Summary of the East European Studies discussion with Sharon Fisher, a senior economist in the Emerging Europe Division at DRI-WEFA, Inc., DC, and a Title VIII JSTS Alumna.

Sharon Fisher analyzed the nationwide elections held in Slovakia on September 20, 2002. She emphasized that these were a great success, especially by the standards of the region, in that a ruling coalition actually won a second mandate and was not replaced by its opponents. In her words, reformers rarely get reelected in Central and Eastern Europe. In the case of Slovakia, current Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda and his right-of-center four-party coalition were returned to office, controlling 78 of the 150 seats in parliament.

The largest party in the parliament, with 19%, will continue to be the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) headed by former Prime Minister and right-wing populist Vladimir Meciar. But even before the election, it was clear that Meciar and his party were an anathema to the other mainstream political forces in Slovakia and would be unable to form a ruling coalition. The main reason for this was the threat by both NATO and the EU to continue to exclude Slovakia from membership in those organizations if Meciar was part of any new Slovak government. Meciar is considered by the west to be a dangerous political demagogue who had manipulated the secret police, indulged in corruption of the privatization process, and had made direct threats to leaders of the political opposition during the time he was Prime Minister in the mid-1990s.

With this election and the defeat of Meciar the doors to both NATO and the EU now appear open. Slovakia is one of seven countries expected to be invited to join NATO at its next summit in Prague next month. The threat of NATO and the EU to continue to exclude Slovakia if Meciar were to return to power had great resonance with younger voters in the country who voted for Dzurinda's coalition in large numbers. Dr. Fisher concluded that these foreign policy considerations played a very important role in keeping Prime Minister Dzurinda's moderate coalition in power. It also helped that Dzurinda's coalition attracted the votes of nearly all of Slovakia's sizable Hungarian minority, estimated at about 11% - a result of the fact that the Hungarian coalition party is part of Dzurinda's coalition.

Apart from the exclusion of Meciar and his party, the biggest surprise of the election was the failure of Slovakia's new young political leader, Jan Fico, the head of the left-of-center populist party SMER (direction) to attract the expected youth vote. Based on public opinion polls leading up to the election, his party was expected to do very well and he was expected to be the next Prime Minister. However, the party's strong "law-and-order" message and Fico's confrontational posture on negotiations with the EU turned off many voters.