325. Slovakia's New Government in Comparative Perspective

Kevin Deegan-Krause

Kevin Deegan-Krause is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Wayne State University. He spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on June 29, 2006. The following is a summary of his presentation, which builds on the framework of his recent book: Elected Affinities: Democracy and Party Competition in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Stanford University Press, 2006. Meeting Report 325.

History never quite repeats itself, but some echoes sound too familiar to ignore. The government assembled by Robert Fico after Slovakia's June 2006 elections bears notable similarities to the governing coalition led by Vladimír Meciar between 1994 and 1998. Since that earlier government gave Slovakia a reputation as a pariah state—"a hole in the map of Europe"—it is understandable that any prospect of its return should produce consternation and prompt the question "Could it happen again?" Though the short answer to this question is probably "No," there is considerable value in asking "Why not?" and in exploring the factors that made Slovakia's mid-1990's government such an unfortunate precedent.

What did happen in Slovakia from 1994 and 1998? Some of the more obvious answers ultimately are actually not the most useful way to understand the underlying problem. Severe corruption emerged during Meciar's rule, but subsequent governments have faced problems of a similar kind, if not to a similar degree. Concerns about minority rights and national extremism also emerged during Meciar's government, but angry and polarizing rhetoric of coalition leaders did not translate into a fundamental change of the country's minority policies. In fact, both corruption and ethnic tensions were symptoms of a more dangerous dynamic at the core of Meciar's government: the systematic alteration of institutional rules to permit abuse of authority.

The problem finds its most famous and succinct expression in James Madison's Federalist 51: "A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions." Rephrased in the language of contemporary political science, democracy depends ultimately on the vertical accountability of leaders to citizens (especially in their role as voters), but in the period between elections, it also requires a degree of horizontal accountability through which institutions check one another's inclinations toward the abuse of authority. The central weakness of Slovakia's politics during the mid-1990s was not the weakness of its electoral institutions or the anti-democratic inclinations of its populace, but rather the weakness of its institutional barriers against the abuse of executive power.

Yet, while seemingly unstoppable in the mid-1990s, Meciar's institutional "steamroller" actually depended on a large number of contingencies. Closer examination of the circumstances reveals five necessary factors in Meciar's success: 1) an ambitious and unscrupulous leader with 2) a centralized, organized party, 3) numerous loyal voters, and 4) compliant coalition partners, against 5) relatively weak rival institutions. Many of these same factors also proved critically important in the erosion of democracy in Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine, Belarus and elsewhere in the region, and they now provide a starting point from which to assess Fico's new government. At present, this government lacks the institutional advantages that allowed Meciar to achieve a thorough political dominance in the mid-1990s.

Ambitious and unscrupulous leaders
Reversals of democratization in postcommunist Europe almost always have a face attached to them. Meciar's legacy will remain the subject of historical debate in Slovakia, but there are strong reasons to believe that he willingly violated relationships of horizontal and ultimately vertical accountability (or at least stretched those relationships beyond any reasonable interpretation) and tolerated (if not demanded) the use of deception and physical violence toward that end. Whether Slovakia again finds itself with such a leader is, for the moment, an unanswerable question. Supporters of Fico may reject even the idea of comparison, but certain obvious similarities make the issue hard to ignore. In their seemingly absolute self-confidence and in undisguised desire for the country's highest executive position, both Robert Fico and Vladimir Meciar have demonstrated an attraction to power that is (as one commentator noted of Meciar) "unusually high … even for a politician" (Lidove Noviny 1997). There are significant personal differences, however: Fico's professional training, his legal experience in Brussels and his competence in English has exposed him to a different set of international norms than Meciar, whose affinity toward Russia reflected his own previous linguistic training and studies abroad. Of course the question of authoritarian inclinations is almost impossible to predict in advance, since leaders have strong incentives to conceal unpopular tendencies until they are safely in power. Conversely, even the most authoritarian leader may find it necessary to play by the rules of the political game. Tim Haughton's recent book on Meciar—Constraints and Opportunities of Leadership in Post-Communist Europe—emphasizes in its very title the balance between "constraint" and "opportunity." The paragraphs below argue that regardless of his undiscernable inclinations, Fico faces more constraints and fewer opportunities than did Meciar in 1994.

Centralized and organized parties
Meciar achieved his dominance in large part through the feat of party-building, which was unusual by the standards of postcommunist political development. Whereas most parties faced a tradeoff between organizational development and centralization, Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (MDS) combined robust organization that was also highly responsive to his idiosyncratic and changing demands. This potent combination allowed him to maintain a support base and an enduring bloc of loyal voters while still permitting a relatively free hand for abrupt and questionably-legal efforts to undercut institutional accountability without the need to face intra-party criticism. During the early years of the 2000s, Robert Fico created his own party—Smer (direction)—with a similar degree of centralization but with far weaker organizational underpinnings. In a survey of academics conducted in 2004, Robert Rohrschneider and Stephen Whitefield found widespread agreement that Fico held the dominant power position in Smer (at a level identical to that of Meciar within MDS). Respondents in the same survey rated Smer's party apparatus and membership as virtually powerless in comparison to MDS, in which apparatus and members played an independent, though subservient role. It is an open question, furthermore, whether Smer has meaningfully reduced this imbalance through its 2005 merger with organizational remnants of the politically-insignificant but well-structured Party of the Democratic Left.

