Slovakia

Consolidated Democracy
71
100
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 70.83 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 5.25 7
Last Year's Democracy Percentage & Status
72 100 Consolidated Democracy
The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0-100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic.

header1 Score changes in 2022

  • Civil Society rating declined from 6.25 to 6.00 due to the demobilization of liberal civic actors and growing prominence of violent illiberalism in the anti-vaccination movement.
  • Corruption rating declined from 4.25 to 4.00 due to inter-institutional conflicts and political disagreements within the ruling coalition that snarled the fight against corruption.

header2 As a result, Slovakia’s Democracy Score declined from 5.32 to 5.25.

In early 2021, governance in Slovakia was heavily influenced by a lack of consensus and the resulting conflicts between then–Prime Minister Igor Matovič and all other political actors—most importantly, other members of Matovič’s ruling coalition. These disagreements centered on issues of leadership, particularly around what measures were needed to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. To an extent, these conflicts resolved with the change in premiership yet reemerged episodically throughout the year.

Following Matovič’s resignation as prime minister, politics revolved around a series of high-profile investigations into corruption cases stemming from the eight-year rule of the Smer-SD party. Disagreements over the manner, purpose, and integrity of the investigations notably contributed to the radicalization of the opposition. In the former ruling Smer-SD, this verged on full-blown anti-systemic demagoguery in order to mobilize the electorate on the flanks of the system. But clashes over the alleged misuse of investigations also embittered relationships within the ruling coalition, especially as the “We Are Family” party began to doubt the coalition’s fight against corruption, viewing it as potentially damaging of the rule of law, as well as the party’s cadres and nominees.

Consequently, the ruling coalition found a way to tolerate a certain lack of discipline among its individual parties, particularly We Are Family’s public dissatisfaction with the government’s anti-corruption efforts. This approach was designed to salvage the government’s reform plans, which nonetheless were delayed. As was the case in 2020, ruling parties found themselves caught between concerns over their political survival and an increasingly radicalized opposition. This quandary lent impetus to a pragmatic mode of operation, allowing the government to muddle through with some of its envisioned reforms—which, once implemented, were largely interpreted as achievements for this or that coalition party rather than the government. However, over the course of 2021, growing conflicts within the coalition saw ruling parties block or postpone a greater number of reform initiatives envisaged in the government’s manifesto, including healthcare reform (eventually passed) and reform of the court system, which remained effectively blocked.

Aside from these political tensions, Slovakia also witnessed notable conflicts among state institutions during the year, particularly within law enforcement and the prosecution. For the first time since the country’s independence, state institutions not only argued but also took action against one another. These moves included formal prosecution of members of rival institutions, as well as arrests (see “Corruption”).

Slovakia also waged an intense argument over calling a popular referendum to terminate the current parliament. This dispute (raised by the opposition) conflated political and legal arguments to prove whether the government was willing to extend the right of direct democracy to Slovak citizens. When the Constitutional Court decided that a change in legislation was necessary to call the referendum, the desirability of such a change also became a point of contention for the already divided ruling coalition.

Domestic civil society groups encouraged the government’s efforts at greater transparency. At the same time, they criticized the tendency toward centralization in some areas of governance, particularly the tightening controls over senior state functionaries. The ruling parties claimed that any centralizing moves were motivated by political expediency and that their original intentions in this area were hijacked by realities on the ground (see “National Democratic Governance”).

In the media sphere, the government failed to address lingering problems at the public broadcaster RTVS, namely, the low quality of production and high degree of political influence—issues that were overshadowed by the focus on managing COVID-19 and other crises. Later, after the intra-coalitional conflict intensified, the We Are Family party blocked any proposals to reform the public media. The party’s efforts to build a good relationship with current RTVS leadership were seen as an investment in a potentially useful ally with a vested interest in remaining shielded from reform.

