Vol 1, No 21
15 November 1999
B O O K R E V I E W:
The 1998 Parliamentary Elections and Democratic Rebirth in Slovakia
Martin Butora, Grigorij Meseznikov,
Zora Butorova and Sharon Fisher (eds).
Institute for Public Affairs, Bratislava, 1999
This series of essays on last year's Slovak parliamentary elections is the English version of Slovenske volby 1998: Kto? Preco? Ako? [The Slovak 1998 Elections: Who? Why? How?], published in January 1999 by the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs. The book aims to provide a broad picture of Slovak politics and the context which led in September 1998 to the ouster of Vladimir Meciar. The political bias of the authors is evident and self-confessed: as the title makes it clear, the victory of the four opposition movements (the Slovak Democratic Coalition - SDK, the Party of the Democratic Left, the Party of the Hungarian Coalition and the Party of Civic Understanding) who captured over 58% of the votes marks the beginning of "democratic rebirth" in Slovakia.
In fact, it is hard to disagree with this view. Under Meciar, Slovakia, one of the most promising Central European countries, experienced massive setbacks on the road to democracy and to Europe. The HZDS / SNS / ZRS regime was characterised by its authoritarian features - most significantly by its disregard of the constitutional rights of the parliamentary opposition and the president, and its uncompromising and often confrontational stance towards the Hungarian minority. As a result, Slovakia became something of a pariah state, a backwater of Europe, and was excluded for political rather than economic reasons from the first wave of NATO and EU expansion eastwards. This was illustrated perhaps most strikingly in 1997 in the European Commission's statement on Slovakia's application for membership, which concluded that "Slovakia does not fulfil in a satisfying manner the political conditions set out by the European Council in Copenhagen, because of the instability of Slovakia's institutions, their lack of rootedness in political life and the shortcomings in the functioning of its democracy. This situation is so much more regrettable since Slovakia could satisfy the economic criteria in the medium term and is firmly committed to take on the acquis" .
September 1998: a major shift in Slovak political culture or the confirmation of the polarisation and divisions of Slovak society?
Martin Butora (now Slovak ambassador in Washington), Grigorij Meseznikov, Zora Butorova, Sharon Fisher and their co-authors clearly understand the end of Meciar's rule as a major change of Slovak political culture: "a shift indicating cultural modernization," and a "delayed velvet revolution" returning to the ideals of November 1989 [pp. 10, 11]. September 1998 marks for them the accession to democratic maturity of a Slovak nation long considered as a problem child or an "adolescent" .
Successive chapters convincingly show how the non-governmental sector, trade unions, the international community and the Slovak churches actively and successfully campaigned to get young people and, more generally, the entire population to vote: "first-time voters constituted 10 percent of all of Slovakia's adult citizens" [p.233]. The impressive turnout of 84.24% (as opposed to 75.6% for the previous parliamentary elections in 1994) is also held as an illustration of the mobilisation of the electorate and compares favourably with that in other countries of the region. However, it remains a matter of debate whether the high turnout was the beginning of the long-lasting involvement of the population in politics or simply, and I would suggest more probably, the result of very specific political circumstances which made Slovaks acutely aware that Meciar had now become a danger to their democracy. Zora Butorova contends, with what she herself admits to be "a slight pathos", that the 1998 elections "were the first real elections in post-1989 Slovakia, as the citizens had to defend their right to them" [p.195]. Interestingly, the turnout for the first and second rounds of the presidential elections in May 1999 (73.9 and 75.45% respectively) were markedly lower than in 1998.
The 1998 parliamentary elections undoubtedly reveal that lessons had been learned after the 1994 elections. The number of wasted votes for parties failing to reach the 5% threshold decreased considerably [p.63], largely as a consequence of the greater unity of the opposition, which managed to form a winnning coalition (in spite and, perhaps even paradoxically, because of amendments to the electoral law introduced by the Meciar government shortly before the elections, which forced the small parties to look for coalition partners). The authors however rightly emphasize two issues which will determine the future of Slovakia's democracy: the deep gulf between the rural and urban populations and the problematic polarisation of Slovak political life around Meciar.
