Slovakia’s new technocratic PM and ‘cabinet of experts’ face off against populists

Ľudovít Ódor, a renowned economist at the helm of a newly appointed interim technocratic government, has been labelled ‘Soros’s man’ by the opposition Smer party, but he intends to be his own man for the next five months.

PM Ľudovít Ódor holds the first government meeting. (Source: TASR)

Ľudovít Ódor, freshly appointed by President Zuzana Čaputová as Slovakia’s new prime minister, described his interim technocratic government as the “fourth line” during his first press conference at the Government Office on Freedom Square, displaying a penchant for sporting metaphors while promising long-suffering voters some peace, stability, tolerance and a more cultured national conversation.

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“The fourth line does not get enough ice time, but it can sometimes decide the whole ice hockey game,” Ódor, surrounded by his team of ministers, bantered with journalists on May 15. “That’s our ambition.”

The president decided to name a government of experts after it surfaced that a company co-owned by the agriculture minister, Samuel Vlčan, was awarded a 1.4-million-euro subsidy from the Environment Ministry. Instead of forsaking the money, which is still pending, Vlčan quit the caretaker government led by Eduard Heger, who admitted on live television hours later that Slovakia was in a state of chaos. The next day, Foreign Minister Rastislav Káčer announced his resignation, citing personal reasons.

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Because the Heger cabinet was interim, the departing ministers could have been replaced by the remaining ministers or Heger himself, yet he was already in charge of two other ministries following the earlier removal of the health and finance ministers.

After Čaputová ruled out Heger’s proposals on how to tackle the government crisis, Heger and his cabinet had little option but to resign.

Following its appointment in December, Heger’s cabinet was warned by the president that she would replace it with a technocratic government in the event of a serious blunder. She took that step on May 15 with less than five months to go until the early parliamentary election. Despite the adoption of several major reforms, including on education and national parks, the president underlined that the biggest problem with the Heger-led government coalition was the constant internal feuding over the past three years, amid a series of crises triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

For Čaputová, it was crucial to form a technocratic government that would “calm a divided and tired society”, and “lead the country to a fair parliamentary election”.

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However, the president also expects Ódor’s cabinet to continue helping vulnerable groups affected by high inflation and the cost-of-living crisis: annual food price growth stood at 26.1 percent in April, only slightly down from its peak of 29 percent hit five months ago.

On top of that, she wants the new government to implement and meet further milestones in the post-COVID recovery plan, prepare next year’s budget, and consolidate the public finances. Slovakia’s debt reached 57.8 percent of GDP in 2022. The deficit is estimated to reach 6.3 percent this year, particularly due to the measures cushioning the impacts of the energy crisis. Ódor’s cabinet is expected to come up with ideas for the next government on how to bring these key figures down.

Soros’s or his own man?

In former prime minister Iveta Radičová’s opinion, Ódor is a “great choice”. He was her advisor when she served as prime minister from 2010 to 2012. Under her leadership, he co-authored the Budget Responsibility Constitutional Act. Radičová has recently described him as “a prudent analyst who understands public finances and knows the continuity of Slovakia’s development”. He also has a natural defence mechanism – a sense of humour, she added.

Ódor quickly proved this, when Smer, led by former three-time premier Robert Fico and the current leader in recent public opinion polls, labelled him as Soros’s man. Since being ousted from power in 2018, Fico and his Smer party have espoused increasingly extremist and pro-Kremlin views. He is convinced that the president and her new prime minister follow orders from the 92-year-old Jewish US financier George Soros – a bogeyman for many populists in the region – and describes the new cabinet as anti-democratic because the president did not involve political parties in its formation.

Fico also played the “Soros card” after the contract killing of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak five years ago and the subsequent huge demonstrations across the country that led to his ousting. He has claimed that Soros was behind the then-president Andrej Kiska’s speech that called for a major reshuffle in Fico’s government or an early election.

The new prime minister’s only established connection to Soros is that he lectured at the Central European University, a renowned educational establishment founded in 1991 by Soros. In response to Fico’s recent claim, Ódor said: “All I can say about the attacks is that I thank Fico that his government nominated me for the position of central bank deputy governor.”

Ódor was nominated to that post in February 2018 by Smer’s coalition partner Most-Híd. With many years of experience in shaping politics from behind the scenes, Ódor as prime minister is now promising a different approach to the management of public affairs by avoiding arguments in the media, scandals and empty promises.

“We want to show that it can be done differently,” he said, as he named five principles of his government. These include peace, professionalism, unity, service to the country, and an eye on the future. “We’ll do more than just shine light and heat: our priority will be an emphasis on the future and the competitiveness of Slovakia.”

