Slovak Premier's Resignation Fails to Quell Protests Over Graft

(Bloomberg) -- Tens of thousands of Slovaks took the streets for a third week to demand early elections, saying this week’s resignation by Robert Fico as prime minister was insufficient to guarantee a crackdown on corruption.

Crowds thronged a main square in capital, Bratislava, on Friday evening, protesting against what they said was only a cosmetic change in government that will allow Fico’s Smer party to keep its grip on power. Similar rallies began in more than 30 other cities across the eastern European Union member. It was a continuation of the country’s biggest demonstrations since the fall of the Iron Curtain that began after the murder of a reporter investigating state corruption last month.

The rallies illustrate undiminished outrage after Fico resigned on Thursday with the condition that Smer name his replacement, defying protesters’ demand that the three-party coalition open the way to early elections. The protests echoed other anti-government rallies across eastern Europe over issues ranging from democratic backsliding to endemic graft. Another pro-EU leader -- Slovenian Premier Miro Cerar -- announced he would quit the same day in the midst of a public-sector strike before a summer ballot.

Slovakia’s coalition leaders “deceived and humiliated the public,” the organizers of the protests -- young people who say they have no links to politics -- said on Facebook. “The new government is not a real fulfillment of the demands of tens of thousands people who took to the streets asking for a decent Slovakia.”

While Fico’s resignation is at least a partial victory for his detractors, it weakens the position of one of the only governments in the EU’s eastern wing that has portrayed itself as a counterweight against euroskeptic forces across much of the region. Fico picked as his replacement deputy Premier Peter Pellegrini, who is now in talks to form a new cabinet as soon as next week. He has pledged to continue with Fico’s pro-EU orientation.

Smer has made eliminating corruption a priority after media reports on intransparent tenders and tax fraud by businessmen linked to politicians. But no active senior politician has every been convicted in the country of 5.4 million. In his last story, published after he was slain with his fiancee in an execution-style hit, the journalist Jan Kuciak reported on links of Fico associates to Italian companies allegedly stealing EU funds in eastern Slovakia. The outgoing premier has repeatedly denied wrongdoing by his government.

Fico held to his post until the last minute, hoping the resignation of his protege, Interior Minister Robert Kalinak, on Monday would appease protesters and the coalition Most party, which had asked for his dismissal. After Most demanded a snap vote, Fico quit in a last-ditch effort to salvage the ruling grouping two years before general elections.

But even without premiership, he will keep a strong voice in running the country as the head of Smer. The main concern among the protests’ organizers is that Fico will continue to run the government from behind the scene like his fellow ruling-party bosses in Romania and Poland.

“It’s likely that Fico –- similarly to the leader of the ruling conservative Law and Justice Party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, in Poland –- will continue to steer the government from the background,” Otilia Dhand, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Brussels said in a note. “It cannot be ruled out that public pressure will force a change of heart among some members of parliament.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.