Slovakia’s PM resigns amid scandal over murder of journalist

Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, has resigned after more than two weeks of political turmoil and public protests sparked by the murder of an investigative journalist.

The country’s president, Andrej Kiska, accepted the resignation at a ceremony and mandated Fico’s deputy, Peter Pellegrini, to form a new government.

The position of Fico, who served as prime minister for 10 of the past 12 years, appeared untenable after one of his junior coalition partners announced this week that it would withdraw from the government and support early elections unless he went. He agreed to resign on Wednesday after two days of talks with coalition leaders.

“I told the president: ‘Rest assured, I’m not leaving politics, I want to be an active party leader,’” Fico told a news conference on Thursday. “My role will be to have the new prime minister’s back and push for priorities that are important for [his party] Smer: a clear pro-European and pro-Nato orientation.”

Fico’s resignation comes weeks into a political crisis sparked by the murder in February of Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kušnírová. Kuciak had been investigating alleged mafia infiltration into the country, with questions raised about Fico’s judgment after it emerged that one of his close aides, was the former business partner of an alleged member of the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta clan.

Fico caused unease in some quarters in the immediate aftermath of the murders with a misjudged press conference during which he posed with €1m in cash and appeared to imply that he had taken personal control of the investigation

Robert Fico stands behind bundles of euros in Bratislava. Photograph: Vladimír Šimíček/AFP/Getty Images

That unease soon turned to public anger as Fico appeared increasingly defensive and conspiratorialafter street protests demanding his resignation. Earlier this month, he accused Kiska of colluding with the Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros to bring down his government after the president said in a public broadcast: “A large number of people are convinced that this tragedy in many ways reflects Slovak reality in general.”

As leader of the ostensibly social-democratic Smer party, Fico dominated Slovak politics for more than a decade, portraying himself to European partners as a more reasonable interlocutor than the more overtly authoritarian regimes in neighbouring Poland and Hungary.

“He hoped to be remembered as a great leader, and now that legacy is lost,” said Samuel Abraham, the rector of the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts. “What we need now is an independent investigation into the connection between oligarchs, organised crime and politicians.”

Although standing down as prime minister, Fico will remain Smer chairman. “Fico has left office, but will remain in power,” said Matúš Kostolný, the editor of Slovakian newspaper Denník N, noting that street protests were to continue.

“The question is whether people will be satisfied with his departure, or whether they will continue to fight the system he left behind.”