Sharon Fisher is Senior Economist for the Emerging Europe Service at Global Insight, Inc. She spoke at an EES noon discussion on June 16, 2004. The following is a summary of her presentation. Meeting Report 300.

Despite Slovakia's remarkable progress in political and economic reforms since 1998, considerable alarm was raised last April when, just weeks before the country's accession to the European Union (EU), it appeared that the very man who was blamed for Slovakia's international isolation in the mid-1990s could win the presidency. While serving as prime minister, Vladimir Meciar's controversial political and economic policies prevented Slovakia from joining the first wave of countries to accede to NATO and from starting accession negotiations with the EU. Meciar ultimately failed in the second round of the presidential elections, but the high level of popular support he continues to enjoy remains a subject of concern. Still, as those elections demonstrated, the prospect of Meciar's return to high politics appears unlikely, given the polarizing effect he has on the Slovak population and the reluctance of other politicians to cooperate with him. In addition, signs of "Meciarism," characterized by the use of populism, nationalism and clientelism as ways of winning and maintaining political support, appear to be diminishing on the political scene. The future of Meciar and Meciarism clearly depends not so much on Meciar himself but on his competitors and their ability to move society forward.

The referendum and the 2004 presidential elections

Currently, there are three major players on Slovakia's political scene: Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda of the center-right Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDCU), Robert Fico of the left-leaning Smer, and Meciar of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (MDS). Although tarnished by occasional allegations of corruption, Dzurinda and his allies have largely avoided the use of populism in winning support, asking instead to be judged on the country's much-improved international standing and economic reforms. Since taking over from Meciar in 1998, Prime Minister Dzurinda's two successive governments have led the country on a firm reform course that allowed Slovakia to catch up and join the EU at the same time as its neighbors.

Fico's political stance falls somewhere between that of Meciar and Dzurinda, with a mix of populism and pragmatism that has consistently made him the leading politician in public opinion polls. Still, he has had only limited success in actual elections, since his use of Meciar-like tactics tend to get less support than expected. One clear example of Fico's populism was his party's support late last year for a petition drive aimed at bringing down the Dzurinda cabinet through a referendum on early parliamentary elections, a campaign that began just over a year after the current government had taken office. Smer joined the trade unions and several other political opposition parties (but not Meciar's MDS) in the drive, on the grounds that the government-led reforms had contributed to the worsening socio-economic situation. Then-President Rudolf Schuster, who made no secret of his dislike for the Dzurinda cabinet, called the referendum to coincide with the first round of presidential elections on April 3, 2004. Combining it with the election was intended to provoke a higher turnout for the referendum. However, the referendum failed because only 35.9 percent of the electorate turned out, far below the 50 percent required.

Although the failure of the referendum meant success for Dzurinda, his party unexpectedly failed in the first round of the presidential elections. Nearly all of the pre-election public opinion polls had shown SDCU candidate Eduard Kukan with a comfortable lead over his opponents, with Meciar trailing somewhat behind. Nonetheless, in the actual vote, the winners were Meciar and former speaker of Parliament, Ivan Gasparovic, with Kukan finishing a close third. Gasparovic was a key figure in Meciar's MDS from 1994 to 1998 before leaving the party prior to the 2002 elections. He achieved strong popular support in 2004 because he was backed by Smer. Although Fico had been a fierce critic of certain MDS policies in the Meciar era, during the presidential election campaign Fico tried to paint Gasparovic as a moderate who had little influence over the party during that period. In the end, Gasparovic prevailed over Meciar in the second round of elections on April 17 and took office on June 15.

Kukan's first-round defeat came as a shock to many Slovaks. On the surface, it would seem that his lack of success was due largely to the poor timing of the elections, as price hikes that were implemented in January 2003 and 2004 initially had a negative impact on Slovaks' purchasing power. However, the failure of the referendum on early elections signaled that the majority of citizens appear ready to wait and see how the recent fiscal changes will affect them before getting rid of the parties responsible for adopting them. Rather than serving as a protest vote against the Dzurinda government, the presidential elections may instead be a sign of rising complacency among Slovak voters and a lack of enthusiasm for the ruling parties' candidates. The positive outlook in the opinion polls meant that many of Kukan's supporters did not feel the need to vote. At just 47.9 percent, turnout was much lower than in recent parliamentary elections or the 1999 presidential elections, partly also due to nice weather. Slovak voters have struggled much harder than most for democracy and international acceptance, and with the country's accession to NATO and the EU this year, the population apparently believed it no longer needed to fight.

The SDCU itself deserves much of the blame for Kukan's defeat, as the party's communication with the electorate has been poor, and its image has been tainted by controversies. Especially damaging was last year's so-called "skupinka" (group) scandal, in which Dzurinda echoed Meciar-like rhetoric by publicly warning of the existence of a group acting against the state, without naming anyone specifically. A government shakeup that was implemented soon afterward left the ruling coalition without a parliamentary majority. Just before the presidential elections, the SDCU was accused of a new scandal related to party financing. Moreover, the ruling coalition did not agree to support a common candidate, with the result that the numerous coalition candidates diluted support for Kukan. This failure could be blamed on Dzurinda himself, since he proposed Kukan before discussing the matter with his coalition partners. Kukan lost to Gasparovic by just 3,644 votes, while Frantisek Miklosko, who was backed by the Christian Democratic Movement (CDM) and Party of the Hungarian Coalition (PHC), won 129,141 votes. Although the fourth ruling coalition partner—the Alliance of the New Citizen (ANC)—had initially put forward its own candidate as well, he left the race well before the elections and endorsed Kukan. Another candidate who took support from Kukan was Slovakia's former ambassador to the United States, Martin Butora.

