Caretaker Government Takes Office with Slovakia at a Crossroads
After the government of Prime Minister Eduard Heger lost a vote of confidence in parliament in December 2022, snap elections were called for September 30, 2023. Following further conflicts and the departure of several ministers, the government was forced to resign on May 7. Heger said he wanted to “leave the president space to try with a technocrat government to stably and peacefully lead Slovakia to democratic parliamentary elections.” To resolve the crisis, President Zuzana Čaputová did just that on Monday, naming a caretaker government headed by Prime Minister Ľudovít Ódor.
Slovakia has never had a caretaker government consisting of experts and nonpartisan figures with managerial skills. The 46-year-old Ódor is an experienced economist and was deputy governor of the central bank. Minister of Finance Michal Horváth also comes from the central bank, where he served as chief economist. Minister of Foreign Affairs Miroslav Wlachovský is an experienced carrier diplomat who served as ambassador to the United Kingdom and as advisor to Prime Ministers Mikuláš Dzurinda and Heger. Defense Minister Martin Sklenár has a strong background in foreign and defense policy and until recently was the director general at the Ministry of Defense. The sensitive position at the head of the Ministry of Interior will be occupied by a veteran of Slovak politics, Ivan Šimko, who has occupied ministerial posts in past.
Four women will serve in the 16-member cabinet. Lívia Vašáková is the deputy prime minister for recovery and resilience Plan and EU funds. She was earlier director general of the Recovery Plan Department at the Government Office. Minister of Labor Soňa Gaborčáková is a former state secretary at the ministry. A former public defender of rights, parliamentarian, and judge, Jana Dubovcová, is the minister of justice, and the former director of the Slovak National Theater, Silvia Hroncová, takes over at the Ministry of Culture.
What to Expect
When a new four-party coalition government took office in 2020, the incoming prime minister, Igor Matovič, claimed that this could be the best government in Slovakia’s history. Unfortunately, he was proven completely wrong. Matovič himself contributed a great deal to the self-destructive political spiral of his cabinet and subsequently that of his deputy Heger. The hopes and expectations for their governments when it comes to the fight against corruption evaporated. While these governments achieved important results despite being in power in a most complicated period marked by the Covid-19 pandemic and the war, both collapsed due to personal conflicts, a chaotic style of governance, and bizarre communication.
The mix of personalities selected by Čaputová suggests that the new non-party caretaker government will aim to decrease political tensions prior to the September elections, to deal with the most pressing practical issues, to accelerate the time-sensitive projects under the EU recovery plan, to prepare conditions for the next budget, and to deal with the consequences of the war in Ukraine. Its foreign and security policy is expected to continue the focus on European and transatlantic partnership and broad assistance to Ukraine, including military support.
According to the constitution, the caretaker government must prepare its program and submit it to the parliament for approval within 30 days. Based on how the country’s key political players have reacted to presidential nominations in recent times, it is very possible that it may not win the confidence of legislators. However, if it does not, it can continue its provisional mandate in cooperation with the president until a new cabinet is produced by the September elections.
At a Crossroads
Looking at Slovakia’s political landscape and current public opinion trends, one can say that liberal democracy looks in danger in this EU and NATO member. The public is tired of uncertainty, chaos on the party scene, and political and societal polarization. Against this backdrop, Robert Fico is reemerging as a strong player. The three-times prime minister and his SMER-SD party, which are associated with corrupt practices, have veered away from an Atlanticist and pro-EU course and closer to the far-right, regularly using anti-United States and conspiracy narratives.
Fico uses techniques from the playbook of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to attack Čaputová. He has accused her of putting together the new caretaker government after consultations with the US embassy, George Soros, and pro-West nongovernmental organizations. He has also labeled the new prime minister as Soros’s man. In line with the significant pro-Russia sentiment in Slovakia, Fico is presenting himself as a champion of peace and criticizes sanctions against Russia. He has said that he will stop military assistance to Ukraine if he is part of the next government.
Despite Fico’s resurgence, there are still significant pro-West and pro-democracy political parties, free media, and active civil society actors in Slovakia that can prevent further democratic backsliding. The next six months until the parliamentary elections will show whether they are up to the task of keeping the country on a standard democratic track and of preventing its turn to illiberal politics like its southern neighbor Hungary.