The leading party in the governing coalition, Direction–Social Democracy (SMER-SD), came to power in 2006 on the back of a wave of criticism of insensitive neoliberal reforms carried out by the previous centre-right government. Fico's social image and the healthy economy prior to the crisis helped him gain a dominant position in Slovakia's political arena.
The Slovak Academy of Sciences estimates that by 2020, Slovakia will reach 75-80% of the socio-economic level of more developed EU member states and 90% of that of the EU 27 as a whole.
Slovakia, together with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – the so-called 'Visegrad' group – has questioned the EU's 'Europe 2020' goal of reducing poverty by 25%. ''The goals of the EU 2020 strategy are illusory. It will end the same way as the Lisbon Strategy, because if it is adopted in this form, most EU countries will have serious problems meeting the goals,'' said Fico after an EU summit in March.
Just before the economic crisis began to seriously hit Bratislava in 2009, unemployment in Slovakia had fallen to its lowest level in history: less than 8%. Slovakia also had one of the highest economic growth rates in the EU, but such statistics are now a thing of the past. Although the situation and living standards of many people have improved in recent years, there are still a significant number of people who are sometimes collectively referred to as "the transformation losers".
Public opinion polls conducted in the Visegrad countries on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union revealed that many people do not believe that they are better off now than they were prior to 1989. In Slovakia, 32% of respondents said their living standards are lower than they were before 1989, and 16% said they are basically the same.
Housing: The biggest burden
More than half of the budget of a typical household in Slovakia must be reserved for two basic needs: accommodation (including energy) and food. Accommodation costs are the biggest burden, consuming around a third of household income.
When it comes to housing, Slovaks are still very conservative and prefer to own their house or apartment. The majority of young people, once they have a steady enough job, opt for a mortgage to buy an apartment. Real-estate prices are generally high, especially in the capital Bratislava, where they are higher than in neighbouring capitals like Vienna or Prague.
Unlike in Western Europe, long-term rental of apartments is not very popular and is only considered a temporary solution. Usually, only students or young professionals at the beginning of their careers share apartments with strangers, to keep living costs down.
According to Eurostat data, almost one in five Slovaks (19%) face housing costs that exceed 40% of his or her annual disposable income. Around 4% of the population suffers from ''severe housing deprivation''. One positive trend to come out of the economic boom was the amount spent on culture and leisure, which had risen as income levels grew. Currently, an average household spends 14% of its income on such activities.
An average wage in Slovakia
At the beginning of 2010, the average wage in Slovakia was €744 per month. In the capital Bratislava, it is almost a third higher than this. Recently, the government decided to increase the minimum wage of €307 per month based on an administrative decision by the cabinet.
The average real wage in Slovakia only reached pre-1989 levels in 2008. However, the same does not apply to living standards, which are much improved as people need to work less to buy the same amount of goods and services.
The Slovak state spends 17% of GDP on social protection (including health care), which is half the EU average. More than 84% of Slovakia's social budget is funded by social contributions, not via taxes as is the case in Western countries. The majority of the funding is assigned to old-age pensioners.
To address the negative demographic trend and an ageing population - and boost the sustainability of the social system - the previous government added a second, private pillar to the social insurance system. This individual saving scheme, which complements the pay-as-you-go system, was meant to be compulsory for the younger population.
The current government strongly opposed the system and said it would put savers' money at risk. It ceased to make participation obligatory and has been trying to persuade savers using individual accounts to return fully to the state system.
Poverty still a painful reality
As job creation stagnates and existing jobs are lost, more people in Slovakia are in material need and thus represent a drain on the public purse. In 2007, 11% of the population qualified as living in poverty, with earnings of less than €198 per month. Those identified as living in material need (under €185) receive a subsidy that varies according to the individual’s situation (whether they have children, etc). This ranges from €60 to €168 a month.
Poverty does not only affect the unemployed, but also the working population. According the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN), so-called 'in-work poverty' affects 5% of the working population in Slovakia.
Very often, the discussion about poverty and people at risk of poverty focuses exclusively on the Roma population, but poverty is also a reality for many non-Roma. Most often, those affected by poverty are children, the elderly, families with more than three children, single parents and the handicapped – one of the most vulnerable groups in society.
Viera Dubačová, who is Slovakia's ambassador to the European Year Against Poverty and Social Exclusion and has directed the Divadlo z pasáže theatre for young handicapped actors for 15 years, said: ''If you ask me if handicapped people are at risk of poverty, well, I must say they are at risk of becoming homeless. Two of the handicapped people in our theatre lost their parents and found themselves on the street, because either relatives or strangers deprived them of their house. Five out of five lawyers told us this is what happens to handicapped people.''
For many single or divorced mothers - another group who often face serious problems - one of the common realities is that the father does not pay child maintenance. This often goes unpunished and is difficult to contest.
Health care is free, but quality must be paid for
Slovakia's constitution ensures universal coverage and free access to healthcare services based on mandatory health insurance contributions. Since 1989, successive governments have struggled to devise and implement a coherent strategy for transforming the health sector into an effective service provider, given the resources available.
Private health care is still relatively uncommon, although many people with higher incomes prefer to pay for care in private centres than relying on state hospitals. Generally, the state fund covers most medical services including treatment by specialists, hospitalisation, prescriptions, pregnancy, childbirth and rehabilitation.
However, dental care in Slovakia is mainly private and dentists are paid on a fee-for-service basis. The state healthcare system only covers routine visits and check-ups. Citizens pay for more specialised dental treatment - such as crowns and bridges - themselves and it is quite expensive. Cavity treatment alone can cost up to €80, depending on the material used.
Co-payments exist for some prescription drugs, which are divided into three groups. The first category consists of essential drugs, which are fully reimbursed by the health insurance companies. The second category is partially subsidised and the third receives no subsidy at all.