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Although opposition political parties won a decisive victory in September's parliamentary elections in Slovakia, their triumph was made possible by the country's non-political civil society. No group did more to overturn the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Meciar than the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of Slovakia's third sector. In fact, public opinion polling and surveys had indicated for more than a year that the opposition would win--if Slovakia's citizens understood what was at stake and turned out to vote.

The dominant party of the governing coalition, Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), lost 18 seats and about 8 percent of the electorate from its 1994 results. The Association of Slovak Workers, a coalition partner, also did poorly, dropping 12 seats (which prevented it from getting past the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament). Only the coalition's junior member, the Slovak National Party, improved its position, picking up 5 seats. The ruling coalition won a total of 57 seats, down 25 from 1994. In contrast, the opposition significantly improved its position. In 1994, it was divided and none of its parties garnered more than 18 seats. In June 1997, 5 anti-Meciar parties (the Christian Democratic Movement, the Democratic Union, the Democratic Party, the Green Party and the Social Democratic Party) united to form the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK). In the 1998 elections, the SDK won 42 seats and 26.3 percent of the vote. Three other parties also ran against the ruling coalition. The Party of the Democratic Left picked up 10 more seats for a total of 23. The Party of Civic Understanding, a new party led by the popular mayor of Kosice, Rudolf Schuster, won 13 seats. The Party of the Hungarian Coalition, which represents most of Slovakia's 600,000 ethnic Hungarian citizens, finished with 15 seats. The united opposition won 93 seats in the 150-seat parliament, more than the three-fifths majority needed to pass laws and amendments to the constitution.

But political parties were not the driving force behind the opposition's strong showing. Since 1991, the political opposition to Meciar in Slovakia has been chronically divided and weak. Even after the formation of the SDK, the opposition remained relatively uncoordinated and ineffectual. In contrast, Slovakia's nonprofit sector has demonstrated a unity and dynamism unmatched by party politics. But despite being active and effective in building civil society, Slovak NGOs had little desire to enter the political sphere. Several key events, however, pushed NGOs into taking a more activist stance. These included the government's move to pass a restrictive law on foundations and the thwarted 1997 referendum on direct presidential elections and Slovakia's entry into NATO.

In February 1998, leaders of the third sector initiated a Civic Campaign '98 (Obcianska kampan 98--OK '98) for free and fair elections. Along with the establishment of the SDK, the formation of OK '98 must be seen as one of the most significant events in the pre-election period. Initially established by 35 NGOs, OK '98 was an open, independent, nonpartisan initiative with three main goals: to improve voter awareness by providing information about the 1998 elections, to boost the participation of citizens in the elections, and to increase the influence of citizens on the election process, including preparing the election law and observing the elections. By July, OK '98 was already working on more than 40 voter education projects.

OK '98 especially sought to mobilize voters because public opinion polls and surveys repeatedly demonstrated that the governing coalition was vulnerable on economic issues and crime. One month before the elections, a USIA survey found that 76 percent of respondents had a negative view of Slovakia's economy. Slovaks also felt increasingly unsafe; an October 1997 poll revealed that 69 percent felt less secure than they did in 1994. Slovaks blamed the Meciar government for the country's disturbing situation. In an August 1998 survey, a majority of citizens expressed a lack of confidence in their government, parliament, courts, and police. Finally, Slovakia's citizens were disappointed with Meciar himself. A March 1998 survey found that twice as many people felt aversion towards the premier as those who sympathized with him. Turning out unsatisfied voters was a crucial challenge for the opposition.

Slovakia's youth was a particularly attractive target. In 1998, 380,000 young people became eligible to vote; this bloc made up about 10 percent of the electorate. First-time voters, and young people in general, proved to be even more unhappy with the status quo in Slovakia than the general public. In an October 1997 poll, 76 percent of respondents in a sample of first-time voters believed that Slovakia was less safe and 64 percent thought it was less just. Most significantly, 65 percent believed that the status of, and opportunities for, young people had worsened. Polls also confirmed that the SDK was favored by a higher percentage of young people in comparison to the general population. Meciar's popularity was very low among young people; a March 1998 poll found that only 10 percent of people aged 18-24--including just 7 percent of first-time voters--found the premier to be a credible politician. But Slovakia's youth was also more apathetic than the citizenry as a whole. In the 1994 parliamentary elections, less than 25 percent of eligible voters aged 18-25 chose to vote. The democratic opposition in Slovakia therefore had to get young people to turn out.

In order to level the playing field during the campaign, OK '98 organized a number of programs designed to monitor and inform citizens about the troubled pre-election process. MEMO '98 was designed to monitor the political coverage of Slovakia's media before the elections and to inform citizens of the results. It played an important role in documenting and publicizing the bias of Slovak State Television, which was controlled by Meciar. Civic Eye (Obcianske Oko '98--OKO '98) was established to provide citizen oversight of the September elections and contribute to a free and fair electoral process. Despite being refused accreditation by the government-controlled Central Electoral Commission, approximately 1,750 volunteer observers from OKO '98 observed about 2,100 polling stations.

To increase voter awareness and participation, OK '98 coordinated a series of events, including a 14-day march across the country, "The Way for Slovakia--Fair Elections." As hundreds of NGO activists and volunteers marched through villages and cities, they conducted hundreds of discussions, meetings, and cabaret performances and distributed voter education materials designed to increase awareness of the issues and candidates. Similar activities, on a smaller scale, were also carried out by scores of NGOs working with OK '98.

OK '98 specifically targeted first-time voters with nonpartisan programs attractive to youth. As the coordinator of one OK '98 program put it, the goal was "to wake them up from a long, comfortable but dangerous sleep." OK '98 organized a Slovak version of the US "Rock the Vote" campaign: Rock Volieb--RV. RV put on a series of 18 rock concerts throughout the country, including in the two largest cities of Bratislava and Kosice, at which well-known young athletes and actors urged youth to vote. In addition, a bus tour visited 17 cities in September 1998 to educate youth about the importance of voting.

All available evidence indicates that the third sector's monitoring, voter education, and mobilization programs were highly successful. The monitoring campaigns helped to motivate people to vote. 1998 voter turn-out--more than 84 percent--was significantly higher than in the previous election. Thanks in part to first-time voters, 17 percent more ballots were cast than four years ago. The participation of urban citizens--those most exposed to the OK '98 campaign--increased from 60 percent to 85 percent. Voter support for the ruling coalition dropped by a reported 10-25 percent in areas where NGOs affiliated with OK '98 were active. Approximately 80 percent of eligible first-time voters participated in the election and exit polls confirmed that young people voted overwhelmingly for the democratic opposition. Strong government criticism also confirms the effectiveness of OK '98. In July 1998, the pro-government newspaper Slovenska republika ran a series of articles attacking the initiative under titles such as "How to Murder Slovakia." Clearly, OK '98 and the NGOs of Slovakia's third sector played a major role in bringing Slovakia's political opposition to power.

Rodger Potocki spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on October 21, 1998.


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Rodger Potocki

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