An Independent Leader Put to the Test

Source: Transitions Online / By Martin Ehl /

With a tough parliamentary election campaign ahead, will the Slovak president’s exceptional politics prove successful?

Slovak President Andrej Kiska has now been in office for more than a year. I never imagined that so many Slovaks – and Czechs too – would project their wishes for better politics in Central Europe onto this businessman turned philanthropist.

Kiska fought off the country’s populist prime minister, Robert Fico, to win the presidency. His second-biggest challenge is just beginning, as campaigning kicks off for next spring’s parliamentary elections. I must agree with a friend of mine, a renowned Slovak sociologist, who skeptically admitted that Kiska came into politics as an amateur but “improves every day.”

Kiska is exceptional in Central European politics. He’s the only political leader who doesn’t look or behave like an “alpha male,” and when I first met and interviewed him last year during his electoral campaign, I concluded that he couldn’t win because he didn’t present himself to voters as a strong and confident enough leader.

But Slovak voters were probably fed up with alpha males, and Kiska won the chance to show not only Slovakia but Central Europe a different kind of leadership. One derived more from the tradition of the first Czechoslovak president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, who famously spoke of the “small everyday work” that democracy needs, and dissident-turned- politician Vaclav Havel, who was able to find the right people in fields he didn’t understand, ask them the right questions, and push for the decisions he considered right.

Kiska was unsuccessful in his business ventures in America, but made his fortune back home and went on to create a respected cancer charity. His story is transparent and he doesn’t hide his failures.

He applies the same attitude to his work in politics. With help from advisers who are respected experts in their fields, he pushes a domestic agenda of reform to justice and healthcare, and one of help to Ukraine in foreign affairs.

His skills, and those of his advisers, will be put to the test during the next six months of parliamentary electioneering, as will his independence. If he can maintain his so far very independent position – at a time when the region and its often-distorted party politics are flirting hard with populism – Central Europe could have a new model statesman.

So far, Kiska seems patient enough not to be provoked and a good pupil of the liberal democratic tradition, skills that could help him successfully represent to this region the responsible American political leadership methods derived from the direct vote.

He would probably disagree, but he may prove just as successful at this as he was unsuccessful in his American business efforts. And he may prove to be even better in some ways: as Facebook HQ realized when Kiska visited there, in proportion to his country’s population, the Slovak president has more friends on Facebook than Barack Obama.

Martin Ehl is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.