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Fico's government sketches out its plans

THE NEW government wants a modern and thrifty state that intervenes in the economy only when reasonable and necessary, and will not pursue approaches that deform the market: this is how Prime Minister Robert Fico pitched the cabinet’s programme statement before parliament, in which his Smer party holds 83 of 150 seats. Fico declared that his government’s top priority will be consolidation of the public finances so that the country’s budget deficit is pushed below 3 percent of GDP in 2013. But he emphasised that this will not be done at the expense of poorer citizens.

THE NEW government wants a modern and thrifty state that intervenes in the economy only when reasonable and necessary, and will not pursue approaches that deform the market: this is how Prime Minister Robert Fico pitched the cabinet’s programme statement before parliament, in which his Smer party holds 83 of 150 seats. Fico declared that his government’s top priority will be consolidation of the public finances so that the country’s budget deficit is pushed below 3 percent of GDP in 2013. But he emphasised that this will not be done at the expense of poorer citizens.

Political analysts said many points in the programme document are too general and there are ambiguous declarations that leave too much room for future re-interpretation of policies. Leaders of two opposition parties termed the document a “blank check” and the “vaguest programme ever”.

“If someone was expecting concrete numbers, then they were wrong,” Fico stated on April 27, as quoted by the SITA newswire. “The government programme is about policies. Concrete approaches should be a result of social dialogue.”

Fico stated that after the programme is adopted by parliament a Council of Solidarity and Development would be assembled and develop concrete steps on issues such as how to increase the income tax rate on highly profitable businesses, how to construct a more progressive regime of tax rates, and whether or how to tax financial transactions.

Protection of lower income groups from growing indebtedness, particularly in relation to non-banking organisations or individuals providing high-interest-rate loans to vulnerable citizens; putting more police officers on the street; and a substantial revision of the country’s Civil Code: all these figured as part of the programme document, as did potential changes in measures previously introduced by former justice minister Lucia Žitňanská.

The programme document also speaks about: a minimum pension level for retirees; mergers of certain regulatory bodies; dissolution of the National Property Fund, Slovakia’s privatisation agency, which holds shares in many state-owned and private companies; no privatisation of state-run or other public hospitals; changes in how health insurers operate; support for development of air transport; the creation of a central government agency to handle state real estate; and the entry of private capital into the construction of public housing.

Ján Baránek, a political analyst, said that a positive note is that he “has not found anything substantially negative” in the programme statement, adding however that “it does leave far too wide a space for future interpretations”. Darina Malová, head of the Faculty of Political Science of Comenius University, also noted that the government’s programme lacks many specifics.

Nevertheless Malová said that the programme’s lack of detail could be partly attributed to the fact that a single party now has a majority in parliament and essentially controls the wheels of government.

“I have briefly compared the first parts [of Smer’s programme] with the programme statement of Iveta Radičová’s government and perhaps because that was a coalition government where the coalition partners were deciding what the government would be doing and what it would not … that programme was more concrete,” Malová told The Slovak Spectator.

But Malová added that the lack of detail is also reminiscent of Smer’s past approach, noting that the programme statement presented by the 2006-10 coalition government, led by Smer, was similarly general.

Regarding the prime minister’s announced intention to develop specific budget and tax proposals based on social dialogue, Malová said that this strategy is typical for established political parties in western Europe, not only parties on the left. She noted that governments of all political stripes in Germany and Austria, for example, typically consult intensively with employer associations, trade unions and other non-governmental organisations.

Baránek told The Slovak Spectator that this approach means that development of the programme’s specific policies, and their success or failure, also becomes the responsibility of the government’s social partners, something he called "a very clever strategy”.


Opposition expresses scepticism


According to Lucia Žitňanská, the deputy chairwoman of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), the programme as submitted to parliament was drafted far too loosely. It represents “a blank check for ministers so that they can do whatever [they want] and after four years we will be unable to assess the work of the government”, she said, as quoted by the Sme daily.

The leader of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), Ján Figeľ, noted that this is the first programme statement presented by a single-party government in the 22-year history of Slovakia and “at the same time it is the least specific and most vague programme ever”.

“They [the government] will be taking from everyone – the self-employed, contractors, second pension pillar savers, owners of flats, inheritors, in short the whole middle class – except the really rich who will be able to avoid the taxes Fico is preparing and who will escape to tax havens,” stated Richard Sulík, the chairman of the opposition Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party, as quoted by the TASR newswire.


State administration and the judiciary


Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák announced that his ministry is working on the most fundamental reform in public administration since 1989, saying that this should bring significant savings in budgetary expenses, while making public administration more efficient, reliable and transparent, SITA reported. The newswire reported that the government is planning to establish a new structure that will integrate several administrative offices into a single office headed by a government nominee so that “people will be able to use just one service point to handle all their affairs”.

Kaliňák announced his ambition to make government functions more accessible by making the largest possible amount of data available to the public via the country’s data.gov.sk website. The minister also said that the functionality of government-administered databases such as the Land Registry, Commercial Registry, Central Contracts Registry and the public procurement website should be expanded, SITA wrote.

The government’s programme statement alludes to re-evaluating certain changes made in the judiciary as well as in the Office of the General Prosecutor that were introduced by Žitňanská while she served as justice minister in 2010-11. The document states that the government’s focus will be on making all legislation conform to Slovakia’s constitution and incorporating recommendations from international institutions.

“The government will draft a new concept for stabilising and modernising the judiciary that will become the foundation for new legislation,” states the document, as quoted by TASR, with priorities that include improving law enforcement, eliminating court delays and increasing confidence in the courts. Fico also stated that he wants to renew public confidence in prosecutors and expand their powers regarding protection of state assets.

Malová told The Slovak Spectator that since the text about re-evaluating Žitňanská’s policies is too general in the programme statement it is not clear which actions might be preserved and what new initiatives might come.

“I think the judiciary has serious problems in Slovakia and that Žitňanská started taking serious steps in this area,” Malová stated. “I believe that the new government will not take a step back since the enforceability of the law in Slovakia is very low.”

Baránek commented that judicial reform should be left to legal experts and to judicial officials but opined that “certainly not everything that Žitňanská has established will be scrapped”, while adding that it is not so much about what the government might terminate but more about what steps it will take so that the judiciary works better, laws are more enforceable, and corruption within the judiciary is restricted.

Radka Minarechová contributed to this report

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