Local and regional self-governments were heavily influenced by pandemic measures. These measures negatively impacted the budgets of self-government units, causing decreasing incomes and increasing expenditures. Local and regional officials complained that the central government was insufficiently flexible or helpful in compensating for the costs of public health measures. More importantly, they resented a perceived lack of appreciation by the central government and occasional comments by national politicians that self-government units were not doing enough. At the same time, subnational politics prepared for the forthcoming local and regional elections in October 2022, which will be held on the same date for the first time. This synchronization of the terms of local and regional self-governments—including mayors and regional governors—will certainly change the dynamics of subnational politics, though how and to what extent is yet unknown.

Slovakia’s justice system went through a tumultuous year. First, it had to process a large number of pretrial and trial proceedings related to allegations of grand political corruption. Also, new judicial institutions and organs of judicial self-government were formed or reformed in 2021. The anticipated reform of the court system ran into notable difficulties not only from poor communications but also use of the reform as a proxy conflict within the ruling coalition when certain members lent a sympathetic ear to protests from affected judges.

The fight against corruption was marked by a high number of investigations, practically all with political dimensions. Consequently, doubts increased over the procedures and integrity of the anticorruption fight among members of the opposition, the ruling We Are Family party, and such state institutions as the Prosecutor General’s Office, Slovak Intelligence Service, and Bureau of the Inspection Service (police). In some cases, the public began to view the anticorruption drive as compromised, messy, or even malevolent—a desired outcome, cynically speaking, for some actors involved in the debate.

Slovak democracy ended the year with hopes of lightening the burden of “Corona governance,” but also with a few worrying trends. Political elites continue to nourish divisions and utilize the conflict between state institutions, including law enforcement agencies, for political ends. The radical side of the opposition, which has gradually gained strength, alleges that the government has breached the rule of law by using corruption investigations against them, and promises political revenge. As a response, the ruling coalition embraced the centralization of governing power in the executive in order to streamline implementation of the government’s manifesto and to stave off political retribution.

header3 At a Glance

Governance in Slovakia is liberal and democratic in character, but it has suffered from disagreements among elites who have tended to use polarization to achieve political goals. Elections are generally free and fair, although a heated discourse has evolved around the politically divisive issue of calling referendums to terminate parliamentary terms. Ideological arguments regarding the legitimacy and influence of civil society have begun to inform relations between the civic sector and the political sphere; meanwhile, activities of “uncivil society” have been on the rise, especially with protests against the state’s imposition of public health measures. In the media sphere, attention (if not yet action) has been given to reforming the country’s public broadcaster RTVS, which is overshadowed by private media. The relationship between the central government and sub-national self-government units has been poisoned by disagreements over public health measures and countering the economic impacts of COVID-19 on municipal budgets. Parts of the judiciary have long been under the influence of external players related to the former ruling Smer-SD party, and structural reforms have met with resistance from affected members as well as marred by poor communications and strategy from reformers. The fight against corruption, while sincere, has exerted a negative influence on the country’s politics; those actors who feel directly threatened use radical political campaigning to offset the pressure, while those at the helm of the anticorruption effort have been accused of using methods that also clash with the rule of law.

National Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the democratic character of the governmental system; and the independence, effectiveness, and accountability of the legislative and executive branches. 4.755 7.007
  • In the wake of declining popular support and increasing pressure from ruling parties SaS, For the People, and his own OĽaNO, Prime Minister Igor Matovič agreed in March to step aside and leave space for a cabinet reshuffle.1 Resistance to Matovič’s aggressive political style had been mounting during his first year in office and culminated in spring 2021 when he decided to procure the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, which he pursued in a semi-secretive way and presented as the turning point in the fight against COVID-19. Since the vaccine was not approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), Matovič pressured various domestic authorities to sanction its use. When the State Institute for Drug Control (ŠÚKL) refused to exempt the vaccine from certification, Matovič launched a series of personal attacks against institute head Zuzana Baťová, fomenting a strong counter-reaction among segments of the public and political class.2
  • In the cabinet reshuffle, Matovič swapped places with party colleague and finance minister Eduard Heger, renowned for his conciliatory political style. The embattled Matovič loyalist Marek Krajčí lost the health ministry portfolio following harsh criticism for his underperformance in fighting COVID-19. The new cabinet was appointed on April 1.3
  • While this move temporarily calmed tensions in the polity, investigations into corruption cases from the Smer-SD era further polarization between the government and the opposition. In late December 2020, former Slovak Police Force president Milan Lučanský committed suicide while in detention on corruption charges.4 The event was used by the opposition and antisystem activists to launch a campaign portraying the corruption investigations as an effort to eliminate the opposition, including by physical means. At the institutional level, the campaign continued when former PM Robert Fico (Smer-SD) announced his intention to sponsor a referendum on the early termination of the current National Council (Slovakia’s unicameral, 150-seat parliament), elected in 2020.5 Smer-SD, cooperating with Voice–Social Democracy (HLAS) and, unofficially, the far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS), successfully collected the necessary referendum signatures.6 After the Constitutional Court, acting on a request from President Zuzana Čaputová, ruled out the referendum under current legislation (see “Electoral Process”), antigovernment rhetoric intensified with claims that officials were assaulting democracy. Former PM Matovič and We Are Family party leader Boris Kollár agreed in principle with a legislative change that would make this kind of referendum legal even though they did not consider it urgent.7
  • A new conflict within the ruling coalition formed over rules for pretrial detention. The topic was nourished by Robert Fico, who claimed that pretrial detention had been used to force accused functionaries from his government to confess to corruption. The issue was aggravated after the arrest of the head of the Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS), nominated by We Are Family (see “Corruption”). The party exerted intense pressure on the rest of the coalition8 as well as the public to shorten the maximum duration of detention,9 which was interpreted by some coalition partners as a de facto alliance with the opposition in its effort to undermine the integrity of the anticorruption effort. Meanwhile, the parliamentary caucus of coalition partner For the People disintegrated and a majority of its members joined SaS.10
  • Tensions escalated in the spring when open conflicts broke out among law enforcement services over the legality of procedures used by anticorruption investigators at the National Criminal Agency (NAKA). The media presented the clash as a “war of cops,” pitting NAKA (and the Special Prosecutor’s Office) against the SIS, the Bureau of the Inspection Service (police), and the General Prosecutor’s Office. NAKA’s opponents argued that the agency utilized testimonies from “contrite” (cooperating) suspects to forge cases against functionaries of the Robert Fico and Peter Pellegrini governments who were accused of corruption. These testimonies were allegedly fabricated or traded for beneficial treatment in the form of plea deals. Politically, NAKA was supported by most of the ruling parties, while the opposition, joined by the embittered We Are Family, supported arguments of the counter-position, increasingly represented by Prosecutor General Maroš Žilinka. The ruling coalition attempted to extinguish the institutional conflicts by calling a controversial confidential meeting between political brass and heads of law enforcement agencies in May under the auspices of the SIS.11 This attempt was unsuccessful and further fueled conspiracy discourses within political and law enforcement spheres.
