Igor Matovič entered politics as an anti-political figure, a self-proclaimed „ordinary guy” who simply fights corruption and despises party politics. The COVID-19 situation has been an opportunity for him to transform the anti-corruption vocabulary into a proper messianic narrative.
On 6 March, Slovakia had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. It came less than a week after the elections that ended the era of Robert Fico’s Smer – which led the country almost continuously for 12 years.
How did this power shift influence the politics of the pandemic crisis in the Visegrad country with the lowest number of victims?
The coronavirus was not among the topics that would shape the elections in late February. It was not marginal either but rather nonexistent. Polls were showing that Slovakia was getting ready for the big “change”, meaning the removal of Robert Fico from power.
Although Fico was no longer the prime minister at the time of the elections – he had to step down due to the protests after the assassination of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírova – he remained the party leader who managed the acting Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini.
Igor Matovič’s anti-corruption movement Ordinary People and Independent Personalities made an impressive result with 25 per cent of the vote (it polled only at nine per cent one month before the elections) which put it way ahead of Smer – with 18,3 per cent.
This success was attributed to the vigorous long-term fight with Fico’s government, stressing corruption, oligarchic structures, mafia infiltration and their impact on “ordinary people’s” life, as framed in the peak campaign videos set on the French Riviera, where the ex-minister of finance from Smer owns a villa, and in Cyprus, where a number of shell companies of an infamous Slovak financial group are domiciled.
However, shortly after Matovič started coalition debates with three minor partners – aiming for a constitutional majority – COVID-19 became a major topic. Peter Pellegrini, still heading the government, proclaimed the state of emergency on 12 March.
The nation is the audience
When on 20 March the new parliament of Slovakia met for the first time, Matovič was already in a position of competition for the best crisis manager with Pellegrini.
Matovič received his mandate with the hope that he would be the most efficient cure against corruption, cronyism and mafia infiltration that heavily stained Fico’s legacy.
However, as a political leader, Matovič was a freshman who substituted the lack of experience with micro-management and hyper-communication.
As the curve grew steeper, Matovič turned the nation into an audience of his press conferences, where he explained every little detail, often improvising on the spot.
Such was the case when he introduced the idea of a “blackout” meaning stifling all activities to the necessary minimum to basically switch off the country in order to “beat the beast”.
Unlike Pellegrini, who was concerned but pragmatic, Matovič used a colourful language of epidemiologic warfare. Where he acted as St. George, and the coronavirus was the dragon.
He used a similar repertoire previously when he described the fight against corruption with corruption addressed as a disease. Due to the coronavirus situation, the metaphor of disease was replaced by an actual disease and Matovič could parade his vocabulary in full force.
His long press conferences that were full of colour, texture and imprecisions were commented and explained further on his social media accounts. There, he often chastised his coalition partner Richard Sulík – whom he picked as an impersonation of someone who only thinks about the economy without taking human lives into consideration.
In this way, Matovič managed to make the health versus economy debate personalised and grabbed the role of the responsible leader taming the Economy Minister Sulík and „the lobbyists“ who would – as invoked by the prime minister – neglect the health of many for the sake of their own profit.
Despite the urge for national unification against the pandemic, Prime Minister Matovič has been in a mode of competition rather than cooperation. With the previous prime minister as well as with his own minister of economy, or with the private sector.
For example, as soon as the Minister of Economy Sulík announced an economy unit dealing with COVID-19, the prime minister trumped him by suggesting that such unit should be established at the main crisis team, not at the ministry.
Another example, as entrepreneur Šimon Šicko received acclaim for his crowdfunding platform (Kto pomôže Slovensku – Helping Slovakia) that linked orders of medical material in hospitals with donors and provided shopping for them, the prime minister launched a fund by the Government office (Fond vzájomnej pomoci – Mutual help fund).
This beneficiary project was meant to collect money from donors – he mostly addressed politicians to donate portions of their salary through a transparent account – and give it to “those who need it and are not served by the state”.
The guerrilla marketing that was successful during the campaign and during Matovič’s decade in opposition proved problematic when in the position of leadership and power. This cannot be illustrated better than by the idea to issue the government-sponsored press that would “inform people of the achievements of the government”.
While Matovič entered politics as an owner of regional press running a column of his own – in this respect he tends to be compared to Boris Johnson – doing the same from the position of a prime minister is no longer the same.
Moreover, it would only be a continuation of the discourse of mistrust of the critical media cultivated by Robert Fico who was notorious for his tense relationship with journalists blaming them for not presenting the achievements of his governments.
Beyond politics, beyond criticism
Matovič entered politics as an anti-political figure, a self-proclaimed „ordinary guy” who simply fights corruption and despises party politics. His ambition to do politics differently is both reflected in the name of the movement that aims to represent „ordinary people“ and in its format, which lacks structures but relies on local activists and popular personalities.
The founder and a very limited leadership alone take decisions on behalf of the party.
As an anti-politics figure – who, of course, feels at home in politics but decided not to follow the rules and improvise them according to what sounds like a good idea – he reacted to the COVID-19 situation by answering a call for more expert approach and assembling a crisis team consisting of epidemiologists, doctors and managers. It provided him with an argumentative shelter.
His position is based on a naive take on science – as the force of reason that cannot be doubted. This is a position beyond politics and therefore devoid of political responsibility. And above all, beyond criticism.
Voicing a critique of the fresh government has been framed as an act of disloyalty. Matovič’s followers managed to infect the debate by a false dichotomy:
Either you want him to succeed or you want Fico to return. Either you are anti-corruption, or you sabotage the fight and so you must be pro-mafia. A perspective that flattens democratic debate into sectarian idiocy.
The COVID-19 situation in Slovakia has been an opportunity for Igor Matovič to transform the anti-corruption vocabulary of “fighting the mafia” into a proper messianic narrative of “beating the beast”.
Where those who take a critical stance towards the execution of the anti-corruption measures are labelled „friends of the mafia“, and those who question the fight on „the beast“ are presented as being against life as such.