February 2020 will be written into the modern political history of Slovakia as a month with a great turning point which combined in a special way two dramatic themes in the internal political development of the country. The first area was a two-year civil society effort to make a major social change after the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were murdered in February 2018 by order of the mafia. The second area was the overwhelming victory of the opposition over the dominant party, Smer-SD, in the parliamentary elections of 2020.
The second anniversary of the tragedy
In February 2020, Slovakia commemorated the second anniversary of the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová with a number of civic gatherings of remembrance held in dozens of towns and municipalities. It happened a week before the elections. These gatherings organically fit into the overall pre-election development. Citizens' initiative activists For a Decent Slovakia, who managed to organize and conduct mass protest events for citizens two years ago (March - May 2018) resulting in the resignations of leading government officials, including Prime Minister Robert Fico, and senior police officers, returned to the scene and in their speeches, they pointed out the legacy of the martyrdom of Ján and Martina: in order to never repeat such a thing again it is not enough to hold discussions on the accountability of politicians for the penetration of corruption and mafia practices into the work of state authorities. What is needed, in particular, is the active involvement of citizens in governance, their participation in the functioning of control mechanisms, constant pressure on politicians and bureaucrats, and finally democratic decision as to who will lead this country - whether it will be a partially changed government or a new government elite.
There was a strong call for change at the memorial gatherings, and the context of the link between the murder and the country's fate was unmistakable - one of the banners, for example, wrote "Go and vote! So they didn’t die unnecessarily”. A few days before the elections, the commemorative events culminated in a series of thematic meetings with citizens organized by the For a Decent Slovakia initiative during 2019.
Crime and Punishment
In parallel with these civic activities, another drama took place in Slovakia. Let's call it a political-criminal event. It was a two-year investigation into the murder of Ján and Martina, and subsequently a lawsuit against their murderers. The police, with their hands freed at the same time following the departure of former Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák and police chief Tibor Gašpar, showed that they could successfully investigate such a complicated case.
Of the five persons accused of this terrible crime, one - Zoltán Andruskó, the agent who gave the murder order - under the weight of conclusive evidence, entered into an agreement with the Specialized Criminal Court and was sentenced to 15 years in prison at the end of 2019. The legal process of four more suspects is continuing. One of them, the assassin Miroslav Marček, also confessed in January 2020 to participating in the murder and will now be judged in a separate process with the possibility of concluding a sentencing agreement. The remaining three criminals - Marián Kočner, the main suspect, and at the same time the organizer, the commissioner and the financial sponsor of the murder, his closest associate and principal broker Alena Zsuzsová and the second assassin Tomáš Szabó - are being judged in a joint trial. All three have refused to confess and face the possibility of sentencing to the highest degree - 25 years or even life imprisonment.
The main character of the murder case - Marián Kočner - was taken into custody by the police in September 2018 and was judged in another case - financial fraud against the private television Markíza where he wanted to receive 69 million Euros using counterfeit bills from its prior owners. To accomplish this fraud, he partnered with former Chief Executive Officer and co-owner of Markíza, Pavel Rusko, former leader of the ANO party and Minister of Economy between 2003 - 2005. After this court hearing, they were both sentenced to 19 years in prison at the end of February 2020. The judgment was delivered two days before the parliamentary elections.
In both Kočner's cases - murder and counterfeit bills - during their investigations and ongoing legal proceedings, a massive stream of information about the facts connected with the activities of Marián Kočner and his associates flowed into the Slovak media and the population of the country. These were really incredible facts. They had to have shaken many people, even those who did not have great illusions about how the section of the political class that uses corrupt, clientelistic and mafia methods works.
What was the evidence revealed? In particular, that Marián Kočner succeeded in creating a network, a kind of micro-empire that included corrupt politicians, government officials, judges, prosecutors, police, notaries, bailiffs, lawyers, former intelligence agents, journalists, and eventually the assassins. Kočner watched the positions of the various judicial authorities and the management of state institutions and through his contacts he not only gathered the necessary information, but also tried to influence the process of personnel nominations and subsequently directed the activities of public officials which he apparently helped to get into these positions.
Kočner was always interested in “handling” his own things, mostly in various financial operations and fraud (either at the expense of other private entrepreneurs or the state). The main intention of Kočner was of course personal gain and an effort to become even richer. However, Kočner's actions have actually influenced the overall situation in the judicial system (police, courts and prosecution) and, more broadly, in the system of constitutional institutions of the state, including the government, ministries and parliament. This was no longer just about Kočner's business but about the functioning of the state as such.
