ROBERT Fico kicked off his presidential campaign high-style at the historical building of the Slovak parliament in the presence of his government, foreign diplomats, the Supreme Court president and the media. A round-up of accomplishments of his government in 2013 and priorities for 2014, which Fico formally read for his audience, was only a pretext for announcing he would run for president in the spring. As Fico kept the nation guessing for several months about whether he would throw his hat into the presidential ring, he certainly had the attention of the nation.

Fico is the candidate of the ruling Smer party, not the official nominee of the Slovak public, and a festivity like this was something better suited for party – rather than public – ground. Fico argued that he wanted his audience to get the information on his candidacy first hand. The ‘government session’ somewhat resembled a big family reunion where papa announces that he is getting a new job. Too bad for those who do not feel like being part of the big, happy Smer family.
This is only the beginning of Fico’s presidential campaign and certainly until March 15, when the first round of presidential elections take place, the public will be served a heavy dose of Fico in all possible variations. He is likely to enjoy an immense publicity advantage when compared to his 10-plus presidential competitors. As prime minister, whenever he talks the media listens.

Anyone who thinks that Fico is opting for the presidency in an attempt to ease into a kind of early retirement is badly mistaken. He is running because he wants to extend his time in politics and hopes that the same strings he is pulling now will remain in his hands, or at least within arms reach. Even if he is elected president, he is unlikely to leave the government office completely, unless there is someone strong enough in Smer to keep him out. Such persons do not appear to exist at the moment in Smer and if they did, it would seem unlikely Fico would allow them to get the job.

If elected president, Fico will fundamentally change the definition of “presidency” in Slovakia. It is not that Slovakia has had that many presidents who actually served the whole nation regardless of political sympathies, ethnicity, race, gender or religion. Still, in his speech Fico left no doubt about what he sees as the most important attribute of the president: being a good partner for the government. President Ivan Gašparovič, who indeed owed his second term in office to Fico, certainly met expectations. He was not much of a pain in the neck when it came to appointing or refusing to appoint the right people to crucial top jobs, for example general prosecutor.

In a campaign manoeuvre of their own, Fico’s presidential rivals called his decision cowardice and suggested he was licensed by voters to run this country as prime minister, not to abandon his post in the middle of his term when things get tougher. He also would be expected, they noted, to deliver on some of the promises he made during campaigning. Meanwhile, others will say this decision has long been expected, and that it is a logical culmination of Fico’s career in Slovak politics.

Either way, there remains something deeply uncomfortable about Fico’s candidacy. One can hardly avoid the idea that he is trying to preserve his career in high-level politics for the next decade – at least. Where does the public good fall in this picture? How could the fact that a single political force – Smer – would control all the important institutions in the country benefit a democratic society? Fico says he is offering stability in a tumultuous world. From his lips, the word stability comes with a sour taste.

And yet, there are commentators who said that Fico’s presidential candidacy might well be the beginning of Smer’s end. His departure from government would almost certainly weaken the party. His presence in the presidential race could mobilise right wing voters, especially in the likely eventual second round where the country’s incoherent right-leaning parties would likely unite behind a single candidate. Society would be pushed to decide whether it really wants to see Fico marching into the presidential palace. Fico is after all, both the most and least popular politician in opinion polls and Slovak voters have shown a willingness to back the lesser of two in evils in presidential elections before.

Fico’s speech announcing his candidacy was full of pomp, circumstance and confidence. But a public wary of concentrating power in the hands of one group, and indeed one man, may yet be able to turn him back.