Slovak government’s sinking fortunes could yield the EU’s latest rule of law problem

Slovakia’s coalition government is evidently in deep trouble. A January 2022 poll had the ruling OLaNO party languishing in fifth place with a paltry 8% of the vote, while the two main opposition parties, Smer and HLAS, together drew the support of more than a third of all respondents. The survey only confirms a trend that’s been deepening for months: the Slovakian government’s “high level of incompetence” and chaotic management of the coronavirus pandemic have driven support for OLaNO and its coalition parties to historic lows, while voters have flocked back to former Prime Ministers Robert Fico, the head of Smer, and Peter Pellegrini, the founder of HLAS. “The governing coalition”, political scientist Jozef Lenč recently explained while arguing that it’s only a matter of months before Smer becomes the most popular party in Slovakia again, “has made so many mistakes that it is no wonder that its loudest critic is [gaining support].”

A turbulent year looms for Slovakian politics, capped off by regional elections in autumn 2022 which will give a concrete indication of the prevailing political mood—unless, of course, snap elections are held earlier. A referendum calling for early elections collected signatures faster than any previous citizens’ initiative, before being ruled unconstitutional last summer by the Slovak Constitutional Court. The ruling hasn’t dimmed Slovakians’ enthusiasm for a fresh turn at the ballot box, however—a majority of voters last month voiced their support for early elections.

Given the government’s dismal polling numbers, it’s unsurprising that political observers anticipate that the OLaNO-led coalition will do whatever it takes to avoid snap elections. What’s troubling is the shape that this no-holds-barred effort to avoid early polls may take. As corruption charges against those close to Fico and Pellegrini have multiplied in parallel to the opposition leaders’ rise in popularity, there are concerns that Slovakia’s judiciary may be going the way of Hungary and Poland’s, serving as a weapon to eliminate the political opposition and presenting the EU with its latest rule-of-law crisis.

Bratislava on a slippery slope

The dimmer its electoral prospects, the more devoted the government in Bratislava seems to its anti-corruption campaign. A commitment to stamp out graft has always been one of the only things tying together the “fragile and ragtag” coalition helmed by OLaNO, but the anti-corruption drive has recently taken on more overtly political tones.

Overseen by special prosecutor Daniel Lipšic whose close ties to prominent individuals in the justice department, the Slovakian security services, and the OLaNO government have raised questions about his ability to serve as an impartial prosecutor, Slovakia’s anti-graft push has increasingly appeared like a purge of prominent opposition figures.

As Smer and HLAS have risen in the polls, indictments have been rolled out against a wide range of entrepreneurs and former officials tied to the two principal opposition parties. Apparently scant on other evidence, prosecutors have pressed those facing charges to turn government witness, relying heavily on their somewhat questionable testimony to seek charges against individuals ever closer to opposition leaders Fico and Pellegrini. This methodology has come under scrutiny by Slovakian legal experts, while government officials’ social media posts celebrating corruption indictments have further eroded the impression that the anti-graft drive is completely divorced from politics.

A playbook premiered in Warsaw and Budapest

 The EU only needs to look to its most famously illiberal member states, Poland and Hungary, for a clear illustration of the devastating consequences of turning a blind eye to the misuse of the judicial system for political ends.

Since 2015, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has engaged in a wide-ranging “reform” of the judicial system, deeply undermining its independence. Warsaw persists with rules allowing the Polish government to appoint and remove judges essentially at will, despite adverse rulings by the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. Judges who speak out against the judicial reforms, meanwhile, suffer draconian disciplinary measures under the PiS’s so-called “muzzle law”, while officials have not hesitated to drum up spurious charges of corruption and other abuses against figures critical of the government, with little accountability.

Senior PiS politician Mariusz Kamiński, for example, was convicted in 2015 for abusing his power as the country’s anti-corruption chief, including by fabricating documents, offering bribes and misleading courts to obtain warrants under false pretences. After a pardon from PiS-affiliated president Andrzej Duda, Kamiński’s career has flourished—he currently serves as Poland’s interior minister—while the judge who convicted him, Wojciech Łączewski, has faced criminal charges as well as harassment by the Polish security services.

In Hungary, meanwhile, Viktor Orbán’s increasingly autocratic regime has also carried out a years-long institutional reform which has weakened the independence of the judicial branch. Orbán has so thoroughly stacked supposedly independent institutions with individuals loyal to his Fidesz party that, even if Péter Márki-Zay’s united opposition prevails in April elections, they will face a thorny puzzle to restore the rule of law.

Of particular concern is András Varga, the Fidesz-faithful President of the Hungarian Supreme Court whose appointment to a fresh nine-year term in January 2021 a UN Special Rapporteur described as an “attempt to submit the judiciary to the will of the legislative branch”, as well as public prosecutor Péter Polt, himself elected to a new nine-year term in late 2019. Polt has been described as Orbán’s “protector”, accused of sweeping corruption probes linked to Orbán’s family, friends and political party under the rug while pursuing allegedly trumped-up charges against opposition politicians.

Budapest and Warsaw’s trampling on democratic norms has prompted handwringing among European lawmakers who regret that action was not taken earlier to prevent the alarming degradation of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland. As worrying signs mount in Slovakia, European policymakers have a chance to take swifter steps to halt democratic backsliding and the politicization of the judiciary.


Rights-free image of Bratislava by Martin Katler from Unsplash.

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