May 4, 2021, 4:30 PM
When he entered the prime minister’s office in March 2020, Igor Matovic represented hope for many Slovaks. His party came to power on an anti-corruption platform, promising to renew a political system discredited by corruption, cozy ties to shady business interests, and poor public services. Active on social media, the unorthodox politician had built an image as a tribune of the people, who had grown dissatisfied with Slovakia’s ruling elite.
But by this April, Matovic—facing one of the weakest approval ratings of any Slovak prime minister—captured global attention when he resigned over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Grappling with a massive second wave, he negotiated a secret deal against the wishes of his coalition partners to import 2 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which lacks European Union regulatory approval. Slovakia’s drug regulator later refused to authorize the use of the first 200,000 shots that were imported, finding they “did not have the same characteristics and properties” as the version of Sputnik V reviewed favorably in the Lancet, a British medical journal.
Under fire for the deal with Russia, Matovic stepped down as prime minister to save the four-party coalition government. The pandemic may have shaped his legacy as leader, but his own chaotic style of governance also marked his year in power, creating tensions within the ruling coalition and antagonizing many potential allies. Ultimately, Matovic’s resignation may signal to similar politicians in the region that a party with a well-meaning anti-corruption agenda and grassroots support can easily stumble in the face of a crisis—with a long way to fall.
Although Matovic remains in government as finance minister and as a deputy prime minister, even those in his circle are fed up with him, attributing many of Slovakia’s current problems to his inconsistent decision-making. “He’s always been a rude and manipulative rebel, and it worked in the opposition. When he won the election, I hoped he’d turn into a statesman. Well, he didn’t,” said Jan Kroslak, a member of parliament from Matovic’s party, the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (Olano) party. “In my view, he should consider either quitting the government and focusing on the party or retiring from politics entirely.”
Olano won Slovakia’s parliamentary elections in February 2020 with the slogan, “Let’s beat the mafia together.” It appeared more like a protest movement than a professional party, lacking structure and a consistent agenda. The results were a surprise victory over the Direction-Social Democracy party, known as Smer, which had held power for 12 of the previous 14 years. Influenced by shady businesspeople with ties to organized crime and led by politicians known for antagonizing the press, Smer stirred public disillusionment with the establishment and allowed crimes to be committed on its watch. In 2018, investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova were shot to death in their home, triggering mass protests unseen since the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
A talented orator and ardent corruption-fighter, Matovic presented himself as the man to clean up the government after Smer’s years in power. He rode the wave of enthusiasm that elevated lawyer and political newcomer Zuzana Caputova to Slovakia’s presidency in 2019, making her the first woman in the post. Unlike Caputova, Matovic offered both determination and an understanding of political processes: He had spent a decade as a member of parliament. (Matovic did not respond to a request for an interview.)
One year later, that enthusiasm has completely burned out: Since last October, Matovic’s approval ratings have dropped by almost 17 points. By April, he was the least popular member of the government, with nearly 84 percent of Slovaks disapproving of him. Matovic’s fortunes had begun to reverse before he even took a seat in the prime minister’s chair, when six days after the elections Slovakia recorded its first coronavirus case. His cabinet, filled with strong personalities from the four coalition parties, was riven by tensions from the beginning. Facing the greatest health crisis in the country’s short independent history, the new government couldn’t give its full attention to its promise to restore justice and transparency.
Slovakia avoided the worst of the first wave of the pandemic last spring. But since September 2020, it has grappled with a surge in new COVID-19 cases, recording one of the world’s highest rates of COVID-19 deaths per capita earlier this year. Matovic’s response to the second wave was unorthodox. He became the face of Slovakia’s fight against the coronavirus, organizing almost daily emotional press conferences. He was the first world leader to order nationwide testing, of nearly all of his country’s 5.5 million citizens, and then went against the EU and his coalition partners to negotiate the vaccine purchase from Russia.
In the eyes of his fellow politicians, the latter move revealed a lot about Matovic’s personality. “I don’t think he’s a Russophile, but in his eccentric and megalomaniacal way, he thought he’d find himself a solution for the coronavirus,” said Irena Bihariova, chairwoman of the Progressive Slovakia party, which doesn’t hold seats in parliament but was part of the anti-Smer movement. “As a result, he wasted such potential, such public trust.”
The more Matovic lost his grip on the government and the public, the more irrational he seemed to become. A fervent Facebook user, he publicly criticized his own ministers, diplomats, reporters, academics, and others suspicious of Sputnik V, calling them “idiots.” A joke during a radio interview—that he had promised Russia Ukraine’s Zakarpattia oblast, on Slovakia’s border, in exchange for the vaccines—caused a diplomatic scandal. Facing pressure from his coalition partners, he resigned.
Matovic’s record is far from entirely negative. His government conducted a wide-ranging purge of corrupt officials in the police, judiciary, and secret service, as well as a crackdown on law-breaking businesspeople who operated with impunity under Smer. But he wasn’t able to find common ground with others standing against Smer, including coalition allies, the media, and independent experts—all of whom he treated as adversaries. “Slovakia is a different country today,” said Andrej Stancik, a member of parliament from Olano. “The problem with Matovic was that many of his enemies have thrown gauntlets at him, and he has reacted to all of them. … This is not what a prime minister should spend time on.”
The new prime minister, Eduard Heger, is more of a technocrat than Matovic—giving Olano the chance to promote a more conciliatory face in the government. “Matovic’s legacy is poor,” said Grigorij Meseznikov, head of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs. “People quickly realized that, with his conflicting nature, lack of diplomatic skills, and authoritarian aspirations, he’s not a prime minister-type politician. He proved that being an effective opposition player is not enough to rule the country.”
Despite his resignation, Matovic does not intend to fade into the background. He remains active on national media and on Facebook, raising concerns that he may try to overshadow Heger. And he is still taking the Sputnik V campaign personally, making two unauthorized foreign visits in April, first to Moscow to meet with the head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which markets Sputnik V abroad, and later to Budapest for assistance in inspecting the vaccine.
No matter the final legacy of the Olano-led governments, Matovic’s case serves as a warning for opposition parties in Central European countries ruled by strongmen: After years of predictable, iron-fisted rule, a country led by politicians lacking governing experience can easily descend into chaos. “When [Jaroslaw] Kaczynski and [Viktor] Orban are gone, the Polish and Hungarian opposition, with no experience, no people, and no abilities to manage inside tensions, will have the same problems to govern and replace the old state apparatus,” said Milan Nic, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Moreover, Matovic may have unintentionally paved the way for the return of those he calls the mafia. Since the 2020 elections, Olano has dropped by 16 points in the polls, falling short of both Smer and its new offshoot, the Voice party. In the event of snap election, the parties could join to form a government with an even stronger mandate than before. “I blame Matovic for that,” Kroslak, the Olano lawmaker, said. “With his talent and intelligence he could easily gain support of 40 percent. Yet for some reason, he’s more comfortable when more people hate him.”
Although Matovic’s resignation has kept the coalition intact for now, the future of Slovakia’s government remains uncertain. Heger may still stumble over Matovic’s roadblocks: Olano’s uncertain post-corruption platform and the former prime minister’s own ambitions.
This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.