University of California, Los Angeles

Possibility of Democratic Backsliding in Slovakia by Mouthcheata Se @ University of California, Los Angeles

On March 2nd, 2018, approximately 20,000 Slovak protestors gathered in the Bratislava’s Freedom Square to mourn and demand justice for a journalist named Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, both of whom were assassinated in their house a few days prior. [1]

Before his death, Kuciak was reported to be working on corruption exposés of some high-profile Slovak officials. Therefore, many Slovakian citizens believe the crime is likely committed by those officials who wanted to silence the media and cover up their misdeeds. Furthermore, those protestors saw this assassination as a direct attack on the people and democracy as it undermined civil liberty and protection — the pillar of democracy. Therefore, they wanted to seek some retribution and accountability. Since people have long been dissatisfied with Prime Minister Robert Fico’s cronyism, [2] they blamed Fico and his oligarchic allies for this murder and ordered them to resign. That protest was not the first nor will it be the last demonstration against Fico’s administration as there are more anti-corruption movements being planned across the country.

While it is true that Slovakia scores rather high on the 2016 democratic index (7.29 out of 10 for being fairly democratic with high transparency in electoral process), it still has many political shortcomings, especially in respect to the media, corruption and judicial review. [3] With democracy declining across Eastern Europe and Slovakia’s long history of communism, we should be concerned about the possibility of Slovakia’s democratic erosion.

Kuciak’s death may be the first journalist homicide case in Slovakia’s history, but it is far from being the first sign of pressure on the media. In fact, there have been many verbal attacks from Fico’s government as well as lawsuits against the journalists. [4] Furthermore, in response to the 2015 caricatural depictions of Prime Minister Fico and other government officials, the cabinet decided to ban all communications with the daily Denník N. This ban is an example of suppression of the press. By prohibiting the Dennik N from certain events, the government is oppressing one particular voice that could be heard and contributed to the marketplace of ideas.

In addition, the recent change of media ownership from foreign to local investors raised concerns about politicization of the media as well as journalistic bias. More importantly, Slovakia has only three large corporations that publish political-oriented daily news: 1) the Penta Group that publishes SME daily, Korzár daily, and Plus Jeden Deň daily (all of which are center-right) 2) Pravada (center-left) 3) Denník N (center-right) that has been boycotted. [5] This lack of media pluralism can set a dangerous precedent in leaving people oblivious to the whole picture thus making an uninformed decision.

Furthermore, without the complete information, people are unable to hold the government responsible as we have seen in Slovakia’s corruption cases. Many journalists have uncovered many illegal activities and wrongdoings of Slovak public officials, but there have been no prosecution or dismissal of duty. Robert Kalinak, the interior minister, and his embezzlement scandal is one recent example of how an official can escape investigation due to Fico’s cronyism. To further protect themselves, Fico’s majority in parliament rejected the Accountability proposal that would hold all public officials responsible for their actions. [6] Why would they refuse if they genuinely have nothing to hide? Nevertheless, less government accountability is a sign of democracy backsliding that people should be concerned of. [7] 

Another political shortcoming of Slovakia is its judiciary. According to the Democracy Index, Slovak people have little faith in its judicial system for it lacks integrity and it is often interfered by Fico’s cronyism and prominent allies. [8] The courts are highly inefficient and have rendered many unfair decisions especially when a high-profile Slovak official is party to the lawsuit. As a result, Slovakia’s judiciary is not truly independent as the Constitution had stated.

Justices appointment process is also a complicated issue in Slovakia since there are two types of the court. There is a Supreme Court, whose justices are appointed by the Parliament, and the Constitutional Court, which requires the President to appoint those candidates recommended by the Parliament. [9] As in Slovakia’s current case, the President and the Parliament majority are from two opposing parties. Fico’s party, Smer-SD party which holds 49 seats, formed an alliance with other four parties thus making the winning coalition with 85 out of 150 seats. Therefore, there was a contest between President Kiska and Fico’s dominated parliament in the selective period.

Given its unicameral parliamentary system like Hungary, Slovakia relies mostly on the Constitutional court to check the legislative power. [10] However, since its judicial system is not entirely independent of the government, the winning coalition has almost unchecked power. It effectively controls the majority of all important committees as well as the legislative process. In other words, it can pass any law. While no single party can amend the Constitution alone but if they work with other parties, they can easily obtain the required three-fifths. In case that they do get 90 seats, there is no prediction of what will become of Slovakia.

