In late February 2018, news that Slovakian anticorruption journalist Jan Kuciak was shot to death at home—the first murder of a journalist in Slovakia’s modern history—shocked the country and world. Slovakians demanded that the government, controlled by the corruption-plagued Direction-Social Democracy (SMER-SD) party, investigate the brazen attack and hold the perpetrators accountable. Tensions escalated in the days following Kuciak’s murder after his last unpublished story surfaced, exposing connections between advisors to SMER-SD Prime Minister Robert Fico and a prominent Italian organized crime syndicate. Fico resigned shortly thereafter, a development which proved to be the beginning of the end of SMER-SD’s twelve-year reign. By the February 2020 general election, voters decisively ousted SMER-SD in favor of the emerging anticorruption-focused Ordinary People and Independent Personalities Party (OLaNO).
Much of OLaNO’s appeal stems from party leader and current prime minister Igor Matovic, a self-made media mogul. His signature communication method was posting videos exposing graft to social media (similar to Russian anticorruption hero Alexei Navalny, whom this blog recently discussed here). In one of Matovic’s most widely viewed videos, he filmed himself in Cannes outside the luxury home of a former SMER-SD politician holding signs saying “Property of the Slovak Republic” and alleging that the home was illegally bought with taxpayer money. Matovic also traveled to Cyprus and posted a video of mailboxes belonging to shell corporations connected to Penta, a multi-million-euro investment group; the video claimed that Penta had used the companies to evade 400 million euros in taxes. Each of Matovic’s videos garnered several hundred thousand views in a country of less than 5.5 million, which helps explain why the February 2020 election boasted Slovakia’s highest voter turnout in 20 years.
Now, just one year into its mandate, OLaNO and its coalition are hard at work rooting out corruption. The government arrested and prosecuted dozens of current and former public officials involved in graft. Those targeted include high-level figures, such as the former Finance Minister, the head of the State Material Reserves Administration, the Director of the Agricultural Paying Agency, and more than a dozen judges, including a member of the Supreme Court and the former Deputy Minister of Justice. OLaNO is also pursuing a number of legislative efforts, including aggressive judicial reform.
Can Matovic and OLaNO finally cleanse Slovakia’s reputation as the corruption “black hole of Europe”? Maybe. But while the story of an outsider stepping forward in the wake of a national scandal and securing electoral victory with an anticorruption political agenda may be a first in Slovakia’s modern history, it is not an unknown tale on the world stage—and (spoiler alert!) the story often doesn’t have a happy ending. To be sure, difficult political dynamics and entrenched domestic corruption can hamper even the most earnest anticorruption efforts. Nevertheless, examples from other countries provide some cautionary tales of how populist leaders elected on anticorruption platforms can sometimes lose their way, and offer some lessons that Matovic, OLaNO, and their supporters should take to heart going forward. Three lessons in particular stand out:
- First, anticorruption reformers should develop a clear and comprehensive political platform, rather than focusing exclusively on anticorruption. Slovakia need look no further than its European neighbor Ukraine to understand that a political platform focusing only on anticorruption is not enough to remain attractive to voters over time. In 2019, presidential-actor-turned-actual-president Volodymyr Zelensky and his Servant of the People party secured the presidency by pledging to break the oligarchs’ stranglehold on Ukrainian institutions. Zelensky’s administration notched some early reform successes, such as removing prosecutorial impunity for legislators and reinstating criminal liability for officials who engage in illegal enrichment. But just one year in, the momentum started to falter. While President Zelensky undoubtedly faced an uphill climb due to institutional and structural factors—with courts in particular blocking reform initiatives—the Servant of the People Party’s amorphous identity and unclear direction was a principal reason for voters’ waning interest. As passionate as voters may be about anticorruption, especially in the wake of a big scandal, they care about other issues, too. Unfortunately, there are already signs that OLaNO, described as a “heterogeneous, protest-type party” rather than an ideologically organized faction, may be falling victim to the same trap. Recent opinion polling has OLaNO trailing a newly minted party founded by none other than a former SMER-SD prime minister. Matovic can and should more clearly build out OLaNO’s platform to preserve the party’s chances at winning again in the February 2024 parliamentary elections. Continuing success at the polls is critical to creating lasting institutional change, especially since many of OLaNO’s proposals require longer time horizons to enact.
