Just a week over loosening Covid-19 restrictions, Bratislava has been forced to tighten the screws again, limiting access to certain venues and restricting opening hours for restaurants and bars. The fresh restrictions come as Slovakia faces the coming Omicron wave with one of the worst vaccination rates in Europe, a lacuna in protection which the Slovakian press has chalked up to poor political decisions taken by the coalition government led by the populist OLaNO party, including dubious initiatives which failed to convince many Slovakians to take up the jab.
Reports that Slovakia is only now beginning its Omicron surge are a troubling prospect for the OLaNO-led government, recently characterized by Balkan Insight as “worn-out, devoid of fresh ideas and haunted by the spectre of early elections”. Indeed, while OLaNO founder Igor Matovič promised the best government Slovakia ever had when he swept to power in March 2020 on an anti-graft ticket, the reality has not been so rewarding. Matovič was ousted as PM after a misguided bet on Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines, while his handpicked successor Eduard Heger’s failure to control the coronavirus pandemic has led to plummeting trust in the Slovakian government and rising fortunes for opposition parties SMER and HLAS.
With even Zuzana Čaputová, Slovakia’s usually apolitical president, weighing in to call for “stronger leadership”, it’s unsurprising that political observers are warning that the OLaNO coalition could soon run out of road. 52% of Slovaks recently called for snap elections, something which would be disastrous for OLaNO while the party trails in 4th place in the polls. The government has one avenue left, therefore: doubling down on the anti-graft pledge which saw it elected in the first place. And given the flawed way in which the anti-corruption crusade is being carried out, it’s looking increasingly likely Bratislava could soon join the ranks of Poland and Hungary as one of Europe’s bad apples.
Daniel Lipšic, a prosecutor with a chequered past
It’s true that the number of anti-corruption prosecutions has increased under OLaNO’s stewardship, with a number of high-profile figures close to former SMER PM Robert Fico indicted. Special Prosecutor Daniel Lipšic recently claimed that Slovakia has made greater progress in cracking down on crime in the past year than in the previous 30 years, citing a number of recently-opened criminal cases. Many of these cases, however, raise major red flags about the independence of Slovakia’s criminal justice system—and Lipšic himself is one of the biggest red flags threatening to undermine the entire anti-corruption campaign.
Lipšic’s right-wing NOVA party first allied with Matović’s OLaNO in 2016 in an attempt to take down Fico and SMER. Lipšic was swiftly forced to leave political life, however, after he struck and killed a pedestrian. Following the incident, for which Lipšic was eventually convicted of vehicular manslaughter and handed a three-year suspended sentence and five years of probation, he gave up both his seat as an MP and the leadership of the NOVA party, returning to private practice as an attorney.
Lipšic’s surprise appointment in early 2021 as Slovakia’s special prosecutor sparked controversy on several levels. For one thing, he was the only candidate without substantive experience as a prosecutor. He also lacked the top-secret security clearance required by Slovak law for special prosecutors—until the Labour Ministry stepped in and applied for the clearance on Lipšic’s behalf. The unusually speedy nine weeks it took Lipšic to obtain his clearance unsurprisingly raised doubts, as the head of one judicial fairness watchdog noted, over whether Lipšic would act in full transparency.
More broadly, the fact that Lipšic had left politics a mere four years earlier and retained close ties with leading politicians from the ruling OLaNO coalition aroused observers’ suspicions. “[Lipšic’s] election could threaten the perceived independence of the prosecution service beyond acceptable levels”, Transparency International Slovakia cautioned before Lipšic was chosen.
Slovakia goes scalp-hunting
The anti-graft prosecutions that have taken place under Lipšic’s watch haven’t exactly allayed those fears. As increasingly important opposition figures have been charged, OLaNO party cadres have cheered what former PM Matovič referred to as their “scalps” collected, with the corruption cases serving as one bright spot amidst a steady drumbeat of bad news for OLaNO.
Indeed, high-profile indictments have often occurred during moments of particular political strain for the ruling coalition. Matovič’s Covid response, described as a complete failure, had left him hanging by a thread as PM when the first eight individuals, including former Financial Administration Frantisek Imrecze and entrepreneur Michel Suchoba, were charged with corruption in the so-called Mýtnik case. OLaNO was polling at historic lows, meanwhile, when more Mýtnik indictments dropped, including against entrepreneur Miroslav Výboh and former Finance Ministry official Radko Kuruc.
The ultimate scalp, observers have noted, would be one of Slovakia’s most popular opposition politicians (and former Prime Ministers), either SMER leader Robert Fico or HLAS head Peter Pellegrini. In order to secure testimony against Fico or Pellegrini, Lipšic’s team appears to be tapping into what one Bratislava-based judge described as a “factory” in which indicted individuals are pressed into confessing and turning government witness. The Mýtnik affair is a perfect example—the proceedings against the case’s “big fish” are heavily dependent on the allegedly inconsistent testimony of Suchoba and Imrecze, who flipped after having been indicted and are now cooperating with Lipšic.
These various troubling aspects—the overreliance on testimony from flipped witnesses, the focus on those close to opposition leaders, and the choice of a controversial prosecutor like Lipšic—have undermined OLaNO’s once-promising anti-corruption campaign, turning it from a boon at the ballot box to a political liability. This is particularly problematic for Slovakia’s ruling coalition given that it has failed to take one anticorruption analyst’s advice to heart—to “develop a clear and comprehensive political platform” above and beyond anticorruption. With Slovakia facing a fresh Covid wave, already-disgruntled voters will undoubtedly be reminded of OLaNO’s “disastrous” handling of the pandemic. The government will have little left to lean on except its anti-graft efforts—with potentially dire consequences for the country’s rule of law. If there were ever a better time for Čaputová to reign in the coalition’s excesses and insulate herself from the political fallout of OLaNO’s ragtag coalition, this would be it.