264. Slovak Voters Move Closer to West

By
Sharon Fisher

In parliamentary elections held on September 20-21, 2002, Slovak voters showed a clear preference for pro-Western and reform-oriented parties, while turning away from populists aimed at protecting "national" interests and potentially returning the country to international isolation. The elections produced the most homogenous government in Slovakia's short history, and the country's future – at least for the next four years – now appears rather predictable, even boring. Following an awkward introduction to the world, the elections signify that Slovakia may finally be growing up.

Four center-right parties won a parliamentary majority in the elections and, within just two weeks, they set up the new cabinet and agreed on basic policies. Three of the four parties have worked together over the past four years, thus signaling continuity in several key areas. Mikulas Dzurinda has been reappointed as Prime Minister, Eduard Kukan has returned as Foreign Minister, while former Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy, Ivan Miklos, is now Finance Minister. The new Defense Minister is Ivan Simko, who previously served as Interior Minister. Given that all four ruling parties have similar agendas, cooperation should be relatively easy, particularly in the area of the economy where a number of key reforms remain incomplete.

For those who have followed Slovak politics for a longer period, it may be somewhat surprising, but also comforting, that a cohesive, reform-oriented government has emerged. The reluctance of the Slovak population to support radical economic reform was one of the main reasons why former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar won the elections in 1992 and subsequently, together with his Czech counterpart Vaclav Klaus, engineered the split of Czechoslovakia. What makes the recent victory of the center-right in Slovakia even more noteworthy is that the other Visegrad countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland) are all currently run by left-wing parties, some of which are reluctant to carry out remaining economic reforms.

The Slovak political scene has been very complicated and fluid over the past 12 years, with parties constantly coming and going. The new parliament has seven parties, including three that were formed since the time of the last elections in 1998. That is still an improvement over the outgoing parliament, which started out with 12 parties. This article focuses on the three major players: Meciar and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), Robert Fico and Smer, and Dzurinda and the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU).

The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia

During the past ten years, the West has put tremendous emphasis on the Meciar phenomenon, particularly since his 1994-1998 term in office. However, Meciar has been politically dead since the 1998 elections, when his party narrowly won a plurality in the parliament but was unable to find coalition partners willing to form a government. In the September 2002 elections, the situation was even worse since the HZDS's former coalition partner, the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS), failed to make it to the parliament. Although the HZDS technically won the elections in 1998 and 2002, no one wanted to hold coalition talks with the party; it was effectively ostracized.

The HZDS's failure to find coalition partners is largely due to Meciar himself. At the regional level, the HZDS has been able to cooperate successfully in leadership with other parties. At the national level, however, Meciar's affiliation with the HZDS alienated potential partners. This is due primarily to Meciar's poor image in the West. Western officials repeatedly warned that Slovakia would not get into NATO and the European Union with Meciar in charge, and no party wanted to take responsibility for Slovakia missing the boat on NATO and EU membership. Slovaks felt very isolated under the last Meciar government, particularly after the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland were invited to join NATO and to start talks with the EU but Slovakia was left out. Even disregarding Western warnings, however, most parties would still be reluctant to work with Meciar. Many of the politicians active over the past ten years have, at one time or another, had a bad experience with Meciar, or are simply opposed to the policies that he promoted, particularly during the 1994-1998 term. These policies included disrespect for the law (most notably in connection with the thwarting of the 1997 referendum), manipulation of the secret service, and blatant corruption in the privatization process.

The HZDS election campaign was quieter and more modest than in previous years. The party tried to elicit nostalgia for the 1994-1998 period, under which faulty government policies kept economic growth strong. One campaign poster featured a picture of Meciar with the slogan "It was better under Meciar."

Support for the HZDS fell from about 28-30 percent a few months before the polls to just 19.5 percent in the actual elections. There are several reasons for this drop. The party's biggest mistake was its failure to give a spot on the candidate list to former parliament chairman Ivan Gasparovic, who had consistently been the second most popular personality in the HZDS, after Meciar. Last summer, Gasparovic and other jilted HZDS representatives created a breakaway party, the Movement for Democracy (HZD). The HZD initially took considerable support from the HZDS, pushing it below 20 percent for the first time in years. While the HZD had around 6-8 percent in most pre-election polls, it failed to surpass the 5 percent threshold. A second reason for the HZDS's weak support may have been related to the warnings by Western officials that Slovakia would not get into NATO and the EU with Meciar in the new cabinet. Although some Slovaks deemed it unfair that the West was tying the country's future to one personality, others, particularly young people, did not want to take any chances. Finally, Meciar's erratic response to increasing media attention toward his personal property was a third factor that may have turned HZDS voters away. Refusing to answer questions about how he financed improvements to his private villa, in the final days of the election campaign, Meciar walked off a televised debate and, on a separate occasion, punched a reporter who grilled him on the matter. Thus, he appeared unstable and un-statesmanlike.