  • In the fall, the government found itself encircled on two fronts. Outside pressure from the energized opposition allied with the antisystem part of civil society. Internally, the estranged ruling coalition member We Are Family effectively blocked all planned government reforms, including healthcare and the court system.12 These proposed reforms had already suffered from poor public support and clumsy communications. In addition, the affected parties, mainly doctors and legal professionals, had emphatically protested the envisioned changes. For example, in October, members of the judiciary protested en masse against the announced court reform.13
  • As a result, the embattled government unapologetically applied stricter political control over state offices and institutions, particularly in the selection of senior functionaries. Although this occurred within the legal framework, the government reneged on its promise to bring more openness and public voices to the selection of crucial cadres within the state apparatus. The government also returned the power to appoint the president of the police and head of the Bureau of the Inspection Service to the Minister of Interior, and contemplated firing senior bureaucrats without justification.14 (Such aggressive controls had been typical of Slovak politics until the last few years of Smer-SD’s tenure, an about-face that observers considered a preemptive move to shield party loyalists in the state apparatus.) Some government officials signaled that the centralizing measures were necessary to cleanse the state apparatus of malevolent appointees of the old regime, who had used institutional independence to resist government policy initiatives for personal, political, or corporate reasons. For example, the ruling party OĽaNO justified personnel changes as a “political decision for the sake of fulfillment of the anticorruption agenda.”15
  • A major reconfiguration of political power took place inside the opposition with the split of the radical People’s Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) in March. The reasons for the split were not of an ideological or programmatic nature; rather, conflict within the party leadership broke out when chairman Marián Kotleba forced through a change to the party statute in a radically centralized direction. The powers of party functionaries were redistributed, and key positions were filled with Kotleba loyalists. Kotleba also made it possible for him to run the party from prison ahead of an expected Supreme Court ruling on his 2020 four-year sentence for propagating extremist ideas.16 In response, a party faction led by ĽSNS MEP Milan Uhrík split off, taking much of ĽSNS’s parliamentary representation. The new party, Republika, also soon outdid ĽSNS in polls, thus sending the latter’s public support below the threshold for parliamentary representation.
Electoral Process 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines national executive and legislative elections, the electoral framework, the functioning of multiparty systems, and popular participation in the political process. 6.256 7.007
  • In 2021, reforms to Slovakia’s electoral framework were passed in advance of the 2022 regional and local elections. The hot debate over the rules for referendums to terminate the tenure of parliament (aka, early elections referendums) still simmered at year’s end.
  • The statute of the State Electoral Commission (ŠVK), which oversees the nation’s electoral processes, was amended in March to allow one of its members to be nominated by the head of the newly created Supreme Administrative Court (NSS), which will adjudicate electoral disputes.1
  • In May, the Constitutional Court ruled that the previous government’s decision to introduce a 50-day moratorium prior to elections for publishing political party poll rankings—which was not applied during the 2020 national elections—was in breach of the constitution as well as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).2 Consequently, the government proposed a series of amendments to the electoral code that were passed in December. These include shortening the poll moratorium to 48 hours prior to elections, new caps on campaign expenses in subnational elections, instituting effective co-responsibility of political parties for their candidates’ campaign conduct, and several technical changes to the work of precinct commissions.3 The amendments also clarified legal barriers to participation in elections during pandemics, such as barring voters who refuse to comply with epidemiological measures from polling places.
  • In February, a petition committee began collecting signatures for a referendum on ending the tenure of the parliament elected in 2020. While formally nonpartisan, the committee was staffed by those close to Smer-SD, HLAS, the extra-parliamentary Slovak National Party (SNS), and politicians from ĽSNS and its recent splinter, Republika.4 Smer-SD and HLAS rank-and-file members also collected signatures in the field.5 In May, the committee submitted 585,000 signatures to the Presidential Office, far more than the 350,000 required by the constitution to initiate the referendum.6 To dispel lingering doubts caused by past contradictory judgments from the Constitutional Court, President Čaputová petitioned the court to decide on whether the Slovak legal framework provided for the referendum.7 In July, the court decided that, under current rules, there was no possibility to call such a referendum.8 The president therefore refused to call the vote but stated she was willing to do so if the constitution were appropriately amended.9 The opposition decried the move as an assault on democracy,10 while most coalition parties in principle confirmed the intention to amend the constitution.11
