BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Slovakia’s president appointed a new cabinet on Thursday and told ministers they must win back public trust, shattered by the murder of an investigative journalist that led to mass protests and the resignation of veteran leader Robert Fico.
Organisers of the main anti-government protests cancelled a rally planned for Bratislava on Friday after President Andrej Kiska appointed the reshuffled cabinet.
However, the new government has exactly the same programme at the outgoing cabinet and students from several universities in the capital said on Facebook they would still organise a silent march on Friday out of respect for the reporter and his fiancee who was also murdered. Smaller protests were expected to continue in some other towns across the country.
Tens of thousands of Slovaks have staged the country’s biggest protests in three decades of democracy to demand a new government and a fair investigation into last month’s killing of Jan Kuciak, 27, who probed fraud cases involving businessmen with political ties, alongside fiancee Martina Kusnirova.
“Your government will soon ask parliament for (a vote of) confidence, but more importantly you will have to win the trust of the people. I won’t let you forget this responsibility,” Kiska, a political opponent of Fico, told the new ministers.
Fico stepped down as prime minister in the wake of the protests but remains head of his ruling Smer party. Smer picked Peter Pellegrini, a 42-year-old deputy prime minister, to replace him and keep the three-party coalition government afloat midway through its term.
It also chose former health minister Tomas Drucker, who has no political affiliation, to head the Interior Ministry - a sensitive post as the double murder has yet to be solved.
The 15-member cabinet includes six portfolio changes but only two people who have not previously held any government position in the central European nation of 5.4 million.
Pellegrini, long a member of Smer, and Drucker face a tough task convincing people that they will safeguard a fair investigation of Kuciak’s murder while the party, often a target of the reporter’s investigative journalism, remains in power.
Some Slovaks are disappointed that no early elections have been held. Their unease is likely to be amplified by the fact that the new cabinet approved an unchanged programme. This was copied-and-pasted from the previous government’s manifesto so swiftly on Thursday that goals that had already been met had not been removed from the document.
The new government is likely to sail through a confidence vote in the 150-member parliament, where the ruling coalition has a majority with 79 lawmakers. The session will open on Friday but the vote is likely to be held next week.
Kuciak, who was found shot dead with Kusnirova in their home, had been looking into suspected mafia links of Italians with businesses in Slovakia.
In his final report, published posthumously, he said one of the Italians had past business links with two Slovaks, who later worked in Fico’s office. Both have resigned but deny connections to the murder. Their Italian former business partner has denied having connections with the mafia.
Kiska said he had agreed with Drucker that the leadership of the Slovak police force must be replaced.
Pellegrini, who became a member of parliament in 2006, has helped Smer through difficult times before. He quit as deputy finance minister in 2014 to step in for an education minister who resigned, months before taking over as the house speaker after the former speaker resigned due to a scandal.
Pellegrini is popular among Smer voters. He became deputy prime minister for investment and information technology in 2016.
He said the pro-European and pro-NATO orientation of Slovakia will remain a priority for the new government.
Fico was prime minister for 10 of the last 12 years. He positioned the euro zone country as a pro-European bastion in a eurosceptic region, avoiding the clashes Hungary and Poland have had with the EU over media freedom and the rule of law.
Reporting by Tatiana Jancarikova; Editing by Gareth Jones, Hugh Lawson and David Stamp