Bratislava, Slovakia – Anyone familiar with Slovak politics know all too well that it tends to be extremely confrontational to say the least.
This is pretty clear when one takes a look at the stormy relationship between Prime Minister Igor Matovic (OLaNO) and his Minister of Economy, Richard Sulik (SaS), whose conflict-ridden relationship threatens the very survival of the ruling coalition. The power dynamics between the President and Prime Minister are, however, one of the most important elements to understand politics in Slovakia.
What is the role of the president in Slovakia?
When it comes to power dynamics in Slovak politics, the most interesting and arguably most consequential relationship that can be observed is the one between the Prime Minister and the President. While the PM is the figurehead of the government, the president plays a strong representative – albeit often more symbolic – role, playing in the soft power sphere of politics and policy-making.
Despite having only a representational role, the president still holds a number of strong prerogatives, including the ability to veto legislative proposals, appoint judges and refer certain bills to the Constitutional Court. Soft power matters in the long run, as shown by the last two presidents’ key roles in calling out governmental mistakes or echoing allegations of corruption at the highest levels of government – the last president Andrej Kiska event went as far as to establish his own political party after deciding not to run for reelection.
The role of the president is – theoretically at least – to be politically neutral and not to have any party affiliation, but that’s rarely the case in reality. Most of the previous Slovak presidents were, in effect, urged to pick a side, as was evident in the case of Ivan Gasparovic (2004-2014), who was often described as a tacit supporter of controversial former Prime Minister and Smer head Robert Fico.
The power dynamics between current Prime Minister Igor Matovic and President Zuzana Caputova is in many ways much more complex than what Slovakia may have experienced in the past.
While the role of the PM is to enact laws and lead the government according to his party or ruling coalition’s political agenda, the president is supposed to act as a neutral party unencumbered by the rule of parties and politicking, and to consciously provide his or her opinion of what the parliament and government do.
In that regard, Caputova doesn’t refrain from criticizing moves and decisions made by the PM, including when she argued the government should appoint someone other than the PM to tackle the COVID crisis or when she expressed doubts regarding Matovic’s plan to launch make the mass COVID-19 testing plan mandatory, which the Premier took as a strong rebuke.
Although presidents are often said not to have any actual power, power dynamics and interpersonal politics are key to understand that the head of state is much more than just a figurehead – particularly true today given Caputova’s popularity and the citizens’ widespread distrust towards governmental and parliamentary representatives.
Soft power goes a long way, and – maybe more than any other president before her – Zuzana Caputova has more than enough power in her hands to influence Slovak politics. According to a recent poll done by Focus agency, the current head of state is the most trusted politician in Slovakia, closely followed by former Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini and Richard Sulik, Minister of Economy.
Is it just the COVID crisis?
Trust is hard to gain. The recent COVID crisis demonstrated how quickly public actors can fall from grace due to their handling of the crisis. It would however be false to analyze current power dynamics in Slovakia only in the light of the pandemic and its socio-economic consequences. There are several factors at play.
The president does play an important role in steering the government’s attitude and decisions, but the government and Prime Minister can just as easily dismiss concerns raised by the president. Yet it does not.
Slovak politics are confrontational in their nature. Due to the trust the president enjoys among the population, Caputova can influence decision-making and set the tone of public debate. This was also true for Andrej Kiska who, due to a relatively strong popular support, was able to face-off with controversial ex-PM Robert Fico by refusing to act in several key areas.
Does this mean that presidents are prone to turn into power hungry politicians all too eager to overstep their institutional and constitutional prerogatives? No. It just shows that, even within the executive branch of government, the system of checks and balances work as they should. The Prime Minister is thus placed in a delicate position, forced to take into account internal rivalries within the government, public opinion, his party (and coalition partners), as well as the president’s own influence.
The way the relationship between President Zuzana Caputova and Prime Minister Igor Matovic unfolds in the future will, in many ways, have a strong influence on the path Slovakia will take in the coming months, and years. As the COVID crisis abates, this will be one of the key elements to look out for.