Civil Society 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses the organizational capacity and financial sustainability of the civic sector; the legal and political environment in which it operates; the functioning of trade unions; interest group participation in the policy process; and the threat posed by antidemocratic extremist groups. 6.006 7.007
  • In 2021, the relationship between political elites and civil society featured more ideological differences than previously. The opposition criticized “political NGOs” (nongovernmental organizations) for allegedly siding with the government, for example, former PM Robert Fico’s criticism of Transparency International Slovakia.1 Some anticorruption civil society organizations (CSOs) participated in government efforts to improve the transparency of state institutions, but they also criticized government proposals that they deemed in direct contradiction with the values they advocate.
  • In January, the Minister of Labor, Social Affairs, and Family, Milan Krajniak, was criticized for awarding subsidies intended for organizations advancing gender equality to conservative, pro-life organizations, which, apparently, did not score high in the rankings prepared by call assessors.2 Leaked to the public, the scoring sheets showed that a number of progressive and notably more professionalized NGOs topped the rankings, whereas the scores of the winning organizations were mediocre. The ministry argued that feminist organizations had been systematically preferred by the previous leadership, and it thereby interpreted the award as a compensatory measure.3 Some of the rejected organizations were later successful in calls put out by the Ministry of Justice, led by the more progressive cabinet member Mária Kolíková.4
  • In a positive example of collaboration, Transparency International Slovakia audited the State Material Reserves Administration (SŠHR) and prepared an anticorruption strategy for the organization, which is in charge of purchasing and storing strategic supplies for the nation.5 Under its previous leadership, which was prosecuted for embezzlement, the institution had been considered a bedrock of political corruption. Meanwhile, a consortium of pro-transparency NGOs systematically criticized initiatives for public procurement and public housing put forward by Deputy Prime Minister Štefan Holý (We Are Family) as potentially enlarging the space for corruption (see “Corruption”).6
  • Academics expressed concerns over the government plan to amend the law on public higher education,7 particularly changes proposed in the powers, composition, and nominating rules for members of public university statutory bodies that would increase the influence of the Ministry of Education. While the ministry openly talked about increasing public input in university governance, the institutions themselves interpreted the proposal as curbing academic self-government through politicization and underfunding.8 In the end, the ministry withdrew the bill in March and promised to address the concerns of academia.9
  • The Trade Union Conference (KOZ), the once-dominant trade organization, returned to tripartite negotiations within the Economic and Social Agreement Council (RHED), which it had abandoned in 2020 after the government allowed other union organizations to participate in the council’s work. KOZ, however, continued to criticize various aspects of the labor code.10 It also supported the early elections referendum sponsored by the opposition parties.11
  • Proponents of restricting access to abortion and the rights of sexual minorities continued to submit bills to the National Council.12 In June, maverick OĽaNO MP Martin Čepček submitted a bill that would forbid abortion under any circumstances other than rape and severe health reasons, for which he was expelled from the party’s parliamentary caucus. This coincided with an almost identical ĽSNS initiative.13 In November, a much less restrictive proposal by another OĽaNO MP, Anna Záborská, was defeated by one vote in the second reading.14 Záborská is known for her systematic push for pro-life amendments in which mild and incremental restrictions are balanced by benefits for women who choose to continue their pregnancy over having an abortion. Radical proposals by other MPs are largely viewed as attempts to seek attention and recognition among the conservative constituency. The October parliamentary session saw unsuccessful votes on five proposals to limit the rights of sexual minorities, some inspired by legislation in Hungary.15 Initiators of these bills were MPs elected on the ĽSNS list, currently unattached, or organized by the splinter party Republika.
  • In 2021, Slovak civil society witnessed the mobilization of its radical “uncivil” counterpart, manifested largely through social media–coordinated demonstrations against COVID-19 measures. In July, protesters poured into the streets of the capital Bratislava, blocking traffic on one of the main thoroughfares. Police were unprepared for the street action and for hours failed to respond with appropriate measures.16 A similar demonstration took place in front of the parliament.17 These protests attracted the attention of the radical opposition—namely, Smer-SD and Republika—which staged similar protests presented as grassroots initiatives, such as the demonstration on September 1 (Slovak Constitution Day).18 Anti-mask activists, often including radical nationalist and antisystem militants, also staged a series of provocations in October by refusing to wear epidemiological masks in supermarkets, confronting security guards, and streaming the resulting arguments on social media.19 In these cases, political parties, particularly ĽSNS, tried to capitalize on the media attention on these actions by following after protesters and calling for the boycott of supermarkets that required face masks (essentially, all of them).20
