Ousted by Mass Protests, Ex-Premier's Comeback Plan Stirs Anger

(Bloomberg) -- Another country’s judiciary is at the center of public outcry in the European Union’s east.

Slovakia’s former prime minister, Robert Fico, is vying to join the nation’s Constitutional Court after protesters forced him out with the largest anti-corruption rallies since the fall of communism. His candidacy has ignited outrage among many of the euro-area country’s 5.4 million voters, who charge that he allowed graft to thrive under his rule.

“His appointment would be a blow not only to all protesters but justice as such," said Juraj Seliga, an organizer of the demonstrations. “If lawmakers approve him as a candidate, they’ll show a complete lack of political self-reflection.”

The uproar over the Constitutional Court, seldom the subject of front-page news in Slovakia, comes as the EU battles nationalist and populist governments that it says are undermining the rule of law and backsliding on democracy. Front and center are Poland and Hungary, which have overhauled their judicial systems to give politicians more sway, while Romanian authorities are rolling back anti-graft efforts.

Party Connection

If Fico takes the bench at the highest court when Slovakia replaces nine of its 13 judges, he’d be the first former prime minister and head of a ruling party to do so since the country was founded in 1993 when it split with its federation partners, the Czechs. Lawmakers are expected to vote on a list this week.

He’s vowed to step down as chairman of Smer, the party he founded 20 years ago, if he gets the job, but his position there makes him a shoo-in for the short list.

During his time as prime minister, which stretched to a decade during multiple terms, Slovakia’s economy leaped forward as it attracted billions in foreign investment, mainly from the car industry, to become an export powerhouse.

And while some of his counterparts in eastern Europe resisted closer integration with the EU, the 54-year-old Social Democrat embraced the adoption of the euro, and advocated for Slovakia to be at the bloc’s "core" alongside Germany and France. He acknowledged public anger over graft and pointed to actions that his government took to fight it, including increasing whistle-blower protections and making public procurement more transparent.

"There indeed is corruption in Slovakia," Fico said in late 2017. "But there is a big difference between the perception of corruption and reality. Today we are fighting the perception."

Journalist’s Murder

Public ire came to a head last year after Jan Kuciak, a journalist who wrote about white collar crimes with ties to politicians, was murdered with his fiancee in an execution-style assassination.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Slovakia, prompting Fico to step down halfway into his third term. He vowed, standing next to a table stacked with 1 million euros meant as a reward for information, to solve the killing. Taking a page from his populist peers in the region, he also blamed billionaire George Soros for orchestrating his demise.

Citizens aren’t keen to see him at the court. Only 18 percent of Slovaks said he should get the job, a January poll conducted by Focus for TV Markiza showed.

His court ambition is a problem not only for voters but also for President Andrej Kiska, an outspoken critic of Fico who has said that moral integrity is a key precondition for Constitutional Court justices. That has raised speculation that the Smer-controlled government may try to delay the judge-selecting process until after Slovakia’s presidential elections this March.

Kiska said he won’t run again, and that might increase Fico’s chances, particularly as Smer’s candidate, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, is leading opinion polls.

"It’s a complicated plan which may not succeed," said Grigorij Meseznikov, Director of the Institute for Public Affairs, a Bratislava-based think tank. "If Fico doesn’t get the post, he won’t leave the politics. I wouldn’t write his political obituary yet."

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