Should Slovakia have early parliamentary elections? The Slovak public had a chance to address this question in an extraordinary referendum that took place on 11 November 2000. Banking on popular discontent with the current government, the former prime minister, Vladimír Mečiar, spearheaded an opposition-led petition drive that had netted over 600,000 signatures by early August. Mečiar hoped the referendum and an early election would vault him back into office. The West, where Mečiar is widely perceived as authoritarian and corrupt, would view a potential comeback for the former leader as potentially destabilizing Slovakia's political arena.
Much to the chagrin of Slovakia's current coalition government, President Rudolf Schuster gave the referendum the go-ahead in early September. Schuster contended that he was obligated to do so in order to comply with the constitution. This also provided a convenient way to slap in the face a government which he had perceived as writing him off as dead during his recent bout with intestinal illness.
Much to the relief of Slovakia's current prime minister, Mikuláš Dzurinda, the referendum was a flop. Only about 20 percent of the Slovak electorate even bothered to vote. That amounted to a figure slightly lower than the number of people who originally signed the petition for a referendum in the first place. Why the low turnout? Slovak sociologist Vladimír Krivý blamed the result on the opposition's dismal failure to mobilize even its own electorate (CTK, 14 November 2000).
In addition, Dzurinda had urged Slovak citizens from the beginning not to go to the polls so that the referendum would be declared invalid. For a referendum to attain quorum in Slovakia, 50 percent of the eligible voters must participate. Even if the referendum had passed, it would not necessarily be binding on the government. The parliament would then have to decide on an appropriate response. Nonetheless, a successful referendum would have carried the weight of public opinion and placed pressure on the government to agree to early elections. If parliament ignored the vote, its legitimacy would have been seriously undermined and a constitutional battle would most likely have ensued.
Another reason people did not vote was the public opinion polls. All the leading polls indicated that only between 37 and 43 percent of the electorate planned to participate, which would render the referendum result invalid. The widely publicized polls proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They had the effect of cutting in half the number of people bothering to vote. Why should they waste their time?
Weak support and disbelief
The failure of the referendum should in no way be interpreted as a sign of support for Dzurinda's government. A recent MVK poll still shows that he is backed by only 21.9 percent of voters (CTK, 14 November 2000). On the other hand, the lack of popular interest represented another defeat for Mečiar. Having lost the 1998 parliamentary elections and a bid for the presidency in 1999, Mečiar banked on a resurgence of popular support due to disillusionment with the current government's austere reform program.
If anything, the failed referendum was a declaration of disbelief that new elections would serve any constructive purposes. Despite the regime and the EU extolling Slovakia's macroeconomic progress over the past two years, most Slovak citizens beg to differ. Recent polls have indicated that nearly 68 percent of the public believes that economic conditions in Slovakia have deteriorated over the past year (Sme, 7 November 2000).
With an unemployment rate hovering around 20 percent, the Slovak public remains skeptical that exchanging Dzurinda for Mečiar would make much difference in their lives. A general disillusionment reigns and people are fed up with politicians and their promises. Thus they are willing to let Dzurinda remain at the helm. In the meantime, over three million dollars has been wasted on a useless referendum (Transition On-line, 6-12 November 2000).
While the referendum clearly did not give Dzurinda a vote of confidence, it did give him breathing room. Now he has two more years to carry through his political and economic reforms, which aim primarily at leapfrogging into the first round talks of joining the European Union. No doubt this will please Western democracies that fear another Mečiar-led regime and have applauded the direction that Dzurinda has charted. The recent Progress Report from the European Commission gave Slovakia high marks for political and economic reforms. Only the pace of change was called into question (See Robin Sheeran's analysis in last week's issue).
A challenger waiting in the wings
The challenge for Dzurinda will be to translate the improved macroeconomic picture into concrete benefits for the average Slovak citizen. Unemployment must come down; hopes must rise. Dzurinda also needs to assemble a political coalition that has more in common than just opposing Mečiar. Otherwise the future may lie with the rising star of populists like the Smer Party's Robert Fico, whom many suspect will ally with any party that will launch him into office.
The young and charismatic Fico hopes to offer an alternative to a populace, which is disgusted with the perceived broken promises of past governments. But even Fico goofed by making the mistake of urging Slovak voters to go to the polls. Their reluctance to do so indicates that his following is tenuous as well.
In summary, the referendum changed nothing. But that can be viewed as a positive development. It provides Slovakia with a couple more years of relative political stability and gives the current government with some breathing space. The government now has the option of accelerating the pace of reform. Then it must hope that reforms start having a more positive effect on the lives of ordinary citizens. Otherwise the next elections are up for grabs.
Michael J Kopanic Jr, 20 November 2000
Also of interest:
- Leadership in Flux Vladimír Mečiar's perspective on the referendum
- Archived CER articles on Slovakia
- Archive of Michael J Kopanic Jr's articles in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Slovakia through CER
- Return to CER front page