Independent Media 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines the current state of press freedom, including libel laws, harassment of journalists, and editorial independence; the operation of a financially viable and independent private press; and the functioning of the public media. 5.005 7.007
  • Developments in Slovakia’s media scene in 2021 showed renewed interest by the political class in reforming the legal framework, including proposals to protect the work of journalists through targeted legislation.
  • Denník N journalist Monika Tódová, who covered a number of high-profile corruption investigations, reported in January that she had been followed by unknown men who were later confronted by the police. Earlier, former PM Fico (Smer-SD) had published personal information about Tódová—particularly a meeting she had with a judge on the Special Criminal Court—to support his claim that Tódová was part of a conspiracy of journalists and legal professionals aimed at discrediting his political party.1 These events accelerated work on the Media Law amendment to increase protections for journalists. Other measures discussed included an amendment to the penal law ending imprisonment as a punishment for defamation and a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the protection of journalists’ sources and access to information.2
  • In November, the government approved a Media Law amendment, sending the measure to the parliament. The amendment would now apply basic rules for traditional print and broadcast media to online media. Other changes require all media to publish the identity of investors/donors providing more than €1,200, as well as list them on the ultimate beneficial owners register, in a move to make media ownership structures more transparent.3 The National Council had not passed the amendment by year’s end.
  • Part of the ruling coalition expressed a desire to reform the public broadcaster RTVS, a 2020 goal that was scuttled by the COVID-19 emergency. First, OĽaNO announced it would initiate the creation of an ethics commission within RTVS that would oversee, among other things, contested layoffs of journalists.4 Later, a discussion started about reforming the selection procedure for the head of RTVS. A majority of ruling coalition MPs preferred to return that power to the institution’s council, which would be reformed, as opposed to the current means of selection by the parliament. As part of the broader pattern of conflicts within the ruling coalition, both initiatives were vetoed by We Are Family, which argued in favor of retaining the current mechanisms.5
  • Two of Slovakia’s major daily newspapers witnessed changes in their ownership structure, although the implications for press freedom are unclear. Pravda’s publisher Perex was sold by Northcliffe International Ltd. to Our Media SR, which is owned by Synot Invest Ltd., controlled by the Czech entrepreneur and former senator Ivo Valenta.6 Ownership changes at the daily Sme were even more noteworthy as the controversial private equity group Penta Investments sold its minority share in Sme’s publisher Petit Press to Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF)—which had made a loan to Petit Press in the 1990s when it was harassed by then-PM Vladimir Mečiar, enabling it to purchase its first print shop.7 Petit Press marketed the change as the culmination of a six-year effort to end a “hostile takeover” by Penta.8 Penta, on the other hand, labeled the change as a business dispute.9
  • Influential publishing house Ringier purchased a number of digital media outlets from Germany’s Axel Springer in several East-Central European countries. In addition to several commercial media, Ringier obtained Aktuality.sk, a digital news portal with a strong investigative journalism team (and the employer of the late Ján Kuciak).10
Local Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the decentralization of power; the responsibilities, election, and capacity of local governmental bodies; and the transparency and accountability of local authorities. 5.506 7.007
  • In 2021, most relations between Slovakia’s central and local governments were influenced by measures to counter the COVID-19 pandemic. An initiative to limit municipal powers in the area of housing also shaped this rapport (or lack thereof). In June, the Supreme Office of Control published an audit reporting that the majority of municipalities (about 3,000) were struggling with debt, the combined liability reaching €1.5 billion.1 This illustrates the financial weaknesses of Slovak municipalities and explains much of their dependence on the central government.