There were surprisingly few districts in which Kukan, Miklosko and Butora won more combined votes than their less reformist competitors, Meciar, Gasparovic and Schuster. Most of those districts were in Bratislava and its surrounding areas, and in the ethnically Hungarian regions of southern Slovakia. Although the success of the three reformist candidates in Bratislava is hardly surprising, given the relative wealth of the city's residents, in the country's seven other regions, the first-round results did not correspond to the level of economic hardship, as one might have thought. After Bratislava, the major towns where the reformist candidates had the highest support were Kosice, Banska Bystrica and Presov, which are also the regions with the highest unemployment rates. In contrast, the level of support for the reformist candidates was lowest in Zilina, the region with the fourth lowest unemployment rate.

The European Parliament elections

After the debacle of the presidential elections, the ruling parties fared considerably better than expected in the elections to the European Parliament (EP) on June 13, as they won a combined eight of 14 seats, giving the Dzurinda government new strength. The SDCU won 17.1 percent of the vote, putting it in first place, partly due to the fact that the popular hockey player Peter Stastny was the party's top candidate. Only five Slovak parties made it to the EP, with three seats each going to SDCU, MDS, Smer and CD, and two for the PHC. The other competitors failed to pass the 5 percent threshold.

A major concern in Slovakia's EP elections was the disappointingly low turnout. At just under 17 percent of eligible voters, Slovakia's was the lowest of all EU countries. Importantly, however, and in contrast to past Slovak elections, low voter participation corresponded with a low level of mobilization for populists/nationalists. One of the reasons for the weak turnout may have been voter fatigue, as Slovaks had already been to the polls twice in April. Moreover, the parties put relatively little money or effort into their campaigns. For the MDS and Smer (parties based on the personalities of their leaders) the fact that neither Meciar nor Fico was actually on the candidate list may have led their supporters to stay home. Voters may have also lacked inspiration based on the fact that there were few differences between the platforms of the various parties, as all of them talked about defending Slovak interests in Brussels, rather than about European-wide issues, despite the fact that the EP is organized along party, rather than national, lines.

Have we seen the last of Meciar?

By running in the April presidential elections, Meciar wanted another chance to prove himself as a real statesman, and he tried during the campaign to present himself as a changed man. The outcome of the April 17 runoff depended largely on the ability of Gasparovic to mobilize anti-Meciar voters. Initially, Meciar managed to convince some ruling coalition backers that he may be an easier partner for the current government than Gasparovic, given the latter's ties with Fico. Supporters of the current government were widely expected to avoid the second round altogether, especially after the four ruling parties failed to back either candidate, with two of them going so far as to instruct their supporters to stay home. Still, although presidential powers are relatively weak, many Slovaks apparently feared that the election of Meciar would undo some of the progress that the country has made in revamping its image since 1998. In the end, Gasparovic prevailed by a margin of 59.9 percent to 40.1 percent, with voter turnout at 43.5 percent. The election results showed that a surprisingly high number of Slovaks continued to adhere to the "anyone but Meciar" approach, inspired in part by an anonymously sponsored billboard that read "those who don't vote are voting for Meciar."

Although Meciar has been known to bounce back unexpectedly, his popularity now appears to be waning, signaling that the presidential elections may have been his last shot at success. Neither Meciar nor the MDS has achieved a real victory since the 1994 parliamentary elections. Recent elections have shown Meciar's declining ability to mobilize voters, as the total number of votes cast for him and his party has dropped substantially since the high of more than 1.2 million in the second round of the 1999 presidential elections, when he lost to Schuster. In this year's presidential elections, Gasparovic's victory was based mainly on urban support (where he gained 67.4 percent of the vote, versus 32.6 percent for Meciar), but he also managed to win narrowly (with 50.3 percent of the vote) in villages, which are Meciar's traditional stronghold.

As long as Meciar remains party chairman, the MDS will likely continue to attract high levels of support in elections but will not be able to participate in government. Many MDS members are desperate to get rid of Meciar since he prevents them from creating alliances with other parties. For instance, even though MDS won a plurality in the parliamentary elections in 1998 and 2002, it was unable to find partners to form a joint cabinet. Still, Meciar's continued popularity among certain voters (and the lack of popularity of other party representatives) makes MDS members cautious about removing him.

An end to Meciarism?

The defeat of Meciar in the recent presidential elections does not necessarily mean the defeat of Meciarism. As stated above, the prospects for Meciar and Meciarism depend mainly on the MDS's competitors. Currently, prospects look fairly good, given that Slovakia's membership in the EU and NATO, the end of privatization and the implementation of extensive reforms provide less room for the return to the situation that prevailed under Meciar in the mid-1990s. The recent changes within the economic sphere will improve living standards and make the population less susceptible to populist claims. Even Fico's approach may change as he tries to integrate Smer into international structures. In the EP, Smer is a member of the Party of European Socialists, where it joins such groups as the British Labour Party and the German Social Democrats. Slovakia needs a stable social democratic party, and Smer is now making efforts to join forces with the country's other more established (though less popular) left-wing parties. Although many observers were initially skeptical about the role of Gasparovic as president, he has claimed that he has no commitments to Smer and is not aimed at bringing down the government.

From an economic perspective, prospects currently look fairly promising for the reelection of Dzurinda's cabinet in 2006, as reforms and foreign investments are creating new jobs and higher wages, which could easily translate into higher popular support. However, even if the current government fails in two years, there is little fear that the reforms that have been implemented since 1998 would be overturned, which means that Slovakia will continue to move beyond Meciar.