It is true that Slovakia’s media freedom and institutional checks are better than Poland or Hungary. However, as we have seen in history over and over, restricting speech as well as having a weak judiciary can lead to a slippery slope and result in the rising of an authoritarian government.

In fact, some of Fico and his allies’ current actions would result positive on Levitsky’s litmus test that indicates the “behavioral warning signs of authoritarianism.” [11]

First of all, Fico has somewhat denied the legitimacy of his political opponents. [12]  In response to President Andrej Kiska’s plan to present a vote of no confidence to the government, Prime Minister Fico implied that Kiska wanted to subvert the current government and have a coup.

Another example, Fico claimed that Boris Kollar, who is the leader of We Are Family opposition party, has associations with the Slovak mafia, thus posing as a threat to national security. While he did not precisely disqualify Kollar from full participation in the political arena, Fico baselessly discredited Kollar as an opposition. [13]

Secondly, Fico’s personal assistant, Maria Troskova, has close ties to an Italian entrepreneur, Antonino Vadala, who was arrested due to his association with the infamous ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate and his alleged involvement with Kusiak’s assassination. If the conspiracy turns out to be indeed true, then Fico’s regime would test positive on toleration of violence as well. [14]

Lastly, Fico has an anti-democratic record since he used to be a member of the communist party that ruled Czechoslovakia before the separatism of states in 1990. According to political scientist Juan Linz, a politician’s past can “either reinforce democracy or put it at risk.” [15] Whichever side Fico chooses will be a long-lasting effect for Slovakia.

Nonetheless, it is a bit premature to claim that Slovakia is on track of becoming an authoritarian state. It still has all the important democratic qualities such as free and fair elections, institutional safeguards for political freedom, etc. [16] However, it is quite undeniable that Slovakia is a “flawed democracy” that we should pay close attention to. [17] 

 

References

[1] Santora, M. & Germanovamarch, M. (2018, March 9). Ex-model, mob suspect and a murder could bring down Slovakia’s government. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/09/world/europe/slovakia-journalist-killing-protests.html

[2] [4] [5] [6] [16] Kneuer, M., Malová, D., & Bönker, F. 2016. “Slovakia Report.” Sustainable Governance Indicators 2016.

[7] Lust, Ellen & Waldner, David. 2015. Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding. Washington, DC: USAID. pp. 1-15. [16 pp.]

[3] [8] [9] [17] Democracy Index. 2016. “Slovakia’s Country Report.” The Economist Intelligence Unit. Retrieved from http://country.eiu.com/article.aspx?articleid=1915068975

[10] Scheppele, Kim Lane. 2013. “Not Your Father’s Authoritarianism: The Creation of the ‘Frankenstate’.” European Politics and Society Newsletter 5-9. [4 pp.]

[11] [12] [13] [14] [15] Levitsky, Steven, & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. “Fateful Alliances.” Chapter 1: How Democracies Die. NY: Crown Publishing. [22 pp.]

 

2 Comments

  1. JULIA NICOLE ROBINSON

    March 12, 2018 at 6:29 pm

    Hello,

    I really liked your post and thought it made it so clear of why it is hard to spot and combat democratic erosion. For instance, you mentioned each specific branch of government and how they were not fulfilling a democratic pillar, yet Slovakia is still known to be high on the democratic index and encompass what it needs to be a “democracy.” It reminds me of Scheppele’s, “Frankenstate,” article and how individually pieces may look good and function well for the democratic regime, but together they may not be giving a full democratic picture. It just emphasizes the importance of analyzing events similar to the one you mentioned with the death of the reporter, and look at reasons and underlying facts that might not be presented. Because, in the end, in order to stop democratic erosion, we have to catch it, but in cases like these its easier to not want to “fix” something that doesn’t appear to be “broken.”

  2. ABIGAIL ELIZABETH VALDEZ

    March 15, 2018 at 4:48 pm

    Hello,
    I really enjoyed reading your post and I agree with a few of your points but I believe that freedom of press is essential to a successful democracy. Freedom of press is considered the fourth estate precisely because of its power to keep the other three branches in check. Without it it is very difficult for the people to have the same kind of reach when they’re trying to make their dissatisfaction with the government known. While I do agree that there are more factors to a democracy than just freedom of the press I also believe that a democracy can’t be successful without it.

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