Textbook democratic theory argues that elected governments are more responsive to constituent concerns and usually produce better living conditions in their countries than authoritarian regimes because citizens in democracies have the power to remove their leaders from office.

Compared to their authoritarian counterparts, democratic leaders are held to a greater level of accountability. However, the actual power of citizens in holding elected leaders accountable depends on their engagement in the political process. It is weakened by low voter turnouts and high incumbent reelection rates. The functioning of this accountability mechanism is also dependent on the free flow of information reported by a free press. The recent shooting of Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and the resulting citizen backlash  have demonstrated the importance of the press and that Slovak citizens take their role as government watchdogs quite seriously.

Kuciak was in the midst of investigating the various connections between political leaders and elements of an Italian mafia syndicate operating in Slovakia. Just before he was killed, Kuciak had been investigating Mária Trošková, a young aid to then-Prime Minister Robert Fico. According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which has since published Kuciak’s findings, the investigation revealed that Trošková had been business partners with Antonino Vadala, suspected by Italian police of having ties to the Ndrangheta mafia family. Trošková resigned from government to head off criticism, in the days after Kuciak was found dead in his home. Secretary of the State Security Council Viliam Jasaň also resigned his position over suspected criminal connections.

Instead of letting government staff go quietly off, an estimated 40,000 Slovaks took to the streets of Bratislava expressing outrage, horror and grief that young journalists could be killed for telling the people about the crimes of the powerful. It has been documented that this was the largest protest since the anti-communist protests in 1989.

Soon after, Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák resigned due to criticism that he could not conduct an unbiased investigation into the murders of Kuciak and his fiancée. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Fico attempted to blame the protests on anyone but himself, including President Andrej Kiska and George Soros. Finally, on March 15, a little over a week after the first protest, Fico himself resigned, and was replaced by Deputy Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini.

And yet, the Slovak people’s desire for meaningful democratic change was not satisfied. The next day, an estimated 65,000 people marched in more than 30 cities throughout Slovakia. With continued demonstrations, the people of Slovakia have secured more victories. Just this week, new Interior Minister Tomáš Drucker announced he was leaving, and Police Chief Tibor Gašpar finally threw in the towel, as well.

The persistence and expansion of the protests suggest that the murder of Ján Kuciak is a tipping point of longer-term political dissatisfaction. Kuciak’s final, posthumous report of ties between Slovakia’s government and the mafia, have confirmed what many Slovaks previously suspected – that their government’s commitment to represent the citizens’ interests was compromised by external influence, money, and corruption. The protests in reaction illustrate that the people of Slovakia will not settle for superficial change within their government, especially when the prime minister resigns with a smile and smugly comments, “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.”

And, while the protesters have called for early elections, they have abstained from taking up the banner of an opposition party. The demonstrations are thus not an advancement of a political party or ideological agenda, but rather a call for crosscutting democratic renewal in a game that seems rigged. This non-partisan nature means involvement in the protests remains open to all Slovaks regardless of political affiliation.

Regardless of whether and when early elections occur, Slovakia’s political landscape will be less stable, with greater opportunity for opposition and emerging parties to capture voters from Fico’s weakened Smer-SD party. Which party ends up on-top following the resettlement of Slovakia’s political shake-up will obviously have an impact the direction of Slovakia, and particularly its orientation toward the European Union.

While the existence and nature of the mass protests and marches in Slovakia signify several political dynamics, they most importantly demonstrate that the Slovak people are motivated and capable of preserving and advancing their democracy. They are not asleep at the democratic wheel and have not abdicated their role as the ultimate keepers of Slovakia’s sovereignty. Furthermore, the investigative journalism of Ján Kuciak shows that the independent press is present and committed to serving as a whistleblower of corrupt government practices and the citizenry’s protests in defense of journalism signify that the democratic will and root institutions of Slovak society are strong.

Although the apparent corruption of the current government may cause concern for Slovakia’s democracy, the peaceful protests by 65,000 people that brought change of the highest government authority is the ultimate expression of the democracy.  

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