  • In January, a government audio recording revealed then–prime minister Matovič insinuating that local governments were responsible for the slow progress of COVID-19 testing, and his comments also suggested that he would be in favor of a statute enabling the central government and armed forces to compel local governments to comply with government directives.2 Mayors across the country countered that it was exactly the efforts and sacrifice of local governments that had made the project of wholesale testing possible.3 The Association of Towns and Cities of Slovakia (ZMOS) conducted polls that suggested 70 percent of people were satisfied with the performance of their mayors during the pandemic.4 In another poll, 48 percent of respondents trusted local governments to help them in times of distress, compared to only 14 percent who trust in the central government.5 Voices of local governments substantially contributed to phasing out the wholesale antigen testing program, arguing that PM Matovič’s pet project had made a questionable contribution to mitigating the pandemic and was extremely taxing on local financial and human resources.6
  • Municipalities, and particularly ZMOS, were active in campaigning against an initiative sponsored by the ruling coalition’s We Are Family to limit the prerogatives of local governments in housing and in building permitting. The proposed reform was intended to streamline the party’s flagship project focused on building cheap rental housing projects on a mass scale. Municipalities denied that We Are Family’s plans were conducive to more accessible housing and insinuated that they would facilitate an increased role for developers in the permitting process.7 The issue remained open at year’s end.
  • Under leadership of the new prime minister, Eduard Heger, the cabinet made an effort to calm the central government’s relationship with local governments. PM Heger agreed with municipalities to hold regular quarterly meetings, and the good will was reciprocated.8
Judicial Framework and Independence 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses constitutional and human rights protections, judicial independence, the status of ethnic minority rights, guarantees of equality before the law, treatment of suspects and prisoners, and compliance with judicial decisions. 5.255 7.007
  • The Slovak judiciary took on a number of important cases in 2021 stemming from high-profile corruption allegations. However, relationships within the judiciary were shattered by disagreements over proposals for the administrative-territorial reform of the court system.
  • The current government aspired to make judicial reform a flagship project. In January, Justice Minister Mária Kolíková presented the first proposal for the reorganization of the system of courts of law, or the “court map.” The proposal would entail canceling some district and regional courts: in particular, regional courts would be transformed from general courts of law to courts of appeal, and their number would be reduced from eight to three. The proposal, though technical in nature, also aimed to break up clientelistic networks related to the judiciary and rebalancing its power vis-à-vis the executive branch. It provoked a storm of reaction in the affected cities, particularly among judges who would be obliged to commute to the new court seats.1 Pressure from the legal profession continued throughout the year, with a series of petitions and campaigns criticizing the proposed court reorganization.2 Some political elites as well as the judicial establishment sided with the judges.3 As a result, in September, Minister Kolíková announced that she would divide the reorganization into four phases to avoid the possibility of having the entire proposal dismissed by the parliament.4 Nevertheless, the project remained stalled at year’s end.
  • Similarly, the process for establishing the newly created Supreme Administrative Court (NSS) turned out to be a bumpy road for the Justice Ministry after it decided to condition the recruitment of judges on entry interviews. Jurists specializing in administrative law, particularly members of the pre-existing Administrative Chamber of the Supreme Court (NS), refused to go through the interviews, perhaps from fear of exposure, and boycotted the process. As a consequence, a suitable candidate for the court chair withdrew his candidacy, and the entire process suffered from a lack of applicants.5 Therefore, in August, when the NSS started to work, nine of the court’s thirty judicial posts were still vacant.6
  • In June, the Supreme Court, in its capacity as an appellate court, canceled the previous exculpation of Marián Kočner, the suspected mastermind in the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in 2018.7 The justices argued that the first-instance court had failed to properly consider available evidence, among other findings. The case will be reconsidered by the Special Criminal Court.8 In the meantime, Kočner was given a 19-year prison sentence in another case related to counterfeiting bills of exchange.9
Corruption 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Looks at public perceptions of corruption, the business interests of top policymakers, laws on financial disclosure and conflict of interest, and the efficacy of anticorruption initiatives. 4.004 7.007
  • Corruption cases, as well as the political consequences of corruption investigations (see “National Democratic Governance”), had a major impact on Slovak democracy in 2021. These anticorruption efforts were also complicated by conflicts between state institutions.
