An interview with Grigorij Mesežnikov, political analyst and founder of the Slovak Institute for Public Affairs.
Wojciech Przybylski: First of all, was it a surprise that Robert Fico lost the recent presidential elections?
Grigorij Mesežnikov: It wasn’t a complete surprise, and most observers and part of the population expected that Andrej Kiska would win. But of course the surprise was that the margin was very high, almost 40%, and we are now analyzing why it happened and what the implications will be. So, why was Robert Fico defeated? There are several groups of reasons for his defeat. The first group of reasons is connected with his performance, his government, and his party. As Fico defined the presidential election as a referendum about himself and his government, it’s clear that a large part of the population simply don’t agree with this kind of political style and the policies carried out by the government. His political style is very confrontational. Fico and his party have been concentrating power, building their power monolith, and I think that people simply disagree with the idea that one party can have all the tools of power, without any checking balance, without any functional control mechanisms.
So from this point of view, I think a larger part of society showed Fico that this is not in full compliance with democracy. The legitimacy of the government wasn’t put in doubt as they have a majority in parliament; but a democratic government is not only about a majority, it’s not only about legitimacy, it’s about performance in accordance with liberal principals. According to an opinion poll which our institute (the Institute for Public Affairs in Slovakia – editor’s note) conducted several months ago, we discovered that quite a substantial part of Smer-SD (Robert Fico’s social democratic party – editor’s note) voters were not satisfied with how the government delivered. Forty per cent of Smer voters were convinced the country was developing in a bad direction, that the promises which were made to the population after the last parliamentary elections had not been fulfilled. So Fico even failed to mobilize part of his traditional core voters.
Does Andrej Kiska represents a change in direction from Fico?
One of the reasons that a new face emerged is that Kiska is somebody who hasn’t been involved in party politics, who doesn’t have any kind of history with party politics. He wasn’t a member of any party, he wasn’t even a member of the Communist Party, which is usual for the president of state in Slovakia. So far we have had three presidents and all of them were members of the Communist Party.
For many people, Kiska’s personal story was quite interesting for many Slovaks and was confirmation of his capacity to solve the real problems: he started as an entrepreneur, then he stopped being a businessman and became a philanthropist. He has had many different personal experiences, some unsuccessful. For example, he spent an unsuccessful 18 months in the United States, then returned to Slovakia and tried to establish businesses, not all of them successful. Later he helped many people through philanthropy, as the founder of a foundation.
He was the first candidate to start his presidential activities, back in October 2012, unlike Fico one day before the election was announced. His election campaign was sincere; he wasn’t confrontational, unlike his biggest rival, Fico, who tried to discredit and compromise him. However, he didn’t react in a similar aggressive manner, and so people positively evaluated that Kiska was different from all the other traditional politicians. Of course, he has raised expectations that he will represent people through his high, supreme constitutional position – that he will care about them, he will defend them, that he knows what is important in real life and how to solve social issues.
With the president of Slovakia not particularly having a lot of power, how successful can Kiska be in the role of president?
First, I do not fully agree with you. This is a very traditional and simplistic explanation of the position of president. Why would Fico want to be the president if the president is so powerless? Of course the president is not powerless, but has quite substantial competencies and is a very important person. The president can, in some situations, change or can be a trigger of different developments, either positive or negative.
I would remind you of the situation during Vladimír Mečiar’s government when former president Michal Kováč, even with weaker competencies at the time, de facto became a trigger of pro-democratic development. So the president of Slovakia is a very important position and his competencies in the area of appointments are very high. He is a part of the checks and balances system. So when Fico was thinking of the concentration of power, he wanted to have this position in his own hand.
But as this is his first time in politics, will Kiska be a successful politician?
I would say that his ability to learn during the process seems quite high. As a presidential candidate, he was improving and improving all the time. We will see who his advisers will be as he starts to build his team. Some of the names seem very trustworthy. And what he presented in his presidential campaign – pro-market opinions, pro-democratic progress, pro-EU, pro-NATO – for me, these kinds of arguments confirm that the president is in line with the main priorities of the country.
His positive points are that he doesn’t have any connection with either political parties or sponsors behind these parties. He doesn’t have any obligations or liabilities; so he can act completely independently, in a good sense. He seems to be a law-abiding person who is not focused on the idea of the concentration of power. So he will not build any alternative center of power, he will just try to mobilize the political class to solve social issues in a better way.
There are several developments in Central European politics where newcomers, especially those who have experience in business are making their first step into politics. In Poland, for example, we have the left-wing liberal leader Janusz Palikot. Do you see Andrej Kiska as part of this trend?
The general trend now is that more people are starting to trust the traditional political parties less. Kiska’s case, however, isn’t comparable with either Czech or Polish examples. Kiska is not an oligarch, he doesn’t have any political ambitions, and hasn’t established any political party. He is a person who is not even typical for any kind of alternative political project. It’s not about the influence of either the development of the party system or some business interest, and so I don’t think the comparison is accurate.
It’s a reaction against a negative trend: the low level of trust in established political parties, for various reasons. Kiska has also criticized some of these so-called “traditional” politicians, without expressing any names or any party, but just speaking in a general sense. But he hasn’t put in doubt the fundaments of this tradition, he hasn’t criticized democracy or institutions, he was speaking about political actors. He is in full compliance with the liberal democratic regime.
He doesn’t want to reform the regime in terms of the introduction of bad democracy or any other strange ideas. Rather, he is compatible with it. And people in Slovakia reacted to this phenomenon of the low level of trust in politicians, voting for a person who promised to care about them and defend them. We will see. I am cautiously optimistic.
Transcribed by Julia Machnowska
Grigorij Mesežnikov is a political analyst of Jewish descent. He founded the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) in Slovakia 1997 with Martin Bútora (presidential candidate in the 2004 election), and has been its president since 1998. Mesežnikov is a frequent contributor to many politics-related newspapers in Slovakia.