Let’s Give Fico a Chance

Will Slovakia’s new prime minister turn out to be just another Viktor Orbán?

Opinion | Martin Ehl | June 2012

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who took the helm of his second government in April, surprised his critics after his landslide victory in the March parliamentary elections by behaving in a measured fashion: he communicated with the media and convened meetings with various social groups. Slovak caricaturists went overboard in portraying Fico as a hooded tough, trying to radiate good will and peace at every turn. The Easter holiday also played to those depictions.

The formerly hypercritical Slovak commentators have retreated somewhat. For now, they’re holding their fire at Fico’s cabinet, which contains some true independents and experts. Even Stefan Hrib, the editor of the right-wing Tyzden magazine, from whom I borrowed the title of this column, said in his video blog that he is mainly "curious" about how the government will perform – even though he thinks that a one-colour, officially Social Democratic government will actually discredit the concept of social democracy for years to come.

The comparison of the two strongmen of Central European politics, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Fico, arises almost automatically – but it is essentially wrong. While Fico’s first economic steps are already resembling Orbán – taxing the rich and large companies, mainly banks, to taking money from the second pillar of the pension system – Fico’s policy is much softer than Orbán’s.

Orbán is the undeniable ruler of his Fidesz party. That’s true also of Fico, but he must reckon with the – almost literal – "shareholders" who took part in the founding of his Smer party. That is a fundamental difference from the strictly centralised Fidesz, which started as an authentic ideological community. The government of Smer is a government of one party but also a coalition of interest groups.

The important thing to Orbán is mainly ideology (and power), but for Fico it’s mainly money (and power). Orbán also has his "minigarchy," or financiers in the background, but money is valuable to him mostly to lubricate the party machine. Conversely, for Fico ideology takes second place.

Slovak commentators rarely agree that it’s necessary to give a government the proverbial 100 days. For instance, Pavol Demes, a former Slovak foreign minister who works for the U.S.-based German Marshall Fund, has already written a relatively positive article about Fico’s government.

In five points he lays out why Fico is not Orbán: Fico’s majority in parliament isn’t as solid as Orbán’s; Fico won with social and pro-European rhetoric; after his election Fico behaved surprisingly conciliatorily to everyone, including those on the right who had been soundly defeated; Fico’s appointment of Miroslav Lajcak, who had been working for Europe’s foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, gave a clear signal of the value orientation of the government; and Fico convened a roundtable of various social and interest groups to discuss the government program.

But Fico didn’t invite the "third sector," as they call the non-governmental organisations in Slovakia, which now instead of the right-wing parties will begin to play an opposition and watchdog role as they did during the years of Vladimir Meciar, the strongman former prime minister who was often accused of violating democratic norms.

At least for those abroad, Fico is a predictable politician, which cannot be said about Orbán. The Hungarian government, through constant changes and amendments to hastily enacted laws, has created an unstable environment, which has caused alarm among foreign investors  and the members of the European Union.

Along with Hrib, I’m curious about Fico’s tenure –  and trial balloons, such as paying benefits to Roma in groceries, promise an interesting show. And together with Demes, I think that Fico deserves those 100 days – even though they expire in July, on Friday the 13th.


Martin Ehl is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. 

He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU. Trans. Jeremy Drucker.

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