Currently, many HZDS representatives are frustrated with other parties' refusal to work with them, and Meciar is likely to be replaced as party chairman at the next HZDS congress. This will likely bring a further decline in support for the HZDS, since its popularity is to a large extent based on the personality of Meciar himself.

Smer

Smer's relatively poor showing was the biggest surprise of the elections. Prior to the vote, it was widely believed that Smer would win 15-18 percent support and that party chairman Fico would emerge as the next prime minister, forming a cabinet with center-right forces. At least one poll even showed Smer ahead of Meciar's HZDS. In the end, however, Smer finished a distant third behind the HZDS and Dzurinda's SDKU, with 13.5 percent of the vote.

Fico, a young lawyer, has been the most popular politician in Slovakia for several years. He started out in the ex-communist Party of the Democratic Left (SDL) but abandoned the party shortly after the 1998 elections and established Smer. Fico positioned Smer outside the normal political spectrum, addressing issues on an individual basis, with an emphasis on creating "order." Fico's populist style had some observers worried, and his extensive use of the concept of "order" made him sound somewhat authoritarian. If he had become prime minister, Fico would certainly have gotten himself into trouble with the West, particularly given his condescending attitude toward the Roma, who represent one of the biggest minorities in Slovakia.

Smer began the campaign unusually early, putting up billboards as early as March. The billboards criticized both Meciar and Dzurinda, putting Fico forward as the third-way. One poster showed three pairs of shoes: athletic shoes for Dzurinda, who is a marathon runner; cowboy boots for Meciar; and dress shoes for Fico. The caption read: "On which legs do you want to build Slovakia?"

One reason why voters may have turned away from Smer was Fico's insistence on standing up to the EU. In fact, the kind of rhetoric he used in that regard was reminiscent of Meciar. Fico repeatedly criticized the pre-election Dzurinda government for giving in to the EU on several issues, and he threatened to reopen some chapters of the acquis communautaire prior to Slovakia's accession. In one interview published a few weeks before the elections, Fico alleged that the government had been accepted by the West simply because it had allowed Westerners to buy Slovak firms. One campaign poster featured four people with their pants pulled down, together with the slogan: "To the European Union! But not with naked bottoms!"

It appears that Fico's election failure was in large part due to his increasingly radical rhetoric, which turned away voters, particularly young ones who wanted Slovakia to become part of the West. Another mistake was the lack of clarity regarding Smer's program and personalities. Smer's campaign was based almost entirely on Fico; its other representatives were unknown to the public. Fico's excessive confidence may also have been a problem, as exhibited in billboards promoting Fico as the next prime minister. Finally, the party's negative campaigning probably had an adverse effect on public support, particularly since the criticism was directed partly at parties with which Smer would likely have to cooperate in a future government.

The Slovak Democratic and Christian Union

The center-right's success in the elections surprised almost everyone (including the parties themselves), especially since reformers rarely get reelected in Central and Eastern Europe. As the elections approached, the chances of the center-right winning a parliamentary majority were growing; however, the SDKU's ability to form a government would have been limited if it had finished third behind the HZDS and Smer. No one expected the SDKU, which was polling at just 8-10 percent a few months prior to the elections, to come out ahead of Smer. The SDKU was helped by the fact that its policies were well-known to voters, while those of Smer were still hazy, particularly in regard to the economy.

While many Slovaks were very excited following the 1998 elections, their enthusiasm soon turned to disappointment. Dzurinda was blamed for nearly everything bad that happened in Slovakia over the next four years, but got little credit for the good things. By the time of the 2002 elections, he had become the most unpopular politician in Slovakia. Some of the biggest failures of the previous Dzurinda government related to the economy. The cabinet failed to fulfill promises regarding the doubling of wages in four years (real wages actually fell in 1999 and 2000) and a drop in unemployment below 10 percent (unemployment rate rose to nearly 20 percent). The cabinet was also unsuccessful in implementing real reforms in key areas such as healthcare, pensions, and education. Slovaks may have forgiven the government for those failures, given the presence of two left-wing parties in the cabinet who were blocking reforms, combined with the difficult economic legacy left by the outgoing Meciar government. However, the government's weakness on corruption was disturbing and contributed significantly to a rise in cynicism among the population. Several ministers were forced to resign during the 1998-2002 term, but no criminal charges were brought against them. Moreover, although the illegal conduct of a number of officials from the Meciar regime was criticized, the state was unsuccessful in bringing any of those cases to closure, in part because of the slow speed of judicial reform.

The pre-election Dzurinda government, however, can be credited with a number of accomplishments that helped to provide the basis for long-term economic growth. Along with stabilizing the macroeconomic situation after the Meciar cabinet brought it to the brink of collapse, the government's biggest success was the privatization of major banks through sales to Western investors, thereby bringing more stability and greater competition to the banking sector. The banks had been misused by the Meciar regime, and before 1998, there was a real reluctance to allow any foreign ownership in this sector. The cabinet also implemented administrative reforms that served to limit the central government's power. Another success was that the general sense of fear which was apparent under Meciar had vanished; government critics no longer felt like they were being followed by the secret police or that their phone conversations were being tapped. Dzurinda also deserves praise for managing to keep together for four years a broad coalition government consisting of parties with very diverse interests. The Dzurinda government's most obvious success was in foreign affairs, bringing Slovakia into the OECD and leading the country closer to the EU and NATO.