Weak organization reduces the ability of leaders to hold party factions together and maintain voter loyalty. Smer's long-term internal cohesion is open to question. When Fico took office in 2006, Smer was already twice as old as MDS at the time Meciar took office in 1994. But Smer has only now begun to experience the competing demands imposed by the responsibilities of government. In this sense, Smer actually bears a closer resemblance to Meciar's MDS in 1992 before that party experienced major defections of prominent party officials. In fact only one government in Slovakia's short history has survived its full term without a major split or defection: Meciar's MDS from 1994 to 1998. Meciar succeeded in quashing intra-party dissent during that period because past experience with party defection had led him to develop effective (and in many cases illegal) mechanisms for ensuring loyalty. Fico cannot wield most of those mechanisms and will have to rely on good economic and political fortune or find another way to unify his diverse coalition during its time in government.

Numerous loyal voters
Authoritarian leaders in the region have depended on a large and loyal base of voters. Despite Fico's success in 2006, his party's support of 29 percent of the electorate did not match the 37 percent obtained by Meciar's party in 1992 or the 35 percent that it obtained in 1994. In the short run, Smer's dominant position in the electorate seems secure—recent polls show that the party has actually increased its support over pre-election levels—but it is doubtful that the party's electoral base maintains the sort of party loyalty that allowed the Meciar's party to engage in accountability violations without losing substantial public support. Smer achieved an extremely respectable retention rate of 65 percent of its 2002 voters, but due to the party's rapid growth, only 28 percent of its 2006 supporters came from those who had voted for it in a previous parliamentary election. By contrast, nearly 75 percent of Meciar's supporters had previous experience voting for the party. Furthermore, Meciar's voters trusted his party in 1994 more than Fico's voters trusted Smer in 2006. Of course, a strong economy and successful political efforts can more than compensate for such minor weaknesses. But without a more solid base, Smer faces the constant danger of repeating declines, like those experienced by similar new parties in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Bulgaria.

Smer's voters also demonstrate a stronger commitment to democratic norms, a factor that would limit the party's ability to pursue a Meciar-style encroachment against rival institutions. Whereas Meciar in 1994 attracted voters with unusually low commitment to accountability norms, Fico's 2006 voters differed little from the population as a whole: according to a long-term series of surveys by the Slovak polling firm FOCUS, Meciar's voters in 1994 were more than twice as far from the norm as Fico's 2006 supporters in their willingness to accept that "a politician who wants to do good for the population can break the law." Furthermore, Fico's voters were not notably supportive of the idea that "Parties and parliament should be abolished and government should be in the unintermediated hands of the politician with the most public support," even though nearly all of them believed that Smer would gain the most support.

Compliant coalition partners
Among Meciar's strongest assets in expanding his power between 1994 and 1998 were his coalition partners: a pair of weak parties with a weak commitment to institutional accountability. In 2006, it is Meciar's own party that has taken the role of junior coalition partner to Fico's Smer, along with Meciar's former junior (but now senior) partner, the Slovak National Party (SNP) of Ján Slota. Concerns about Smer's coalition are divided between those who fear what Fico himself might do and those who fear he might accede to the more extreme demands of his coalition partners. If concerns about Fico's initiatives can be allayed to some degree by the aforementioned constraints of party and electorate, concerns about his partners' authoritarianism can be allayed by their relatively subordinate position within the current coalition. Despite his relatively weaker parliamentary position, Fico in 2006 enjoyed a more fluid bargaining situation than did Meciar in 1994, and coalition negotiations established a relatively strong position for Smer at the expense of its partners. In fact, Fico managed to obtain a slightly larger share of cabinet portfolios than did Meciar in 1994 (69 percent versus 67 percent) despite a significantly smaller parliamentary delegation (50 seats against Meciar's 61) and kept almost all of the important policy-making ministries. Meciar quickly found the position so disadvantageous that he made a public call for review of coalition arrangements to redress the imbalance and suggested (but did not carry out) a threat to block the budget vote. This weakness not only limits the ability of these parties to pursue accountability violations on their own, but may also increase their reluctance to strengthen an executive as long as it remains dominated by Fico's Smer.

Weak rival institutions
The key to Meciar's success lay not only in the strength of his own position and the docility of his partners, but also in the weakness of the institutions that he sought to control. Meciar's encroachment efforts followed four clear stages, each permitting (and in some cases necessitating) the next:

1.) Legal encroachment (1994-1995), during which it excluded opposition representatives from key parliamentary committees and bodies overseeing executive agencies.
2.) Assertive extra-legal encroachment (1995-1996), during which it used its control of government ministries and executive agencies (now free from opposition oversight) gained in the first stage to marginalize and intimidate rival parties and other constitutionally-protected institutions, often through violent means.
3.) Reactive extra-legal encroachment (1997-1998), during which it used the institutional control gained in the first stage to excuse or cover up illegalities of the second stage by pressuring or ignoring prosecutors and judges who sought to impose accountability.
4.) Electoral encroachment (1997-1998), during which it used the institutional mechanisms of the first stage to prevent popular fallout from consequences of stages two and three by altering ballots, changing the electoral law and otherwise putting pressure on the electoral system.

