Vol 1, No 1, 28 June 1999
The Prospects for Schuster's Slovakia|
By Michael J Kopanic, Jr, PhD
As expected, on 29 May 1999, Rudolf Schuster defeated former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in the run-off elections for the Slovak presidency. Official results from the Central Electoral Commission show that Schuster garnered 57.18 percent of the vote, compared with 42.82 percent for Meciar. Voter turnout was 75.5 percent. All the major opinion polls had proven fairly accurate in predicting the outcome.
Although the President's powers are largely ceremonial, the legitimacy derived from direct elections will most likely increase the power and prestige of the office. In the past, the President has met with foreign dignitaries and approved various appointments and legislation. But unlike those in the United States, his vetoes were spineless, because the Slovak Parliament could override a veto with a simple majority.
Financial and currency markets had watched the elections closely. Over the past few weeks, the Slovak stock market remained unsettled and hit new lows as investors awaited the outcome of the elections. The Slovak crown found a new bottom against the dollar - even lower than 46 crowns to the dollar at one point. The drop prompted the Central Bank to prop up the currency, as nervous domestic investors were buying safer foreign monies. With Schuster's victory, it is hoped that financial stability will return and aid in the gradual path to economic solvency and measured growth.
On 15 June 1999, Rudolf Schuster was officially sworn in as Slovakia's second President since it became independent in 1993. The 65-year-old President is the first ever chosen by popular vote in Slovakia.
Attending the ceremony were dignitaries from a host of neighboring countries, including Czech President Vaclav Havel, as well as local mayors and other guests from across Slovakia. Schuster's defeated foe, former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, declined to attend the occasion.
Schuster enjoyed the support of the current government and Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda termed the election results "a victory for democracy." The resounding victory gave the current government a vote of confidence from the people to continue along its path of reforming the country and moving closer to the West.
However, despite the elections, Slovak society remains split on its vision for the future. Meciar has by no means disappeared from the political horizon.
While the election results and the ensuing regional support of nearby countries bodes well for Slovakia's foreign relations, Meciar's absence from the inauguration ceremony signals a bitterness about the outcome of the elections and a refusal to bury the hatchet.
Unlike the American tradition of gentlemanly congratulations after political campaigns, Slovakia's political rivals remain deeply divided and personally offended. In the US, foes are often hobnobbing with one another at a cocktail party even right after elections. Politicians in Slovakia have not yet learned the custom of accepting a setback with grace.
Not much of a campaign ensued after the first round of the presidential elections ended in mid-May. Only a few small rallies took place across Slovakia in late May. The campaign was also muddied by an assassination threat against Schuster and a court case involving the former head of Slovak intelligence, Ivan Lexa, in the abduction of former President Kovac's son. Another lawsuit claimed Schuster had supported movements which violated human rights. Supporters of both candidates launched an antagonistic barrage of vitriolic attacks against their opponents on billboards throughout the country.
Schuster won because most who had voted for other candidates in the first round encouraged their voters to back Schuster. The former actress who came in third in the initial elections, Magda Vasaryova, urged her supporters to vote for Schuster and helped tip the scales in Schuster's favor.
Schuster refused to meet his rival in a live television debate scheduled for 19 May on Slovak Television. Meciar's legal aides cried foul and argued that the move violated electoral laws.
Instead, each candidate answered a series of questions in separate sittings. Although Schuster contended he did not wish to divide the country with more invective, he obviously knew that Meciar would probably best him in a one-on-one political debate, since the former prime minister is a talented and charismatic speaker.
In his inaugural speech, Schuster stressed his interest in guiding Slovakia on "a way towards prosperity." He called for a renewal of mutual trust among individuals, various social groups, ethnic Slovaks and those of other nationalities in Slovakia.
From the balcony of the presidential palace, Schuster addressed the gathered crowd, saying, "I want to be the President of all citizens of Slovakia. All of you are equally close and dear to me."
Schuster also made an appeal to those who did not vote for him to join together in building a better Slovakia. Thus far, the opposition has not heeded the call, but the current government has also aroused ire by zealously seeking out illegal activities by former members of Meciar's government.
Several experts have pointed out that the political rift which has ripped apart Slovak society over the past few years is part of a larger division between the countryside and the urban population. A pair of sociologists from the Slovak Academy of Sciences, Jan Buncak and Valentina Harmadyova, point out that Slovakia is not experiencing a classical left-right conflict as in many countries, for people on both ends of the political spectrum are in both the opposition and the current government (CTK, 12-13 June 1999).
Rather, the split is characterized by an urban-rural dual which pits those who prefer Slovakia to have a pro-Western orientation against those who believe Slovakia should follow its own path of transition away from the remnants of Communism. The former view - and that of the current government - prefers closer ties with the EU and NATO, while the latter tends to be more nationalistic, self-absorbed and leans closer to the Russian bear.
The new government is currently engineering a minority language law in the hope that it can satisfy both the EU and the national minorities in Slovakia. Now that Slovakia has a President and appears to be steaming along with the Western democracies, it appears more likely that Slovakia may join the top group of candidates trying to obtain membership in the European Union.
But all that can change in less than four years, when new parliamentary elections will take place. Despite the fact that the current President has won and vows to cooperate with the present government and EU countries, it must be kept in mind that these victories can quickly turn sour.
Schuster won despite the passage of an austerity program just a few days before the presidential elections. By raising some prices and cutting government expenditures, Slovakia hopes to appease the West, lure foreign investment, and smooth its path to European integration. If Slovakia's new leaders do not produce positive economic changes in Slovakia over the next three and a half years, however, Meciar and the opposition will revive their popularity. They remain a force to be reckoned with.
One observer has pointed out that without the support of the Hungarian minority, the current coalition government could not have formed, nor could it have won the presidency. If the Hungarians jumped ship from the coalition along with just a few thousand Slovaks, the current opposition could be thrust into power again.
I am already hearing complaints about the new government's policies in letters coming from acquaintances in Slovakia. A firm 75 percent of Slovak citizens opposed the government's willingness to allow NATO to use Slovak air space in the Yugoslav campaign. The coming bitter economic medicine will hardly be easier to swallow.
On the positive side, the current government coalition has thus far been able to find common ground despite their internal disagreements. The immediate fear of Meciar's return may well continue to hold them together and keep them from engaging in petty quarrels: all must keep in mind the larger picture.
If he plays his cards right, President Schuster could act as the glue which helps hold the government together and secures the support of the people through these next few critical years in the development of democracy in Slovakia.
Michael J Kopanic, Jr, PhD, 22 June 1999
Copyright (c) 1999 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved