Kiska striking a balance with soft opposition

NO matter where your beliefs on the political spectrum fall, any advocate of a genuinely pluralist democracy must admit that President Andrej Kiska’s election one year ago was a good thing for Slovakia.

President Andrej KiskaPresident Andrej Kiska (Source: TASR)

In a country with no credible, coherent or capable political opposition, and a general election approaching, Kiska is forced into the role of the soft opposition to the otherwise dominant Smer party. He has done admirable work in this rather thankless job.

Through the use of his veto – even if it is then quickly overriden by Smer’s majority in parliament – he provides at least some check on power, alerting the public there may be more than meets the eye to laws proposed and quickly passed by Prime Minister Robert Fico’s government.

In the only such case of Smer admitting a mistake in recent memory, one Kiska veto even stuck and a law to ban fast food in schools, which amazingly failed to define what should be considered fast food, was sent back to the drawing board.

This is far from the ideal way for the legislative process to work. Kiska’s constitutional powers are limited and he is not meant to play the role of the political opposition. Actual parliamentary debate about the direction of the country is the preferred means. Still, the present situation is nonetheless a marked improvement on what came before, when Smer ally Ivan Gašparovič held sway in the presidential palace and new laws sailed through without so much as a pause.

The general practice of Slovakia’s parliamentary opposition is to oppose everything proposed by Smer. This is meant to make for good tactical politics, though election results say otherwise. The stubborn repetition of the practice approaches something like Albert Einstein’s definition for insanity, that is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

Legitimate queries about soundness of mind aside, the opposition fails to recognise how confusing this gimmickry is to the average voter. How is one to determine the difference between a truly corrupt or dangerous law and one that is merely opposed out of political calculus? On the accounting ledger of the centre right opposition parties, all Smer-proposed laws are equally bad. Criticism comes across as noise, which it is, and the opposition loses what’s left of its credibility.

The debate over proposed changes to the public procurement law is a fitting example of this foolishness. The hastily conceived changes purport to limit shell companies’ ability to bid on public contracts. The law came in reaction to a spate of procurement scandals involving hospitals at the end of 2014. The right-leaning opposition took the opportunity to point out the shortcomings of the law, which they argued was full of loopholes and would fail to curb corrupt bidding on public contracts.

This may well be true, but how valid are these critiques coming from political parties that were in power for 10 of the 14 years between 1998 and 2012, but failed to pass any meaningful legislation on the issue themselves? Kiska vetoed the law and recommended eight changes. Smer accepted three of them. The president’s reservations are specific, as were his recommendations and Smer’s decision to ignore most of them are things which they can be held accountable for when the next scandal erupts.

Kiska has also done the country well in terms of its perception abroad. His 2014 visit to the United States included stops at business incubators, the headquarters of Facebook, MIT and Stanford. This was a conscious attempt to brand Slovakia as innovative, progressive and tech savvy, perhaps not images that jump to American minds when they think of central Europe.

Amid continued Russian aggression in neighbouring Ukraine, Kiska has publicly played the role of staunch NATO supporter. Alongside a lack of clarity from Fico, who expresses reticence about European sanctions policy before his government goes along with it, this goes a long way to convince others that Slovakia swims in the European mainstream.

“Can you imagine what this country’s position on Ukraine would look like if we still had both Gašparovič and Fico in office?” asks Milan Nič, director of the Central European Policy Institute.

Be thankful there is no need to do so.

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