available languages: english 19, 2020

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By Jakub Jaraczewski (Democracy Reporting International) with contributions from Kristina Babiakova, Zuzana Zummerova and Milan Šagát from VIA IURIS

As Slovaks prepare to go to the polls on 29 February 2020, we examine the country’s main rule of law issues and their effect on the elections.

The murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in 2018 put the spotlight on corruption in Slovakia. How has it impacted the election?

Since the murders, Slovakia has been repeatedly confronted with reports of links between political leaders, individuals accused of serious crimes, and prosecutors and judges. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, longstanding Prime Minister Robert Fico resigned although he remained as leader of the Smer-SD party. This was followed by the election of Zuzana Čaputová, who campaigned actively on restoring the rule of law, to the mostly ceremonial role of president in March 2019 (disclosure: she worked with VIA IURIS between 2001 and 2017).

The revelations surrounding the murder further undermined trust in elected officials and in the ability of the judiciary and the prosecutor’s office to act independently and impartially. The rule of law became a major political issue, addressed by every political party (more on this below).

What are the biggest rule of law issues in Slovakia? 

There are deficiencies in the judiciary, the prosecutor’s office and in the police across the country, combined with a lack of political will for reform. These issues run through all levels of the judiciary. The Constitutional Court is highly politicised and suffers from a worrying overload of pending cases. Despite ongoing reforms, legal certainty and enforceability of law in Slovakia is still low and courts are inefficient. The accountability of judges is seen as insufficient and so is the activity of the pro-bono Judicial Council, which has insofar failed to elect the President of the Supreme Court.

How does this compare to the situation in Hungary or Poland? 

Hungary and Poland represent a “backsliding” of the rule of law, in which the ruling parties are attempting to take over the judiciary and weaken the checks and balances. This is in parallel to stifling the opposition and civil society. In Slovakia, the situation represents a longstanding weakness of the state, in which the judiciary, the prosecution and police forces fail at safeguarding the rights of citizens. This, in turn, erodes trust in state institutions. Simultaneously, the political class readily exploits the weaknesses of the rule of law, leading to a situation where one’s legal situation depends greatly on connections with the right politicians. While the situation is not as severe as in Hungary or Poland, the events in Slovakia are worrying and play into a broader trend of weakening of the rule of law in EU Member States.

What are the positions of the main parties when it comes to the rule of law?

The rule of law features in the country’s political debates to a far greater degree than it did ahead of the previous elections, held in 2016. Despite this, two out of three parties in the ruling coalition: Smer-SD (which polls ahead of the competition) and the Slovak National Party (SNS), have no major proposals on the rule of law in their programmes. Major opposition parties dedicated significant portions of their electoral programmes to of rule of law issues, mostly the administration of courts and the prosecution service. The opposition’s overall narrative on the rule of law is centred on countering the capture of the state by the ruling parties which are intertwined with business interests, as well as eliminating systemic corruption and abuse of power.

What has the EU done so far on the rule of law in Slovakia? 

The European Commission has not yet undertaken any action on the rule of law in Slovakia. The Commission’s red lines on the rule of law were not crossed, unlike in Hungary and Poland. The European Parliament has voiced its concerns on several occasions, but its ability to go beyond political statements is limited. The EU toolbox on the rule of law is lacking means of engaging with the Member States on the rule of law in a manner less severe than a rule of law dialogue before triggering the Article 7 procedure or bringing the country before the CJEU. Once the Commission will publish reports on each member state, it will be easier to understand its views on the situation and how serious it is.

What’s next for the rule of law in Slovakia? 

Current polls suggest that the elections will lead to a highly fractured parliament, with several new political parties crowding an already plentiful political landscape. The promises of strengthening the rule of law will soon be tested, as the leading SD-Smer party will likely not be able to form a government on its own and will have to need to negotiate a new coalition.

At the same time, the EU is gearing up its new strategic policy on the rule of law, as outlined in its 2019 blueprint, and aims to introduce a rule of law review mechanism towards ensuring a regular look at the state of the rule of law in all EU Member States. Expanding the EU’s toolbox on the rule of law beyond emphasizing judiciary independence to encompass protecting judicial integrity and efficiency could help address countries such as Slovakia or Malta, where the situation had deteriorated but not yet led to a full-on backslide.

Democracy Reporting International (DRI) works to improve public understanding of the rule of law in the EU as part of the re:constitution programme funded by Stiftung Mercator. Sign-up to DRI’s newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to find out more about the rule of law in Europe.

Photocredit: Peter Tkac/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)