- Second, it’s vital that anticorruption reformers respect freedom of the press, even if journalists sometimes paint an unflattering picture of the party. Independent journalism plays a critical role in holding a government accountable to its anticorruption promises and, in the worst-case scenario, exposing the government’s missteps. Poland provides a cautionary tale of what can happen when a seemingly-reformist party uses its power to suppress criticism and undermine the free press. The Law and Justice (PiS) party, founded by then-activist and fringe politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski, arrived on the scene in the mid-2000s promising to clean up corruption in Poland after a bribery scandal implicated the prime minister. PiS has been the ruling party since 2015. During this time, Kaczynski waged a systematic war against the media. The PiS staffed previously independent media supervisory bodies with PiS officials, passed laws criminalizing defamation, and pursued numerous lawsuits against organizations attempting to expose government corruption. This substantial decline in press freedom has been accompanied by rising corruption, and the two phenomena are likely related. While Matovic is unlike Kaczynski in many respects, he has already hinted at a similar mistrust of the media. Shortly after taking office, Matovic proposed the creation of a state fund purportedly to support investigative journalism, which the journalist community rejected out of fear that the government would have too much influence over the media. Since then, Matovic has periodically attacked the press, including using the recent third anniversary of Kuciak’s murder to level critiques at Slovakian journalists for their “superficial, often biased” coverage of him. This pattern is troubling not only because such behavior is reminiscent of former SMER-SD prime ministers, but also because, as the Poland example illustrates, attacks on the press are often a disturbing first step toward fading anticorruption efforts. It’s understandable and probably inevitable that politicians and journalists often have a contentious, even adversarial relationship. Despite this, if Matovic is serious about cleaning up corruption in Slovakia, he should honor the independence of the press, regardless of its coverage.
- Third, the most daunting challenge for a confident, charismatic leader like Matovic may be to resist the temptation to play the role of celebrity rather than be a real leader. Matovic’s critics and allies alike have called him “addicted to the spotlight.” In addition to his social media videos, Matovic has been known to stir up personal controversy with Slovakian politicians by wearing provocative T-shirts and holding up inappropriate signs in government buildings. Others worry about Matovic’s overall interest in governing. To be sure, Matovic is holding together a fragile coalition, a difficult task under the best of circumstances. That said, Matovic risks losing popular support if he clings too tightly to personal glory without recognizing the demands of his office.
Dismantling endemic corruption is a long, tough process requiring involvement from many, not just a single leader. New generations will need to take up the mantle from Matovic to implement true change in Slovakia. Nevertheless, Matovic and OLaNO have been off to an inspiring start. By crystallizing the party’s platform, respecting freedom of the press, and putting the country before himself, Matovic stands poised to avoid the pitfalls of other populist anticorruption leaders. Delivering on OLaNO’s objectives would go a long way toward addressing Slovakia’s pervasive corruption and honoring Kuciak’s legacy.
Great topic, Laurel! I have one concern I would like to point out. Given the so-called addition to the spotlight Matovic has, do you think the role of the press could be jeopardized in the sense than it would not be a true independet and free press? Or, maybe, to the contrary that there would be benefits given to the press because of this addition and then the incentives of the press would be not the right ones? Perhaps this so-called addition is being strategically overestimated, but I was wondering whether you think it could have some impact on these issues.
Hi Astrid – thanks for your point! Yes, the media certainly has an interest in covering Matovic both for their own business reasons and because of his political importance. Based on my reading, the press is currently very aware of potential influence from the government and has actively resisted undue influence, evidenced most clearly by the rejection of Matovic’s funding proposal.
This is great news in my opinion, Laurel! If that is the case I think this is even more solid.
