PRIME MINISTER Robert Fico has issued public statements on any number of issues recently – the state budget, priorities of his government for the next two years and taxes among them – but he has remained tight-lipped about the one issue that most intrigues observers: Will he run for president next year?

Not even the December 7 congress of his ruling Smer party, which is the first in an independent Slovakia to rule the country without a coalition partner, brought an answer, with Fico merely confirming that Smer will stage its own candidate. The party leadership is expected to discuss the issue sometime after December 17, according to the SITA newswire.

Political scientists do not find Fico’s tactics surprising, suggesting that the prime minister would not throw his hat into the presidential election ring until he is certain that he would win.

“It is simple. Fico is not certain that his victory is guaranteed,” political scientist Miroslav Kusý told The Slovak Spectator.

Political analyst Juraj Marušiak from the Slovak Academy of Sciences suggested that Smer will withhold the announcement of its presidential candidate until the very last moment.

“They [Smer] are leading psychological warfare with the opposition, leaving it to bleed out in personal conflicts and trying to make it impossible for them [the opposition parties] to unite against Smer,” Marušiak told The Slovak Spectator.

According to Marušiak, people in Smer are also aware of the risks linked with the eventual candidacy of Fico.

Meanwhile, observers suggested that for the sake of the power balance in the country, the next president should not be close to the ruling party, which already controls the posts of prime minister and speaker of parliament.

“We are not obliged to apologise to anyone for our victory in the elections in 2012,” Fico said on December 7 in addressing such concerns. He has argued that the president considerably contributes to the stability in the state, while suggesting that the “harmony between the president, speaker of parliament and prime minister is the basis of such stability”.

The vote

The election must take place at least 60 days before the term of the incumbent’s presidential term elapses, which is June 15, 2014. In Slovakia, elections are traditionally held on Saturdays, which means the latest possible date for the first round of the election is April 12, 2014. Smer might want to push the first round of the elections to the latest possible date, the Sme daily reported, quoting a source from the Smer leadership.

The list of candidates who have said they will run in the election so far includes Pavol Hrušovský, backed by the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and Most-Híd; businessman Andrej Kiska; Ján Čarnogurský, a former chair of the KDH; Peter Osuský from Freedom and Solidarity (SaS); and independent candidate Radoslav Procházka formerly a member of the KDH. Leonid Chovanec, Jozef Behýl, Milan Melník, Ľubica Blašková and Jozef Šimko have also announced their candidacies.

Most recently, Milan Kňažko, one of the leaders of the Velvet Revolution and a former government official, has confirmed his candidacy and will run as an independent candidate. The Party of Hungarian Community (SMK) too will propose its own candidate, which is to be confirmed by December 17.

Smer dilemmas

Fico remains the most probable Smer candidate in the view of many observers, although they also contend that the party will have serious problems replacing him in the prime ministerial post if he decides to run. Other names from within the party mentioned as possible candidates include Fico’s right hand man, Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, and Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák. The latter has however also not ruled out a bid to become UN Secretary General in 2016. Kaliňák too has refused to support the speculation that he might be Fico’s replacement by suggesting he has a lot of tasks ahead of him in his own ministry, according to reports by Sme.

Other potential Smer candidates also include Bratislava Mayor Milan Ftáčnik, with many arguing that Smer would likely prefer him to run for re-election next year. According to Sme, some Smer members also mention ex-health minister and Košice Mayor Richard Raši as a possible replacement for Fico as prime minister, or even as a candidate running for the presidency. Raši, however, responded that he has not heard any such rumours.

Risk and gains?

As for the biggest risks for Smer should Fico run for president, Kusý suggested that “if he gets elected, it is a plausible weakening of the party”, adding that “Fico does not have a suitable replacement in the party”.

“It means that the party would be weakened and would also face the weakening of its voter base,” said Kusý, adding that this is the second factor for Fico’s hesitance over his candidacy, and until the issue of succession in the party is resolved, he will not announce his candidacy.

As for what this risk would be, Marušiak responded: “the loss of a charismatic leader”. Yet, his eventual defeat could even put his prime ministerial position on uncertain ground, according to Marušiak.

“So far Fico is the most significant integrating factor of Smer and no other leader is able to replace him, partly in terms of voter support, influence within the party as well as respect abroad, meaning also the environment of European social democrats,” Marušiak said. “Fico is able, effectively with the strength of his personality, to balance different influences and interests within the party.”

Yet, if Fico is elected president, then the ruling Smer would control all the pillars of government: the prime ministerial post, parliament and the speaker of parliament, as well as the presidency, according to Kusý.

“It would be a certain kind of totality in Slovakia,” Kusý told The Slovak Spectator. “It is the ideal [that] Smer would like to achieve.”

At the same time it would mean that Smer would weaken and Fico would not gain more powers, and as president he would be instead a kind of representative of the country without the executive power, Kusý said.

“Yet if he has a good partner in his party who would lead the party as well as the government, it would be ideal for him,” Kusý said, adding that “until he does not have the certainty of this connection, he will hesitate”.

According to Marušiak, Fico would get more distance from Smer if elected president, suggesting that even now Smer has some serious personnel faults and Fico’s eventual candidacy would only deepen this.

As for who could replace Fico in Smer, Kusý suggests the most frequently mentioned name, Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák.

“Kaliňák himself said he does not have such aspirations and that he feels saturated by his job as interior minister,” Kusý said. “Words and declarations are one thing and another thing is action when the decisions are being made”.

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