The same stages can be found (though not always with the same chronological and conceptual clarity) in other countries in the region where democracy has retreated.

In the Slovakia of 2006, there are far fewer opportunities for such a sequence to develop. For the most part, the leaders who governed after 1998 preferred not to bind their own hands by strengthening institutional barriers that had been weakened by Meciar, but they did take a few steps to remove the political system's nearly absolute dependence on parliamentary decisions by creating regional legislative bodies and a directly elected presidency. Although at the moment the president and most regional parliaments tend to be sympathetic to the current Smer government, these institutions also have their own vested interests and a limited degree of electoral legitimacy that may cause them to oppose egregious steps from the government. The even bigger barrier to encroachment, however, is the experience of its previous occurrence. Meciar's government was able to violate accountability to some degree because nobody expected it to extend its reach so far or so fast. Current opposition parties and at-risk political institutions are no longer so innocent. Decentralization and increased experience appear to have produced a more robust capacity for self-defense among extra-governmental political institutions. With its eight years in government, members of the current anti-Fico opposition have built up wide networks of supporters and experts abroad and a track record of cooperation against anti-accountability parties. The potential for close cooperation among opposition parties (marred at present—but not forever—by recriminations about failed coalition talks) should help keep the current government within relatively narrow limits.

The European Union and other institutions may also play a role, but here the degree of effectiveness is more uncertain. Although the leverage of accession ultimately did help to bolster opposition to Meciar and contributed to his electoral defeat, it did not have much restraining effect on accountability violations during his time in government. With Slovakia's accession, the EU has lost the leverage of conditionality, but in return it has acquired a wider array of minor tools. These are often difficult to wield—as demonstrated by the controversial attempt to sanction Austria's Jörg Haider—but the overall effect may reinforce the strength of domestic opposition (and some members of Fico's own party) in encouraging moderation. EU membership, furthermore, ties Slovakia to a variety of other informal institutions within the EU framework. The unprecedented recent decision of the Party of European Socialists to sanction Fico's party because of his choice of nationalist coalition partners sends a clear sign that others are watching, though it is unclear what impact this and related decisions will have on Fico's future decisions.

First as tragedy, again as Fico
Despite some important similarities, the circumstances that produced Slovakia's near collapse into authoritarianism in the mid-1990's are not likely to recur. Fico's ambition and strong political position in the electorate and in government not withstanding, it is unlikely that he could coordinate his own party and coalition as well as Meciar did or steamroll through Slovakia's now more complex and mature political environment. Any dangers from Fico's coalition are probably more limited and ambiguous. Supporters of free markets will dislike the government's genuinely social democratic efforts, including the rollback of some reforms, but expectations of the country's entry into the Eurozone combined with an export-dependent economy will limit its range of motion within economic policy-making. A greater danger is that corruption scandals and the government's inability to follow through on its economic promises will cause it to divert attention to national tensions with Hungarians (and that leaders in Hungary with similar incentives will help to escalate the rhetoric). As before, however, the harm will probably come in polarized relations between the two groups rather than in unreasonably restrictive minority policies. This would be unfortunate for Slovakia, but there remains at least the possibility that sensible voices will moderate the conflict. What Meciar attempted, by contrast, was nothing less than an irreversible dismantling of accountability structures that would have changed fundamentally the basis of Slovakia's politics and prevented an easy return to democracy.

The contrasts between Fico's constraints and Meciar's opportunities offers useful insights into the ways in which institutions both protect democracy and threaten it. First, Slovakia offers another confirmation of the proposition—now virtually a truism—that institutions matter. Slovakia under Meciar differed from the country's Central European neighbors but not because of its anti-democratic political culture or late modernization (the country's subsequent quick recovery shows these suppositions to be false). Slovakia differed instead because of the interaction among institutional variables, and it therefore offers useful insights into how institutions matter. Meciar's success depended both on the institutional strength of MDS and the institutional weakness of the party's partners and rivals. The combination casts doubt on common notions that institutionalization is an unambiguous good. The institutionalization of Meciar's party organization closely matches the prescriptions of political scientists for good governance, but a dangerous asymmetry arose when other institutions failed to achieve the same goal. The imbalance of institutionalization allowed Meciar to dominate his political rivals and determine the main issues of political competition. He was thereby able for a short time to escape the structural and cultural constraints frequently emphasized by social scientists and to take his country off the region's path toward democratic consolidation.

By 2006, Slovakia's political institutions have matured and grown to include the institutions of the EU. Fico's party, while strong, faces greater institutional weakness than did Meciar's MDS. The relative balance should prevent any sudden threats to Slovakia's democracy and keep the country in line with the steady (if seemingly chaotic) development within the region as a whole. Unless Fico can find some other way to upset the current institutional balance, he will find it difficult to impress his will on Slovakia as deeply as Meciar did. Given the nature of Meciar's impact, however, that should be good news both for Slovakia and for Fico.


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