"Oh no, Orban clone? The EU ponders Slovak elections", Thomas Valasek

by Tomas Valasek, 23 March 2012, CER

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban is the leader least beloved by EU governments and institutions. The European Commission thinks him too spendthrift and has launched proceedings against Hungary for breaching rules on budget deficits. The Venice Commission, a constitutional advisory body affiliated with the Council of Europe, has accused the government of amassing too much power and violating human rights. Orban has done little to win friends abroad: he called the European Commmission's action "extremely stupid" and compared the EU to the Soviet Union. So should European governments and officials be concerned that Hungary's neighbour Slovakia has just elected another firebrand, former Prime Minister Robert Fico, to lead its government? Is Orban a sign of a broader trend – is the economic crisis lifting populists to power in Central Europe?

At first glance, the two situations are similar. Much as Orban in Hungary, Fico will exert a dominant influence: SMER won a controlling majority in the Slovak parliament; for the first time in the country's history a one-party government will rule (SMER fell just short of winning enough votes to be able to unilaterally change the constitution). In his previous stint in power, in 2006-2010, Fico's ministers earned a reputation for corruption and poor stewardship of the economy: Slovakia's debt increased by one-third under his rule, and this was only partly due to the crisis (fiscal discipline crumbled even before the economy soured). Relations with the neighbours suffered too: under Fico, the Slovak National Party (SNS) – one of the three members in the prime minister's coalition – openly railed against 'the Hungarian enemy'. Little wonder that media in the region have been alarmed at Fico's return and are warning of 'Orbanisation' of Central Europe.

But on closer inspection, the differences between the two countries' political situations outweigh the similarities. In contrast to Orban's euroscepticism, Fico ran on a platform of turning Slovakia into a responsible EU citizen. This may have been partly a tactical ploy (to implicitly criticise some of the smaller centre-right parties of the outgoing government, which opposed the EU's bailout of Greece). But having made good relations with the EU a centrepiece of his candidacy, Fico seems intent to deliver. In one of his first post-election appearances on TV, the prime minister-designate agreed to be accompanied by the Slovak vice-president of the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič – this appears to have been a calculated signal to Brussels that Slovakia will take the EU seriously. Fico also nominated the respected Miroslav Lajčák, currently one of the managing directors in the European External Action Service, to the post of foreign minister (which he already held in 2009-10). The odds are that the new government will be broadly supportive of commonly agreed solutions to the economic crisis though not necessarily contributing many ideas of its own – like other smaller new member-states, Slovakia has struggled to formulate original proposals on improving the way the EU works.

There are few signs for now that SMER is planning to build a one-party state, as many suspect Orban of doing in Hungary. Throughout the campaign, Fico stressed 'stability', implicitly rejecting radical reforms, political or otherwise. In keeping with the tradition, the prime minister-designate has offered two deputy chairmanships as well as a number of key committee chairmanships in the parliament to the opposition. Fico said that he would seek no changes to the constitution, which disperses power between the prime minister, parliament and the president. Granted, Fico controls the first two institutions and is friendly with the president. SMER alone also lacks the votes to change the constitution; it would have to ally with one of the centre-right opposition parties. The true test of Fico's tolerance for political diversity may come after 2014, if an opposition candidate wins the presidency. The outgoing but popular Prime Minister Iveta Radičová is rumoured to be considering a run, and if she wins, Fico may be tempted to tinker with the constitution to curb the president's powers. But for now, the prime minister-designate has gone out of his way to demonstrate that he is committed to pluralistic democracy.

As for relations with neighbours, Fico will have the benefit of ruling without the nationalists from the SNS – in fact, their party failed to clear the 5 per cent barrier necessary to enter the parliament, as has the Slovak Hungarian Coalition (SMK), which represents radical Hungarians in Slovakia and is close to Viktor Orban. For the first time in the country's recent history none of the nationalist parties will have deputies in the parliament. Instead, a newish party called Most/Hid ("bridge" in Slovak and Hungarian), which campaigns to improve ties between the two ethnic groups and fielded both Slovak and Hungarian candidates, has won seats in the legislature for the second term in a row. So Fico is well positioned to continue the outgoing government's policy of pursuing good neighbourly relations with Hungary. Whether he will do so is another matter; there is a lot of potential for trouble. The two countries disagree on Budapest's policy of giving passports to ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia. Viktor Orban has publicly regretted the poor showing of the SMK, arguing that only 'ethnicity-based parties' can represent the interests of Hungarians in Slovakia. His rhetoric could sharpen further: Hungary holds parliamentary elections in 2014 and Orban faces opposition from the ultra-nationalist Jobbik party, which is gathering strength, especially among young voters. Sensible Hungarians worry that the prime minister may move even further to the right to fend off the challenge, which may include criticising the Slovak government's treatment of ethnic Hungarians. How Fico will respond is anyone's guess: in opposition, he has been more critical of Orban than Iveta Radičová, at one point calling Hungary "an extremist country". There is a possibility that Slovak-Hungarian relations will deteriorate amidst tit-for-tat accusations. 
People familiar with the prime minister-designate's thinking say that he wants the respect and recognition of his EU peers, and fears that his past record and Orban's presence across the border will taint him. Whether by agreeing to share some power with the opposition or by selecting respected Eurocrats for ministers, Fico is signalling that he is not Orban, and Slovakia is not Hungary. Despite these positive moves, it is too early to be conclusive: his government has not even formally assumed power yet. Among other things, the new administration will have to cut benefits and raise taxes to comply with the EU's new fiscal compact, so political opposition to SMER is likely to grow – and with it will the temptation to reach for populist rhetoric. The party's shady past may yet catch up with the prime minister-designate: SMER's financial backers will expect lucrative government contracts, so corruption could rise and fiscal discipline falter. But for now, Robert Fico seems intent to demonstrate that he is wiser and more respectable than he was in 2006-2010. And Viktor Orban in Hungary appears not to be a harbinger of a broader trend towards populism in Central Europe but a one-off.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.