On April 1, 2021, Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová appointed a new government headed by Eduard Heger. The new government was formed by the same four entities of the ruling coalition (two movements – OĽANO and We Are Family – and two parties – SaS and For People) that a year ago, after the last parliamentary elections, formed a government with Prime Minister Igor Matovič, OĽaNO’s leader. Compared to the previous arrangement, there have been just minimal personnel changes – a new Health Minister has taken office and a new Minister of Labor and Social Affairs will be appointed soon.
Farcical political maneuvers
The most important change has taken place in the Prime Minister’s position, the most difficult operation of the repeated attempts to resolve the deep political crisis into which Slovakia had plunged for almost a month.
This was no ordinary resignation of a Prime Minister in Bratislava who had lost the confidence of his coalition partners. Over the course of several weeks, the incumbent Prime Minister Igor Matovič first refused to resign and later conditioned his departure on the resignation of other cabinet members from the two parties in the coalition, the libertarian SaS and the center-right For People. One by one, ministers resigned their positions, and by the end of March a total of six members out of 16 had left the government. President Čaputová, who was following the collapse of the cabinet with great concern, called on Matovič to resign immediately in order to create the conditions for forming a new cabinet that would restore the functionality of the executive branch. In the end, Matovič agreed to resign, but on the condition that he remains a member of the government. At first he proposed the creation of a new position of Deputy Prime Minister for the fight against corruption, but eventually he changed his mind and agreed to swap positions with Finance Minister Eduard Heger.
Heger was appointed the new Prime Minister, and all of the ministers from SaS and the For People party who had resigned then returned to the government.
What was unusual and even unprecedented was how the change in the Prime Minister’s chair was undertaken (some commentators called it a farce). This step was less a reflection of the relations among the coalition parties themselves or the discrepancies in their programs. Their relations were not so conflictual as to inevitably lead to the disintegration of the cabinet. This was rather about Igor Matovič’s personal characteristics, his peculiar and selfish communication style, his penchant for permanent conflict and accusing his opponents of bad intentions, as well as his inexperience in foreign policy, all of which caused the unfavorable dynamism that resulted in a deep political crisis.
Mismanagement of the pandemic and the politically poisonous Russian vaccine
What was fatal to Matovič’s premiership was his personal involvement in handling the pandemic (chaotic micro-mismanagement) during the whole of 2020 and especially his behavior in the case of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, which played the role of triggering the outbreak of the intra-coalition conflict that spilled over into the change in who occupies the Prime Minister’s chair.
Matovič’s decision to purchase the Russian vaccine provoked sharp disagreement between him and the two coalition parties, SaS and For People, which demanded the immediate reconstruction of the cabinet, including the resignation of the Prime Minister. They argued that Matovič had lost their confidence and thus was not able to be the head of government any longer. Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok (SaS), who until the very last moment had no idea what the military transport plane of the Slovak Air Force was carrying onboard (the import of the Russian vaccine was classified by Matovič), said the Sputnik V vaccine is a geopolitical tool being used by Kremlin in its hybrid war against the West.
How could it happen that the Slovak Prime Minister, whom previously no one could have suspected of pro-Kremlin sympathies, became in fact a lobbyist for the Russian vaccine - and not just in Slovakia, but also abroad?
The answer must be sought in the situation that emerged around the pandemic when, as a result of the chaotic policy of the government, and above all of Prime Minister Matovič himself, Slovakia emerged at the beginning of 2021 in first place in the world in terms of the number of coronavirus deaths and the number of hospitalized patients with coronavirus per capita. The rating of Matovič’s conservative movement OĽaNO, which had won the February 2020 parliamentary elections with 25% of the vote, fell to 10–12% in February 2021. The contracted Western vaccine shipments were delayed, and in such a situation Matovič, a typical self-centered populist politician, decided to go all-in.
In mid-February, referring to the example of neighboring Hungary, which had already bought the Russian vaccine, Matovič said that in the current situation, when vaccine supplies from the EU are not coming in the agreed quantity, it would make sense to think about alternatives, for example, the import of Sputnik V from Russia. Specialists in virology and epidemiology in Slovakia immediately spoke out against this idea, recalling that the European Medicines Agency has not registered Sputnik and that the Slovak Institute for the Supervision of Medicines is not able to certify the Russian vaccine even if it wanted to, since the documentation necessary to do so does not exist.
Representatives of the two parties in the coalition stressed that Slovakia, as a member of the EU, is participating in the pan-European scheme for the production and distribution of vaccines and should not undermine this joint project by taking steps somewhere beyond the EU that are not coordinated with its EU partners. Veronika Remišová, the leader of the For People party and the Deputy Prime Minister of the government who most loudly declared that her party would not allow any experiments to be undertaken with citizens’ health due to the use of an uncertified vaccine, applied her veto on a cabinet resolution prepared by Matovič about the purchase of the Russian vaccine. It seemed the question of Sputnik had, therefore, already been settled.
In order to understand what happened a few days later, however, one would need to know the stubbornness of Igor Matovič; despite the government’s decision, he decided to take the completion of his plan upon himself. Matovič, who had unexpectedly became the head of the government in March 2020 (surprising himself as well), managed to become an actor in so many conflicts during the first year of his tenure that yet another conflict between him and other members of the government might have seemed like a common thing to him. Here, apparently, he miscalculated, being affected by an absolute lack of knowledge and experience in the field of foreign policy, and also by his inability to foresee the far-reaching consequences of his own steps.
