has ruled out any kind of imminent political emancipation. “I’m not sitting here as the future leader of OLaNO,” he said in the SME interview.

However, time will tell whether Heger’s political instinct to govern based on consensus will meet the public and political mainstream’s appetite for a new kind of government and political leadership.

“In 2018, a Eurobarometer survey showed that 72 per cent of Slovak voters did not trust their political parties – that’s a horrendous number when compared to the EU average,” notes Zuborova. “What style of politics will Slovaks want in the post-coronavirus era? Will they go for the loudest voice and the strongest leader, or will they look for a dry bureaucratic style? In a crisis, there’s a tendency toward the latter. Whether Heger can ride that wave will depend on his relationship with Matovic and how Matovic fulfils his role as the government’s number two.”

Born again

There’s also the outside chance that Heger, a devout Christian, could join forces with the more “radical religious right” wing of OLaNO, political expert Marusiak points out. As Easter approached, Heger’s government lifted a ban on travelling between regions for the purposes of attending church services, much to the consternation of some of his coalition partners.

Still, the more likely short-term scenario is a semblance of political stability. “OLaNO’s coalition partners are hostages of their own pre-election promises, namely their adamant refusal to cooperate with current opposition parties, especially their social democratic spectre. No coalition party is willing to make a major compromise or take an unorthodox step that would bridge lasting differences and conflicts, and create a grand coalition or majority with Pellegrini’s Hlas-SD or Fico’s SMER-SD,” Marusiak thinks.

While at least a part of society craves new political formations, early elections are unlikely at this point, Marusiak believes. “The fear of early elections can keep this coalition glued together. Especially the smallest partner, Za ludi, know they are in danger of falling apart and not making it into the new parliament, if there were new elections.”

Yet the past holds a warning for Heger’s cabinet. “Every single Slovak government since 1989 that went through a swap of functions between prime minister and the leader of the strongest political party either fell apart or went through a very deep crisis,” Marusiak concludes.

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The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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