Very much enjoyed this post. That said, the third lesson you point out seems somewhat counterintuitive to me. Given that maintaining a “celebrity” status has been linked to democratic success tied to populism in Europe, surely there’s a danger that abandoning that “spotlight” role would only cause Matovic’s popular support to dwindle all the more quickly?
Hi Zach – your is point well-taken. My take is that the celebrity status may be helpful (and sometimes critical) in securing popular support in election phase, but the situation is fundamentally different post-election win. While I’m certainly not saying that Matovic should turn his back to the people, he needs to strike the appropriate balance of populism with respect for his position as prime minister. To be sure, the transition is not easy but I feel that it is imperative.
I’d be curious if there are any real life examples of leaders who are elected on a populist/celebrity platform and then gain public support by retreating from the spotlight while in office.
Granted, this is all a moot point with regard to Slovakia at the moment, seeing as Matovic just resigned.
I actually think Trump provides a pretty good example of that backs Laurel up here. A lot of times when Trump would fade into the background, his approval ratings would go up. Oddly enough, a man who became president by sucking up media attention actually gained popularity when he hid from the spotlight. I think this shows that populists can actually achieve some success if they are willing to cede the spotlight. The problem, of course, is that many populists get into office precisely because they love the spotlight, and often find the pull of public attention irresistible. Thus why I agree with Laurel’s point that Matovic should step out of the spotlight more, I wonder if he would be willing to even contemplate such a move.
Great point, Michael. As was so often true, though, Trump may be sui generis. His poll numbers were so persistently low that by simply going quiet and ceasing doing damage to himself, his numbers were bound to rise somewhat. In other words, I’m not convinced that, outside a few instances (e.g., airstrikes in Syria), his rising poll numbers actually corresponded to affirmative acts he undertook as president.
To chime in on this press debate. I would agree with the idea that he should pull back on the social media antics. If Matovic is addicted to the spotlight as it is claimed, should his constituents welcome the idea of their leader taking random trips to places like Cyprus to fit and post social media videos of mailboxes ?
Really enjoyed reading this! I think you raise an interesting point about running out of steam – the more successful an anti-corruption party is, the less the need for that specific type of party. Given this inherent challenge, shouldn’t we expect to see more and more “celebrity stunts” from Matovic to keep adding fuel to the engine? That may be the opposite of what the government needs, but Matovic’s celebrity status seems like an integral part of keeping corruption in the limelight. Will people pay the same heed to his views on other subjects?
Hi Disha – I share the same concerns that you raise. Unfortunately, this downward “attention” spiral seems to be somewhat common among populist movements. Even though Matovic gained prominence for his anticorruption message, I do think there is room for an expanded platform to gain traction among people, especially if the other priorities are responsive to their concerns. There are many pressing social issues (abortion being the subject of recent debate) that I believe Matovic and his party have room to address based on their parliamentary control.
Your suggestions are all well-taken, but I wonder about the implications of your first point in particular. I agree that the lack of a clear and comprehensive political platform will likely doom emerging anticorruption parties, but such parties are often elected because of their widespread appeal. When a party centralizes itself around an issue that everyone can rally behind, that party can garner support from all ranges of the political spectrum. As soon as the political views of a party become more nuanced, the party invites rebuke. Young parties may suffer more from such pushback, since they don’t have a history of successes in government at which they can point. It seems then that the most likely way for an anticorruption party to succeed is for an existing party to prioritize anticorruption measures rather than attempt to form a new party that capitalizes on a temporary anticorruption fervor. An existing party already has an established political platform, while an emerging anticorruption party either may not be able to agree upon a comprehensive platform given the diverse support received.
Really thoughtful post, Laurel! I particularly appreciated your point about the role of the press in preventing the rise of corruption – with the continuing decline of traditional journalism and increasing factionalization of political news sources, I wonder to what extent leaders in positions similar to Matovic’s (prior to his stepping down) can afford to just ignore the press. While leaders often seem to respond to negative press by attacking the journalistic coverage, it seems just as effective to allow the scandals to blow over, trusting that supporters might not be swayed by the negative coverage. In that context, reporters and the press might need to think creatively about how to amplify their anticorruption coverage, so that something sticks.
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