Corruption Controversy Could Spark Slovakian Reshuffle

Corruption Controversy Could Spark Slovakian Reshuffle

MPs from Slovakia’s center-right Freedom and Solidarity party have called for the dismissal of Prosecutor General Maroš Žilinka after his office halted several major corruption cases using a controversial legal provision.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Two MPs from Slovakia’s center-right Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS) have called for the dismissal of Prosecutor General Maroš Žilinka after his office halted several major corruption cases with a controversial legal provision. These actions also prompted proposed changes to legislation, Žilinka’s office’s jurisdiction, and the makeup of the current ruling coalition.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Žilinka is unlikely to be removed, but the ruling coalition will likely move forward without the Sme Rodina party and with the support of an additional MP.
– Changes to the law and the division of prosecutorial powers are also likely.
– Recent scandals are unlikely to have a significant impact on investment and EU convergence.

CORRUPTION, A COMPLICATED LEGACY

Deputy Prosecutor General Josef Kandera invoked Section 363 of the Criminal Procedure Code (TP) to annul corruption investigations concerning National Criminal Agency (NAKA) investigators on August 24 and former Slovak Information Service (SIS) head Vladimír Pčolinský on August 31. Soon after, Prosecutor General Žilinka promoted Kandera to First Deputy. Žilinka had recused himself from the Pčolinský case, as both were nominated to their posts by the Sme Rodina coalition party. Pčolinský is also related to two Sme Rodina officials, and the party leadership had publicly criticized the case against the former SIS director.

The Office of the Prosecutor General also revoked corruption charges against billionaire Jaroslav Hascak on August 31 due to a stated lack of evidence, as well as those against former SIS counterintelligence director Ľubomír Arpáš and his wife. In addition, four of the accusers in the NAKA case and Office of the Inspection Service director Petr Scholtz have recently been detained. Scholtz’s office investigates crimes committed by law enforcement. Scholtz and the others detained in the case have since been released.

Special Prosecutor Daniel Lipšic has cast doubt on Kander’s justification for detaining Scholtz and the NAKA accusers as well as for invoking Section 363, a rarely-utilized provision that allows the cancellation of a decision in the preparatory stage of the proceedings if that decision is found to have violated the law.  The Special Prosecutor’s Office is part of the Office of the Prosecutor General, and its jurisdiction vis-à-vis the General Prosecutor’s Office is currently under discussion in the Slovak government. The parliament has since called working group sessions to address the situation with the security services, the rule of law, and Section 363.

At one time, Žilinka was expected to be a strong anti-corruption influence. Žilinka was elected and appointed to a seven-year term as General Prosecutor in December 2020 following a string of high-profile corruption scandals under the rule of the SMER-SD party. Žilinka was selected after undergoing a thorough public hearing process with other candidates. At the time, Žilinka was considered unprecedentedly independent, as he was not from the ruling party. In the past few months, however, the actions of his office and his ties to Sme Rodina have drawn suspicion of bias. The Special Prosecutor’s Office has also been confronting its complicated past. On September 20, former Special Prosecutor Dušan Kováčik was sentenced to 14 years in prison for corruption and accepting bribes.

The country’s top leadership has likewise faced setbacks in the fight against corruption. Igor Matovič, who was elected prime minister on an anti-corruption platform in March 2020, stepped down a year later due to public outcry over his reliance on Russian vaccines in combatting COVID-19. However, Matovič’s Ordinary People (OLANO) party remains in power under Prime Minister Eduard Heger.

DOMESTIC DEBATES, CONTENTIOUS CHANGES

MPs Alojz Baranik and Ondrej Dostál of SaS publicly expressed support for Žilinka’s removal as Prosecutor General in mid-September. Although Baranik suggests the parliament could oust the Prosecutor General with an absolute majority, legal experts point out that Žilinka does not meet the criteria for such a decision under laws governing general parliamentary rules and procedures – as well as the laws governing the Prosecutor General’s Office. What’s more, SaS party leadership stated that they would not be in favor of the measure barring the support of the entire coalition and characterized Baranik’s stance as “personal opinion.” An early September survey also shows that Žilinka still had a higher level of public trust than one of his foremost critics on the situation, Special Prosecutor Lipšic, and a significantly lower level of distrust. This public stance further erodes political incentives to oust the General Prosecutor. Therefore, despite the uproar over the actions of Žilinka’s office, it is improbable that he will be removed from his post at this juncture.

There is, however, political will within the Council of Prosecutors to amend Section 363, and Justice Minister Mária Kolíková suggested that it may be changed to stipulate the participation of courts or other entities in the annulment process. In addition, the working group on rule of law has also discussed solutions such as changes to the division of powers, including separating the Office of the Special Prosecutor from the Office of the Prosecutor General. Despite opposition from Žilinka and Sme Rodina, these changes will likely occur in the near term due to political support from much of the rest of the domestic establishment.

The recent controversies could also have a concrete impact on domestic politics. Sme Rodina leadership identified changes to Section 363 as a red line, threatening to leave the coalition if it was amended. Matovič raised the possibility of a coalition without the Sme Rodina party should they continue to block efforts to fight corruption and amend the Criminal Code, and Prime Minister Heger and SaS leadership later expressed openness to that scenario. Both Coalition members OLANO and SaS currently have a combined 75 seats in parliament and would need the support of at least one additional non-attached deputy for a simple majority. Although non-attached deputy Miroslav Kollár has not yet decided on his support for a government without Sme Rodina, he has expressed that he would be in favor under certain circumstances. Despite previous disagreements with Matovič, the pressing need for his support would likely give this key deputy increased leverage and sway in parliament should he choose to join the coalition. Given the interests involved and the current political climate, a new government without Sme Rodina and with the support of an additional MP is the most likely outcome.

SLOVAKIA SHIFTS IN A GLOBAL CONTEXT

Despite a mild COVID-related drop in FDI flows to the Eastern EU members as of early 2021, Slovakia’s Eurozone membership is likely to shield the country from major shifts in external investment due to the current domestic situation and its potential effect on governance ratings.  This likelihood is bolstered by the fact that the most probable political changes would keep much of the current leadership in place and usher in a more stringent anti-corruption policy approach.

The string of corruption scandals is also unlikely to have a lasting impact on Slovakia’s perceived role within the EU vis-à-vis its fellow Central European states. Slovakia has criticized fellow Visegrad Group members Poland and Hungary for their advocacy regarding alternative approaches to rule of law in Europe, including their attempt to establish a V4 Institute on Comparative Law. Despite the recent setbacks in relation to the Sme Rodina party and the security apparatus, the majority of the Slovakian establishment have publicly expressed their dedication to continuing the fight against corruption by advocating for legal and personnel changes as well as adherence to the rule of law. From a policy standpoint, this likely precludes a scenario in which Slovakia moves closer to Poland and Hungary and away from broader EU convergence. The potential changes to the legal code and division of power as well as the resilience of the OLANO- and SaS-led coalition – even without Sme Rodina – will further reinforce the status quo in near-term external relations.

Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Internews.