The SDKU, whose color is blue, ran on the slogan "Blue is good," the name of a popular Czech song. The party's campaign placed considerable emphasis on foreign policy, which was arguably the most important impetus behind voters' decisions, given the upcoming decisions on NATO and EU enlargement. That was reflected in slogans such as "There's just a small step left to NATO and the EU. With us you'll make it." The SDKU also emphasized its ability to cooperate with diverse forces through billboards claiming "It was hard to unite the heterogeneous. We managed to preserve the coalition. Thanks to that, we are on the threshold of NATO and the EU." The party asked voters for another chance through the slogan "Let's finish what we started. We are on the right path."

Aside from foreign policy, Slovaks were likely influenced in voting by the fact that the economy had finally started to improve by the time of the elections. The GDP grew to 3.9 percent in the first half of 2002, while inflation and unemployment were falling, thereby contributing to strong growth in real wages. Nonetheless, support for the SDKU was rarely based on real enthusiasm on the part of voters but rather on perceptions of the party as the "lesser evil." Many Slovaks were undecided until the last minute and voted through a process of elimination. Support for the SDKU was boosted by a Western-funded "get-out-the-vote" campaign, which encouraged the disenchanted electorate to participate in the political process and pushed turnout up to a respectable 70 percent. This was carried out through billboards and TV spots, as well as public debates, rock concerts, and other events.

The new government

Although the HZDS technically won the elections, President Rudolf Schuster vowed that he would give the mandate to form a new government not necessarily to the election winner but to the politician who could demonstrate the support of more than half of all parliamentary deputies. After allowing time for coalition negotiations among all parties, Schuster gave the mandate to Dzurinda on September 27. In light of the similarity of their programs, negotiations among the new government partners moved ahead remarkably quickly, and the cabinet was installed on October 16.

Dzurinda returned to the post of Prime Minister under much more favorable circumstances than in the 1998-2002 period, when he ruled through a broad, left-right coalition. In the Fall 2002 elections, the leftist former ruling parties which had slowed reforms failed to surpass the 5 percent threshold required for parliamentary representation, while four center-right parties managed to win a majority of 78 seats in the 150-member parliament. The HZDS and Smer are joined in opposition by the Communist Party (KSS), which made it into the parliament for the first time since 1989, shutting out parties of the more centrist, democratic left.

The new government has 16 members: six for Dzurinda's SDKU, four for the Party of the Hungarian Coalition (SMK), and three each for the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and the Alliance of the New Citizen (ANO). The only ministry to be disbanded was the Privatization Ministry, given that the sale of state-owned firms is near completion. Unlike the situation during the past four years, all deputy premiers also head a concrete ministry, with the exception of one, who is in charge of European integration, national minorities, human rights, and the fight against drugs. Of the four new ruling parties, the only one that did not serve in the last government is ANO. Initially, there was some hesitation about the party, whose leader Pavol Rusko is labeled the Slovak Berlusconi since he owns the country's most popular TV station, Markiza. However, unlike Fico's Smer, Rusko put forward a list of respected and experienced experts, and his party's program placed much more emphasis on finding solutions to problems.

The new cabinet will be able to push reforms considerably faster than the previous Dzurinda government, given the absence of the leftist parties. The government realizes that it now has a unique opportunity to implement real reforms, and it has laid out an ambitious program for the next four years. If the government accomplishes what it promised, the country should start to see real results by the time of the next elections. The cabinet's first area of focus is foreign affairs, given NATO's summit in November and the EU's plans to close negotiations with 10 accession countries, including Slovakia, by the end of 2002. However, the big issues that need to be addressed over the next four years relate mainly to the economy. The priorities for reform include pensions, healthcare, social welfare, and education – efforts that will be coordinated by the new Finance Minister, Ivan Miklos. The position of health minister went to ANO's Rudolf Zajac, a respected expert who has published numerous studies on healthcare reform. Another important issue concerns the Romani minority, who continue to live in poverty and face discrimination in everyday life. In terms of Slovak-Hungarian relations, the presence of the SMK in the government for a second consecutive term is a very positive sign that should contribute even further to understanding and tolerance between the two nationalities.

The elections have finally brought to a halt foreign observers' skepticism regarding the Slovak political scene by signaling an end to Meciar's political career. The problems that Slovakia faces today are completely different from the ones the country faced in 1998 and are very similar to those that are now being addressed in other countries in Central Europe and even in the West. Thus, the recent elections signal that Slovakia is well on its way to normalcy.

Dr. Fisher spoke at an EES noon discussion on October 8, 2002. The above is a summary of her presentation. Meeting Report #264.

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