Matovič instructed Health Minister Marek Krajči to purchase two million doses of Sputnik in Russia. The first consignment – 200,000 doses – was delivered to Eastern Slovakia. Matovič arrived at the Košice city airport from Bratislava in the evening and, right in front of the plane, with an open cargo bay and visible packages of Sputnik, held a half-hour press conference praising the Russian vaccine, as well as the actions of the Russian side in responding to his request to supply it. The Health Minister, realizing that he would not be able to get approval of the vaccine from the Slovak Institute for the Supervision of Medicines, issued a ministerial order allowing the use of the uncertified vaccine under the responsibility of individual medical doctors. The doctors, however, sharply criticized this decision.
Personnel reshuffling with uncertain prospects
After that, the wheels of party politics quickly spun. The For People party was the first to react, expressing a direct threat to withdraw from the ruling coalition. This party’s position was not surprising, since some MPs from the For People faction in the parliament had already announced they would leave the party if it remained in the coalition with Matovič as Prime Minister. If that had happened, For People would simply have disappeared from the political scene – it has the smallest faction in the parliament and the withdrawal of even a few deputies could lead to its formal disbandment and thus to the loss of full-fledged representation in the parliament. One deputy from that party, Tomáš Valašek, who is a prominent foreign policy expert and Slovakia’s former Ambassador to NATO, left in protest against Matovič’s decision to purchase Sputnik. SaS’ leader Richard Sulík, the Economy Minister, supported the For People party and demanded the immediate reconstruction of the cabinet, including Matovič’s departure from the Prime Minister’s post, but with the preservation of the four-party composition of the coalition.
Representatives of the two parties met with President Zuzana Čaputová and enlisted her support in the issue of the government’s reconstruction. Čaputová said that if Matovič resigned, she would appoint a new Prime Minister from the same OĽaNO movement. The president also said she would not urge citizens to vaccinate themselves with the uncertified Sputnik, although she is known to be an unequivocal supporter of vaccinating as much of the population as possible.
Boris Kollár, the chair of the third coalition member, the social-conservative populist movement We Are Family, as well as a speaker in the parliament , asked his coalition partners to take a break for several days so he could convene the movement’s presidium and decide on the future of the government and the coalition. The movement then announced that under no circumstances would it see itself as a member of the minority government.
During the next three weeks of intra-coalition maneuvers, Matovič tried to do everything possible (and impossible) to remain in power. He toyed with moving to a three-party coalition (with the We Are Family movement and the For People party, but without SaS), or a two-and-a-half-party coalition (with We Are Family and just part of the For People’s faction in parliament), or an OĽaNO and We Are Family minority two-party coalition with ad hoc support from splinters from the opposition parties, including the fascist ĽSNS. He evoked the atmosphere of the inevitably approaching early elections and frightened the public with a possible return of a government formed with the corrupt Smer-SD, led by Robert Fico, and its political clone, the Hlas-SD party led by Peter Pellegrini. In the meantime, the cabinet’s agony continued and it was unclear how long it would last. SaS ministers resigned and the party announced that it had suspended its membership in the ruling coalition.
The resolution came on the last Sunday in March. When the For People party, after its hesitant statements, announced that it saw no other option than continuing the four-party coalition, but without Matovič as Prime Minister (otherwise they would leave the government), it turned out that all the variants played out by Matovič had been chimeras, except perhaps one – the early elections that would probably be a disaster for himself and OĽANO. At that moment, Matovič finally realized that if he did not back down, he would lose everything. He convened a press conference at which he withdrew all his personnel requirements for the coalition partners, announced he was resigning, and proposed Eduard Heger for the Prime Minister’s post while personally taking over as Finance Minister.
The castling between Prime Minister and Finance Minister, in addition to exposing Matovič’s mental problem with accepting the consequences of his own inability to run the government and resigning after his apparent defeat, posed a dilemma for Heger as a head of cabinet in his relations with Matovič. Heger is known not just for his non-conflictual, consensual mindset, but at the same time for his strong personal loyalty to the OĽaNO leader. The question is whether, as head of government, he will be able to resist his party boss’ efforts to continue playing the dominant role in the cabinet. No one today can reliably answer this question or predict how this tandem will work after the reshuffling of the power positions.
During the first year of its operation, new Slovak government gave free rein to law enforcement institutions in their investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators of criminal acts, especially corruption, and many prominent officials in the police, prosecutor’s offices, courts, the secret service and the ministries have ended up in custody, suspected of alleged corruption, as have many fraudulent business people. A promising reform of the judiciary has begun. After the 2020 elections, the country returned to the EU and Euro-Atlantic trajectory in its foreign, security and defense policy. The COVID-19 pandemic then seriously complicated the country’s development. However, the population’s critical perception of the situation in society has been even more affected by the behavior of Matovič, who repeatedly provoked unnecessary conflicts, constantly came up with proposals that met with the disagreement of coalition partners, and verbally insulted his opponents, experts and the media. The fact that Matovič remains an influential member of the government after being removed from the Prime Minister’s chair creates the possibility of similar political turbulence in the future.
It seems at the beginning of April 2021 the political crisis in Slovakia has ended. The question is – for how long?