After two years as premier of an OĽaNO-led government, Eduard Heger is leaving the populist movement of Igor Matovič and hopes to establish a new political culture in Slovakia.
When Eduard Heger moved from the post of finance minister to become Slovakia’s prime minister in April 2021, his long-time friend and governor of Bratislava Region, Juraj Droba, described him as a “calm unifier”.
Given the controversy over the coronavirus pandemic measures and the confrontational behaviour of his party boss and prime ministerial predecessor Igor Matovič, it was hoped that the conciliatory and reserved Heger might be able to help bring together a polarised society and fractious coalition.
Yet one year into Heger’s term, coalition feuds over personal, legislative and financial matters – often provoked and nurtured by Matovič, who served as Heger’s finance minister – began intensifying. Accused of being weak and reluctant to fire his party boss from the government, Heger saw his cabinet shrink in September 2022 after one of the four coalition parties quit. Three and a half months later, Heger’s government collapsed.
“Giving up is not a solution. It’s what the mafia wants,” Heger wrote on social media soon after, employing a term that Matovič’s OĽaNO often uses to refer to previous governments led by Robert Fico’s Smer party.
In the months leading up to the break-up of the coalition, Heger was still siding with and defending Matovič. A case in point: he did not stop Matovič’s €1.2-billion “family” package from being adopted via fast-tracked legislative procedure with the support of far-right MPs last June, and he did not oppose millions of euros being doled out to people to convince them to get a Covid-19 jab in the second half of 2021.
But following the murder of two queer people in Bratislava in October, and Matovič’s increasingly ultra-conservative views and attacks on LGBT people and President Zuzana Čaputová, whispers about Heger parting ways with his “friend” Matovič began to be heard more frequently.
For weeks, Heger went around assuring people he had a vision for Slovakia, yet wouldn’t reveal anything more. And in the meantime, as head of an interim government with limited powers, Heger attempted to find a majority in parliament to avoid early elections – but ultimately failed.
So it was on March 6, shortly before midnight, that he wrote on social media that he had just left OĽaNO. The following day, he stood before the television cameras and presented his new political party, Demokrati (Democrats).
“Today, I stand here as leader of Demokrati, a party that wants democracy, freedom, peace, justice, tolerance and cooperation to be the most important values in Slovakia,” he said confidently.
With four interim ministers, including Defence Minister Jaroslav Naď, standing behind him, alongside several other well-known OĽaNO renegades, Heger called for a return to decency and dialogue in politics.
Matovič’s idea, Heger’s party
It did not take long for Matovič to begin putting forward a narrative about him being the inspiration for Heger’s political project – an idea the interim prime minister promptly dismissed. Matovič, a populist MP whose movement achieved a landslide victory in the 2020 elections on an anti-corruption ticket, later clarified and corrected his earlier statement.
“I came up with the idea of him [Heger] leaving the movement and merging small political parties into one, but I’m not the author of Demokrati,” Matovič said, perhaps looking toward the possibility of Demokrati and OĽaNO forming a coalition government following the September early election.
At the same time, Matovič criticised Heger for taking the interim foreign and economy ministers with him to Demokrati. Matovič disparaged Foreign Minister Rastislav Káčer for his liberal views as well as for damaging Slovak-Hungarian relations (speaking of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine on television in February, Káčer mentioned Hungary’s possible territorial claims in Slovakia). And Economy Minister Karel Hirman, Matovič claimed, had been responsible for failing to deliver timely aid to people and firms during the energy crisis.
Fico, one of the main opposition leaders, also derided Demokrati as a political project that originated at Matovič’s request. Nevertheless, Heger continues to reject the label of Demokrati as “OĽaNO v2.0”, or that he might have coordinated the formation of Demokrati with Matovič.
“We want to build a robust party that is going to exist for many years to come,” Heger has pointed out in interviews. OĽaNO, on the other hand, is regarded by many purely as a vehicle for the ambition of one man – Igor Matovič.
In fact, Demokrati is not a completely new party, but rather has changed its name to Demokrati from Modrá Koalícia (Blue Coalition), which was MP Miroslav Kollár’s small non-parliamentary party. Former prime minister Mikuláš Dzurinda and his “Blue” group initially planned to join forces with Kollár’s party in the run-up to the September election, with the aim of uniting centre-right parties to stop Smer and Peter Pellegrini’s Hlas, a party of Smer renegades, from winning the election. In the end, misunderstandings with Kollár led Dzurinda to start working on a new political party.
