FILE PHOTO: Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger visits Estonia

Slovak coalition government collapses after losing no-confidence vote in parliament

PRAGUE (AP) — Slovakia’s coalition government fell Thursday after losing a no-confidence vote in parliament called by the opposition following months of political crisis, in a development that could lead to an early election.

In the country’s 150-seat Parliament, 78 lawmakers, two more than the 76 needed, voted to oust the three-party minority government of Prime Minister Eduard Heger. Three coalition lawmakers voted against the government.

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The liberal Freedom and Solidarity party, which requested the vote, withdrew from the coalition government in September. Freedom and Solidarity head Richard Sulik accused the government of incompetence and losing its anti-corruption drive.

“Finally,” Sulik commented on the government’s collapse.

President Zuzana Caputova will have to appoint a new prime minister. Several opposition and coalition parties have indicated they would prefer an early election. A two-thirds parliamentary majority would be needed to hold such an election.

Caputova might ask Heger’s government to stay in office with reduced powers until an early vote can take place.

Heger said he would meet the president later Thursday.

The opposition would stand a good chance to win a snap ballot, recent polls suggested.

“It’s the best possible Christmas present for the people of Slovakia,” former prime minister Peter Pellegrini, who heads the leftist opposition Voice — Social Democracy party, said of the result of the vote.

Slovakia’s next regularly scheduled parliamentary election is not until February 2024.

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The vote was the latest step in a long-term political crisis in Slovakia.

“It will be very difficult to find a new functioning government,” analyst Samuel Abraham told the TA3 news television. “This crisis will continue.”

Freedom and Solidarity said before its departure from the government that it wasn’t willing to stay because of disagreements with Finance Minister Igor Matovic, a populist leader whose Ordinary People party won the 2020 parliamentary election.

Sulik clashed with Matovic on a number of issues, including how to tackle soaring inflation driven by high energy prices amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They also disagreed on how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

Freedom and Solidarity had given Prime Minister Heger a deadline until the end of August to reshuffle the Cabinet and rule without Matovic, saying that otherwise, its four ministers would resign.

Matovic’s Ordinary People party originally rejected that option. In a last-minute effort to save the government, Matovic offered his resignation Thursday, but it was too late.

“We have no confidence in this government,” Freedom and Solidarity said in a statement.

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Caputova didn’t immediately comment but said in a Facebook post that Matovic came to the presidential office, signed his resignation but thought it over at the last moment and took it back from an official.

After winning the election on an anti-corruption ticket two years ago, Matovic struck a deal to govern with Freedom and Solidarity, the conservative For People party, and We Are Family, a populist right-wing group that is allied with France’s far-right National Rally party.

The government made fighting corruption a key policy issue. Since it took power after the 2020 general election, a number of senior officials, police officers, judges, prosecutors, politicians and businesspeople have been charged with corruption and other crimes.

But amid the coronavirus pandemic last year, the government collapsed as Matovic was forced to resign as prime minister after he orchestrated a secret deal to acquire 2 million doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine despite disagreement among his coalition partners.

The same four parties formed a new government under Heger, who is a close ally of Matovic’s and the deputy head of his Ordinary People party.

The current Slovak government has been donating arms to the Ukrainian armed forces while opening its border to refugees fleeing the war with Russia.

Some current opposition leaders oppose military support for Ukraine and European Union sanctions against Russia.