HALFWAY through his term, Prime Minister Robert Fico is changing two of his ministers and a number of state secretaries. He is offering no specific explanation for why Dušan Čaplovič was asked to quit as education minister and why Tomáš Malatinský would no longer serve as economy minister. One-time Finance Ministry state secretary Peter Pellegrini, a rising star in Smer, took Čaplovič’s job, while Pavol Pavlis, the state secretary at the Economy Ministry, replaces Malatinský.

Speculation on a shake-up in Smer and the government, on the heels of Fico’s unsuccessful presidential run and amid falling approval ratings, had been flying for months. Smer officials, however, kept denying that any changes would be related to Smer’s poorer than expected performance in the regional elections, the vote to the European Parliament and Fico’s failure to become president.

“It is in the full authority of the prime minister to decide at any moment to make individual changes,” Fico said.

Smer Deputy Chairman Robert Kaliňák said on July 3 that there was a discussion within Smer over whether it was possible, along with the reforms, to also accelerate some of the departments and then “it was up to the ministers whether they thought they could make such a crucial change or they thought it would be better if it was some other, more energetic personality”, the SITA newswire reported.

Political scientist and Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) President Grigorij Mesežnikov called the changes only a surface clean-up, arguing that the ruling party dismissed Dušan Čaplovič and Tomáš Malatinský because they were the easiest to remove.

“They both are politically weak; Malatinský isn’t even a member of the party,” Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator.

Nevertheless, Smer was under certain political pressure and they had to demonstrate some self-reflection and thus they chose to sack these people, Mesežnikov said.

Meanwhile, the cabinet on July 9 approved Rastislav Chovanec for the post of state secretary at the Economy Ministry, which was vacated after Pavlis became the minister. An additional six state secretaries or deputy ministers will be changed at the departments of economy, agriculture, finance and education, SITA suggested.

Education

“I accept that the new education minister will continue in the efforts of minister Čaplovič, first of all to further develop the idea of dual education,” Fico said, as quoted by SITA. “We care first of all about interlinking practice and theory so that the schools do not continue releasing hundreds of graduates who cannot find their place in practice.”

Nevertheless, Education Minister Peter Pellegrini said after the first sitting of the cabinet he attended on July 9, that he plans to make changes to the department.

“I imagine the functioning of the department differently from how I found it,” Pellegrini said, adding that first he has to clean up the ministry, as he discovered that the process of securing textbooks for the schools for September is delayed.

Pellegrini said he lacks “any hierarchy in the management” at the ministry and thus he plans to change some of the processes. He also wants to focus on merging institutions and organisations, SITA reported.

Pellegrini, a politician with Italian roots, is an economist with a background in finance and banking. Between 2002 and 2006 he was a deputy assistant for Ľubomír Vážny and in 2006 Smer elected him to parliament. Since 2012, he served as state secretary of the Finance Ministry.

His role will be to attract young people to the party as Pellegrini, responsible for the development of digital-communication media, said that the younger generation often considers Smer to be outdated when it comes to the digital sphere, the Sme daily reported.

“We are the Khmer Rouge for them, who deal only with trade unions and the Labour Code,” Pellegrini said, as quoted by Sme.

Economy

Fico said he expects an active role in the area of foreign investments from the Economy Ministry, suggesting that “sometimes we wrongly think that creating new jobs falls under the authority of the minister of labour”, SITA reported.

Indeed, after Pavlis was appointed to the post by President Andrej Kiska, he has confirmed that seeking out foreign investments will be his priority: “I would be unhappy if the announced investments ended up in Hungary or the Czech Republic. My priority will be actively seeking out these investments”.

Pavlis’ ambitions also include lowering the administrative burden of businesses and focusing on Slovakia’s energy safety.

“I am ready, considering the fact that I have operated at the department for two years,” Pavlis said, as quoted by SITA.

When asked what he wants to do better than his predecessor, Pavlis said he wants to revive the ministry’s status, suggesting that “over the past four years the ministry has lost its active role”.
Nevertheless, Fico said he expects rather close cooperation with Malatinský, who two years ago joined his government as a non-partisan nominee, suggesting that he plans to use his experience especially in the area of energy.

“Thus I would welcome it if he accepted an offer to serve as my adviser,” Fico said.

The package

Along with the personnel changes, the ruling Smer also outlined a package of reform measures, which includes lower gas prices, a higher minimum wage and a Christmas bonus, lower levies for mid and low-income employees, the introduction of a minimum pension, the option to simultaneously receive a wage and welfare on a temporary basis and boosting the capacity of kindergartens.

What Fico called a post-consolidation “positive package” was approved on June 28 at Smer’s working congress and comes at a time when the party’s approval rate dropped to 32.2 percent in June, compared to its 38 percent measured in February by the Focus polling agency.

While observers described some of the measures as reasonable, they object to Smer’s failure to specify where it will get the money to finance the package.

While Mesežnikov says that changes made to the government as well as the leadership do not have any big potential to halt the drop in Smer’s popularity, the package of measures “could minimally get the attention of part of the party’s voters. There are proposals that would not evoke opposition [in Smer voters]. Of course the question is who will pay for that”.

According to Mesežnikov, free travel for students or increasing the capacity of kindergartens might appeal to part of the younger electorate, while cutting payroll taxes for low-income groups might be effective as well.

“However, there are situations when a party does all it can but nothing helps, and I am not sure whether this is already not the case of Smer,” said Mesežnikov, adding that one needs to wait to see the developments, as Smer’s approval rate is still quite high.

In the 2006 parliamentary elections they received 30 percent and in 2010 up to 35 percent, so their popularity still oscillates around that level.

“They have been growing and now they are sinking and I think Fico is getting nervous,” Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator.

The analyst also suggested, in a piece written for Sme, that if an effort to improve the performance of the given departments was behind the reshuffling of the ministers, then Smer should have communicated this better.

“Smer is nevertheless a party which, similar to its leader, finds it hard to admit that it can fail at something,” Mesežnikov wrote, adding that “making more extensive changes to the ruling cabinet would, from the point of view of Smer, mean showing weakness and admitting its own failure. This is not the style of Robert Fico”.