Before becoming the new prime minister, many people were unfamiliar with Ódor, even though he was behind some of the country’s major tax and pension reforms, like the introduction of the flat tax (scrapped by Smer a decade ago) and the euro. Despite being an economist, Ódor has a strong sense of duty towards those in financial need. He is also the author of four books that popularise the economy through jokes, poems and useful tips.

PM’s six priorities

With major challenges facing his cabinet, the prime minister has set six priorities for himself: three for the near future and three for the distant future. As for the first, his goal is to lead Slovakia to elections without scandals and at the same time fulfill the recovery plan and help people struggling with high prices, prepare the 2024 state budget and continue the pro-Western foreign policy. In the distant-future group, he included preventing brain drain and attracting foreign talent, using EU money effectively, as well as helping vulnerable groups through measures tailored to these groups.

“In Slovakia, it still doesn't matter where and to whom you are born,” the PM said.

He is also open to the exchange of the current head of the Slovak Information Service. The long-criticised intelligence service has been accused of waging "a war on police" during high-level corruption investigations in recent years.

Aware of the limited time available to his cabinet, he also asked his ministers to prepare their own six priorities.

Ódor’s most experienced minister is Ivan Šimko, former defence minister from Dzurinda's government in 1998-2002. During the war in Ukraine, the Foreign Ministry is led by the former Slovak ambassador to the UK and Denmark, Miroslav Wlachowský. “We want a just peace for Ukraine,” the new minister said, adding that it should be a peace that compensates the victim and punishes the aggressor. The treasury is taken care of by Ódor’s colleague from the Slovak central bank, Michal Horváth. “Slovakia is an excessively indebted country and there is no plan to get out of it. We will prepare such a plan,” the central bank’s former chief economist pledged. Ódor warned that if no measures are taken, Slovakia will face problems in the future.

Of all the current ministers, the best known is the former public defender of rights and ex-judge Jana Dubovcová. She serves as the justice minister. Fico’s governments ignored her reports, in which she criticised the lack of rights for LGBT+ people and the existence of unofficial police cells at police stations, in parliament. As a judge, she drew attention to corruption in the judiciary and criticised the ex-president of the Supreme Court president Štefan Harabin, now a notorious pro-Kremlin politician and disinformer, for his practices. She then faced disciplinary proceedings for speaking out.

Ministers were selected by the president, but Ódor said he had the right to veto any name. Čaputová chose people who, in her view, have “the highest professional and personal qualities” and none of them will run in the upcoming elections.

“This should guarantee that you will assess and solve problems primarily from a professional point of view, and you can focus on the most important thing - the interest of the country and its people,” the president told ministers during her speech on May 15.

Technocrats’ performance will impact president’s popularity

Even so, most observers predict that Ódor’s cabinet, despite being made up of both liberals and conservatives, will not win a confidence vote in the house in mid-June, when it is due to submit its programme for a vote.

The government needs 76 MPs to vote for the programme. Yet only one party, Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), has said its MPs will back the government of experts after the party is said to have persuaded the president to replace two initially mooted ministerial candidates with other experts favoured by SaS. Other parties have openly refused or conditioned their support on the quality of the programme, although they previously called on the president to appoint just such a technocratic government.

Regardless, until that confidence vote takes place, the government has full constitutional powers. If it loses the vote, the government’s competences will be curtailed, in the same vein as Heger’s caretaker cabinet. Even then, the government will have staff-related competences, can issue directives, or withdraw bills put forward by former ministers if MPs try to amend them in a second reading.

The government will most likely not have an opportunity to put forward bills, as parliament holds its final session before the September 30 elections in the second half of June.

On May 18, just a day before MPs wrapped up their pre-final session before the summer, Ódor attended his first Question Hour in parliament. He warned MPs against the adoption of bills that have no financial cover, as they could increase the already very high deficit by about €1 billion and then require tougher consolidation measures later on. “It will return like a boomerang,” he told the press.

Moreover, unpopular measures taken by Ódor’s government in the coming months could impact on the president, observers point out. During the ongoing election campaign, political parties are expected to avoid taking any responsibility for the state of the country and instead blame the president and her government. Čaputová, who remains the country’s most popular politician, is yet to announce whether she will run for re-election next year.

“The president will thus bear the consequences for having been too accommodating towards the just-ended coalition for too long,” reckons political scientist Juraj Marušiak.

This story was produced in partnership with Reporting Democracy, a cross-border journalism platform run by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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