  • Public procurement reform was the priority for We Are Family since it informed one of the ruling party’s flagship initiatives, building infrastructure for accessible housing. During the year, civil society, the private sector, the Supreme Office of Control (NKÚ), municipalities, experts, and some coalition partners consistently criticized1 the reform for its lack of economic viability and for creating space for corruption.2 NKÚ, in particular, criticized the proposal as constraining the office’s powers in order to streamline the procurement process.3 Anticorruption NGOs focused on the potentially detrimental effects of raising the exemption threshold for public tenders.4 A compromise proposal was drafted in May between the NKÚ and Deputy PM Holý, who was in charge of the reform,5 and the parliament passed the amended bill in October.6
  • In February, the parliament elected Special Prosecutor Daniel Lipšic to succeed the legally embattled Dušan Kováčik, who was already in pretrial detention.7 Lipšic, a senior defense lawyer and former politician, was a political nominee of the ruling coalition, particularly the leading OĽaNO party, and considered a political check on Maroš Žilinka, the We Are Family nominee for Prosecutor General. Some in the legal community objected that Lipšic was not a prosecutor at the time of his election. Also, some politicians doubted the wisdom of electing an openly political candidate to the position.8 In fact, the differences between Lipšic and Žilinka emerged almost immediately in their approaches to high-profile corruption cases.
  • In April, former Special Prosecutor Dušan Kováčik was formally charged with conspiracy and corruption.9 In September, after eleven months of pretrial detention, the Special Criminal Court convicted and condemned Kováčik to a 14-year prison sentence and forfeiture of property.10 This was Slovakia’s first case of property forfeiture for a corruption conviction.
  • Two years after its creation, the Whistleblower Protection Office (ÚOO) found a leader in Zuzana Dlugošová, who was appointed to head the body in February, after which it was finally able to commence its work.11
  • There was an overwhelming number of suspected cases of political corruption, fraud, and embezzlement investigated in 2021, including into the previous management of the Slovak Land Fund (SPF), Agricultural Paying Agency (PPA), and State Material Reserves Administration (SŠHR). The first two cases related to embezzlement of EU agricultural subsidies and the latter to general fraud in purchasing state supplies, including personal protective equipment (PPE) and respirators in the first stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.12
  • The more consequential cases sparked clashes within law enforcement institutions as well as among political elites and activated efforts to undermine the integrity of the investigations. In January, NAKA arrested František Imrecze, former head of the Financial Administration, for multiple cases of alleged fraud in state IT tenders under previous governments.13 Imrecze was the most senior political nominee of the former ruling Smer-SD, accused in the “Toll Taker” case.14 Alongside him, Jozef Brhel, an influential entrepreneur and oligarch allegedly linked to Smer-SD, was charged as complicit in the schemes.15 This was the first time an oligarch from former PM Fico’s immediate circle was charged. In August, the same investigation brought the arrest of another oligarch and personal friend of Fico’s, Miroslav Výboh.16 Výboh’s testimony, however, suggested that one of the bribes was paid to Fico’s rival, former PM Peter Pellegrini, the country’s most popular politician and leader of HLAS, which splintered from Smer-SD in 2020.17 Pellegrini was alleged to have accepted a bribe of €150,000 when he was the state secretary in the Finance Ministry.18 Finally, repercussions of the investigation led to the accusation that Peter Kažimír, former Finance Minister and current Governor of the National Bank, had helped facilitate bribes as well.19
  • These developments sharpened conflicts between the ruling coalition and the opposition, who interpreted the anticorruption investigations as a tool for eliminating the opposition. When the coalition appointee for head of the SIS, Vladimír Pčolinský, was arrested on corruption charges based on testimony from cooperating suspects, similar conflicts over investigation integrity took shape among Pčolinský’s We Are Family and other coalition parties.20
  • In August, Prosecutor General Žilinka used a special provision in the law to stop several investigations on the grounds that they were illegal, and a number of accused were released from pretrial detention, including Pčolinský.21 Žilinka accused Slovak Police Force President Peter Kovařík of misconduct when he allegedly interrupted an action of the Bureau of the Inspection Service against NAKA, after which Kovařík resigned.22 In September, the bureau arrested four senior NAKA investigators on accusations that they had doctored evidence in sensitive anticorruption cases.23 The charges, however, were canceled by the Bratislava Regional Court.24 The arrests pushed the ruling parties to establish a working group to prevent institutional conflicts and restore public trust in the rule of law.25

Author: Peter Učeň is a political scientist and former democracy assistance worker.

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