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Thousands of people took to the streets in the Central European country of Slovakia late last week to protest criminal justice reforms proposed by the newly elected Prime Minister Robert Fico and his leftist populist allies. They chanted “Mafia, mafia … Fico mobster” and demanded his resignation – three months after he took office.
Fico’s plan would eliminate the office of the national prosecutor, which litigates over graft, organized crime, and extremism. Under the proposal, reported Reuters, regional prosecutors would handle those crimes even though they have not done so in 20 years. But critics say this plan will weaken and disrupt the legal system, especially because the office in question is still investigating around 1,000 cases, some of which likely involve Fico’s allies.
The plan would also reduce corruption-related charges and shorten statutes of limitations that protect criminals after certain lengths of time have passed.
The new government says the change is necessary to modernize the criminal justice system. Critics, however, say Fico and his allies are dangerous and corrupt.
Many believe the critics have a point when it comes to Slovakia’s leader, who is deeply controversial both inside and outside of the country, wrote World Politics Review. For example, last week, he said just hours after missiles rained down on the Ukrainian capital, “there’s no war in Kyiv.”
It is Fico’s fourth stint as Slovakia’s leader, which followed his Smer party’s victory in the general election last fall. In 2018, he was ousted after the murder of an investigative journalist – who was also investigating Fico and other members of his circle – which brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets in protest. This case was among those probed by the special prosecutor’s office that the government wants to eliminate, Politico noted.
Before Fico’s return to power, his predecessor had led a purge of high-ranking officials close to Fico, who were charged with corruption or other crimes. But since the fall, some elite investigators and police officials who deal with top corruption cases have been dismissed or furloughed.
Meanwhile, the protests, which started last year after the plan was first proposed, are likely to continue.
“We’re not ready to give up,” said Michal Šimecka, leader of the opposition Progressive Slovakia political party, at one of the demonstrations against Fico’s proposal. “We will step up our pressure …We will defend justice and freedom in our country.”
Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, who was a member of Progressive Slovakia but now occupies an office that is technically non-partisan and independent, urged Fico and lawmakers to reconsider their plan, saying it might violate the country’s constitution, wrote the Jurist. European Union officials and other observers also called for Fico to drop the initiative.
The issue has become particularly important as Slovak voters prepare to vote for a new president to replace Čaputová, who opted not to run for reelection, on March 23. As Visegrad/Insight explained. Peter Pellegrini, the leader of the ruling coalition party, the center-left Hlas, is seeking the job. But, as a member of the coalition under Fico, Pellegrini faces a tough choice between embracing and distancing himself from the unpopular measure.
Polls show that Pellegrini and his main rival, pro-Western former Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok, running neck and neck but without either securing more than 50 percent of the vote, a situation that could result in a runoff ballot in April.
Meanwhile, the Slovak Spectator says it’s unlikely the protesters or the opposition parties will stop Fico and his allies. But the newspaper adds that this doesn’t mean they don’t have the power to cause problems for the leader: The deadline to abolish the Special Prosecutor’s Office was Jan. 15 and yet it still stands.