At some point, when the real scale of Kočner's contacts and activities had been shown, many people realized that Kočner's micro-empire may not be the only one operating in Slovakia, that similar micro-empires (though perhaps less brutal and violent) may exist around other actors - individual entrepreneurs or financial groups - with the intent of "arranging things" for their own benefit. Indeed, many shocking revelations related to Kočner were revealed only due to the fact that, as part of the investigation of Kočner's ordered murder of Ján Kuciak, the police and prosecutors managed to get encrypted communication on his mobile phone as well as audio and video recordings made by Kočner himself. Without this undisputed success of the investigative team, assisted by Europol experts, it would hardly be possible to dismiss the Secretary of State for the Ministry of Justice and Vice-President of Parliament and forcibly suspend and accuse the former Prosecutor General, for the suspension and resignation of some prosecutors and of several judges.
Corruption as an Election Campaign Theme
Not surprisingly, the main theme of the election campaign in this situation has become corruption and its diverse manifestations - personnel and departmental, in various spheres: institutions of the rule of law, executive power, judiciary, redistribution of public funds, health care. Virtually every democratic opposition party included in its pre-election program and mobilization list the anti-corruption agenda, for the justice and punishment of the perpetrators of corruption crimes and other serious crimes, including the murder of Ján and Martina. However, not every opposition party was equally successful with this agenda, although the opposition succeeded in completely overturning the Smer-SD government in the elections.
The clear-cut winner of the 2020 election was the broad center-right conservatist-inclined "soft-populist" movement OĽaNO headed by Igor Matovič, a political performer who has managed to enter Parliament four times since 2010, with a staggering result of 25% in 2020. In the first half of January 2020, the electoral preferences of OĽaNO was around 5-6% percent but gradually began to increase due to anti-corruption events in Slovakia and abroad (Cannes, Cyprus), and just before the election rocketed up. In the last exit poll OĽaNO with 19% overtook Smer and it was clear that there is a new winner of the election. This incredible and staggering growth in support - from 5% in January to 25.02% in the elections - signaled that the Matovič movement could attract a large mass of previously undecided voters, as well as some of the voters of other opposition parties who responded positively to the call for anti-corruption change. According to the exit-poll election, up to 71% of OĽaNO supporters voted for the movement for its ability to “fight corruption”. For voters of other parties, this motive was not dominating, they preferred "programme", "personalities", "values", etc.
Smer-SD party with Peter Pellegrini as the election leader with 18.29% departs to be the opposition. Its chairman Robert Fico has said that he remains in politics and is said to be a "hard opposition" to the new government. Other parties in the Parliament are an amorphous populist social-conservative movement with a left-wing economic rhetoric We are the Family (Sme Rodina) of the media entrepreneur Boris Kollár which received 8.24%, the libertarian SaS party of Richard Sulík with 6.22%, and the predominantly liberal-oriented party For People of Former President Andrej Kiska with 5.77%.
The failure of the liberal election coalition PS-Spolu was a big surprise in the elections. It obtained 6.97% of the voters but as it needed at least 7% to qualify, it did not enter into the Parliament (it was missing 927 votes). Obviously, this coalition - similar to the SaS and the For-People party - took some of the potential voters of the OĽaNO movement. It also turned out that the coalition PS-Spolu achieved significantly weaker results in Eastern Slovakia than in Western Slovakia (only 4-5% in the Prešov and Košice regions, while in the Bratislava region it gained up to 14%). The failure of PS-Spolu and the weaker outcome of the For People party reduced the chances of implementing deeper modernization and innovation reforms in important sectors of Slovak society. The expertise that these parties have managed to accumulate in their ranks over a relatively short period of their existence will remain largely untapped.
The moderate conservative pro-European KDH did not get into the Parliament as it missed the 5% threshold by 0.35%. The representatives of ethnic Hungarians will for the first time since 1990 not participate in the National Council of the Slovak Republic: the leadership of two 'Hungarian' parties - Most-Híd and MKS - failed to form a pre-election alliance that could help them to overcome a 5 percent entry threshold to enter to the Parliament.
Fascists from the ĽSNS were re-elected to Parliament. This was not a surprise, they behaved aggressively, spreading racism and hatred. In some early 2020 surveys their support was 12-14% which was of great concern to the Democrats. Eventually, however, the ĽSNS finished fourth with 7.97%. Fascists also used anti-corruption rhetoric but in a very peculiar way. They built their mobilization strategies on a wave of criticism of democracy as a "corrupt system". They did not criticize specific corrupt officials. They did the opposite - they accused the civil activists and pro-democratic politicians who had taken the fight against the mafia and its political and economic allies after the murder of Ján and Martina, of anti-Slovak conspiracy and called them "foreign agents" and allies of George Soros. This evidenced that they are the factual allies of the actors with the greatest corruption.
Does the change continue?
The new social atmosphere and new political momentum following the murder of Ján and Martina led to significant shifts in the political arena and it was reflected in the results of the municipal (2019), presidential (2019), European (2019) and, most recently, parliamentary elections (2020). Opposition politicians were given the opportunity (albeit not all who tried but it was a free decision of the citizens) to do what they had promised the people two years ago. May the legacy of Ján and Martina serve them as a guide.
The author is a political scientist and president of IVO (Bratislava), visiting IWM Expert in Europe's Futures Program (Vienna).