Opposition accuses Heger of fraud
Heger’s announcement has left him facing several awkward questions: Why has he abandoned Matovič only now and not earlier when he could perhaps have saved his government? And why did he not try to defeat Matovič in a leadership vote for OĽaNO?
“There was no demand for my vision in OĽaNO. That’s why I took my vision and built my own project,” is how he responded to the latter question. Matovič, however, maintains that Heger has never presented his own vision for OĽaNO.
As for his delayed decision to leave Matovič’s movement, Heger points to higher salaries for doctors and other adopted reforms that, he argues, would never have been passed if he had left OĽaNO and the government prematurely.
After announcing his new party, however, the opposition camp began questioning the legitimacy of Heger’s interim cabinet and accusing the prime minister of committing a “fraud” on voters, since Demokrati has never taken part in any election. The opposition is now urging the president to remove the interim government and replace it with a caretaker government until the early election set for September 30.
But Heger counters that the leaders of the former coalition parties have not requested his resignation, nor has the president expressed any interest in appointing a cabinet of experts if Heger continues to do his job well. “A caretaker government would cause even more chaos,” Heger argues.
He went on to stress the importance of carrying on with reforms listed in the €6-billion coronavirus recovery plan and navigating the country towards the early election safely.
On the day Heger presented his vision for Slovakia, he also named the parties that Demokrati would not cooperate with. These include far-right and nationalist movements, as well as the populist Smer and Hlas parties. Yet he did not rule out cooperating with OĽaNO, despite his vision of seeing a return to dialogue, decency and professionalism in politics, which is hardly in line with how OĽaNO and its leader Matovič see politics.
“I realised that if I want to fully develop that vision, I need to go my own way,” he told the conservative daily Postoj. “That is why I am the leader of Demokrati today.”
Simultaneously, Heger believes democratic parties must cooperate and not devour each other, although it doesn’t seem likely that the bigger centrist and centre-right parties, such as the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), will be keen to join forces with Heger ahead of the early election, instead preferring to run on their own.
Heger’s potential contribution to a democratic Slovakia
Despite Heger and Dzurinda struggling to attract much trust among voters, neither of them are giving up on their ambitions to unite politicians from centrist parties, particularly from smaller parties. Yet observing the political scene several months out from the election, political scientists are not surprised by a lack of willingness to merge at the moment. In the past, different politicians shared the same ambition as elections drew nearer. Those ambitions often failed, though.
“The current political reality rather indicates that the dream of a grand coalition will not come true,” political scientist Jozef Lenč from Ss Cyril and Methodius University in Trnava told the Pravda daily, adding that such a merger is often mentioned but nothing is done about it.
Heger’s centrist party is quite new, but an Ipsos poll for the Denník N daily published on March 10 shows that Heger has begun well. Demokrati enjoys 4.8 percent support among voters and could go on to attract more voters from the pool of similar parties, its potential partners, before the election. OĽaNO had the same level of support in this poll, meaning that the party might not make it into parliament if it can’t reverse the loss of support to Demokrati and fails to reach the 5-percent threshold required to win seats.
“The moment it becomes clear that Demokrati will cause OĽaNO not to get into parliament, a real ‘fratricidal’ fight for voters and political survival will begin,” Lenč predicts, adding that ousting OĽaNO from power and parliament would be Demokrati’s biggest contribution to the future of a democratic Slovakia.
Nevertheless, Juraj Marušiak from the Slovak Academy of Sciences does not think Demokrati, even if smaller parties decide to team up with Heger’s party, can win more than about 5 percent of the vote. “Heger is not a leader,” he said, adding that his long history with Matovič might also be an issue for some voters.
Another political scientist, Erik Láštic from Comenius University in Bratislava, regards Heger and his party as unconvincing. “The interim prime minister comes with a vision and acts as if he has not had political power in his hands at least since 2021, when he became prime minister,” he told the Aktuality.sk website.
But what some observers cannot get their heads around is that the prime minister is joining a small non-parliamentary party, which will immediately become a ruling party. According to political analyst Grigorij Mesežnikov, this does not mean that the interim government is now illegitimate – he stresses Heger’s cabinet has limited powers and is overseen by the president – but he does see a problem elsewhere.
“Demokrati is different from OĽaNO only in that there is no Igor Matovič,” the expert said in an interview with the public broadcaster RTVS.
This story was produced in partnership with Reporting Democracy, a cross-border journalism platform run by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.