A contribution by Vladimir Krivy shows that the two main formations, the SDK and the HZDS, had fundamentally divergent political positions. The HZDS traditionally appealed to the rural electorate, whereas the SDK was by far "the most urban of all the political parties" [p.73]. The political (and electoral) significance of regional differences in Slovakia has long been documented  and is bound to have consequences for Slovak democracy and the success of the government of Mikulas Dzurinda. Even in 1998 HZDS obtained 27% of the votes and Meciar managed to rally 37.2% of Slovak voters around his name during the first round of this year's presidential elections. This, combined with the fact that in 1998 the ultra-nationalist and intolerant Slovak National Party obtained 9.1% of the votes (more than in 1992 - 7.9%, and 1994 - 5.4%), demonstrates that populism and nationalism can still find a strong constituency in Slovakia (even if, to be sure, as recent developments in Slovakia's western neighbour Austria confirm, it is not a purely Slovak phenomenon). Grigorij Meseznikov therefore argues [pp. 54-55] that the Slovak party system is made of two rival clusters: a group of parties "oriented toward the model of liberal democracy" (the current governmental coalition) and a group of parties favouring "authoritarianism..., populism, nationalism, and isolationism" (HZDS and SNS).
The willingness of the HZDS and the SNS to give up the role of "anti-system" parties and act as a constructive and responsible parliamentary opposition will be a key determinant of Slovakia's political development. Only the victory of pragmatists over hard-liners within these two parties will allow a consolidation of Slovak democratic institutions. The recent replacement of Jan Slota by the more "moderate" Anna Malikova at the head of the SNS is a tentative step in the right direction. In addition, a positive and compromising attitude of the current government towards a reformed HZDS and SNS will clearly be needed as an important facilitating factor in this process: "demeciarization" should be based on justice rather wild retribution.
Slovakia and the West
Three contributions by Daniel Butora, Jeremy Druker and Zora Butorova focus on the decisive role played by the West in Meciar's fall. As Zora Butorova points out, "the majority of citizens found it difficult to cope with the fact that Slovakia...had been withdrawn from the first wave of applicants" to NATO and the EU. According to an opinion poll conducted in October 1997, only 13% of Slovaks were proud of their country's international status and 47% were ashamed of it. The blame for this situation was put on the Meciar government by as many as 55% of the respondents [p. 200], and this provided many Slovaks with an incentive to vote for the SDK, or at least against Meciar.
However, another recent opinion poll conducted in October this year by the Institute for Public Affairs shows that 74% of Slovaks think that the country's economic situation has worsened since the parliamentary elections [4. It is therefore essential for the stability of the Dzurinda government and of democratic institutions that Slovakia be invited to start negotiations on EU membership in Helsinki next month.
For a long time Slovakia has not been sufficiently studied, especially in comparison to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, and this work by a group of prominent experts will go a long way towards improving our knowledge of the country. It justifiably adopts a broad perspective on the 1998 parliamentary elections, looking at the domestic and foreign developments which brought about Meciar's removal, as well as thoughtfully analysing the role of the media and non-party factors (NGOs, trade unions, cultural figures, and Churches) during the electoral campaign. In an original and illustrative way, electoral posters of the political parties and cartoons from the pro-Meciar newspaper Slovenska Republika are also included.
Overall, then, this book constitutes a useful synthesis of the situation of Slovakia before and in the aftermath of the parliamentary elections, which should be of interest to all Central European specialists and help us to understand how and why this young state has, since the end of the Meciar government, reasserted its desire to join the European Union and NATO.
Magali Perrault, 13 November 1999
References (click ^ to return to text):^
2. The Belgian daily La Libre Belgique significantly commented following the previous parliamentary elections of 1994 that "it is hard to make serious study of an adolescent nation, which selects according to emotions". ^
3. See the works of Vladimir Krivy or the OECD report, "Politiques et problèmes régionaux en République Tchèque et en République Slovaque". ^
4. RFE / RL, 2 November 1999. ^
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