The Slovakian Elections: Integration Can Continue

Slovakia has been an important test case for whether the European east-central region has made sufficient--and irreversible--progress toward
democratic governance.

As the Prague and Copenhagen summits draw near, anticipation is building that NATO and the EU are preparing to resume the process of integrating east-central Europe more closely into the political, economic, and military institutions of the Euro-Atlantic world. This process, however, has not been without its critics, who have worried whether the region has made sufficient--and irreversible--progress toward democratic governance. Slovakia has been an important test case in this regard.

Just a few years ago Slovakia was called the "black hole of Europe" by then-Secretary of State Madelaine Albright. This was due, in no small measure, to the record of the government formed by Vladimir Meciar and his "Movement for a Democratic Slovakia" (HZDS), that held power from 1994 to 1998. Meciar managed to thwart meaningful progress on market reforms of the economy; to raise tensions with Slovakia's neighbors (his first turn as prime minister in Slovakia when Czechoslovakia still existed as a unified state was a major reason why the Czechs were so in favor of separating into two countries); to seriously strain relations with the numerically significant Hungarian minority and thus jeopardize relations with Hungary itself; and to alienate potential Western investors. Although Meciar and his HZDS were turned out of power in the clean, fair, and democratic parliamentary election of 1998, observers on both sides of the Atlantic expressed apprehension that the recent elections (September 20-21, 2002) might return him to power, jeopardizing Slovakia's chances to receive invitations for NATO and EU membership. In fact, some were concerned about an overall "domino effect" in the region. A Meciar victory could have reduced not only Slovakia's, but also neighboring countries' prospects for greater integration with the West economically and militarily, by making the entire region appear unwelcome and unsafe for foreign investment, deeper security cooperation, and closer diplomatic resolution of regional problems. (1)

 

None of these concerns, however, materialized in the recent election. The election results, in fact, represent very good news for Slovakia, Europe, and the United States. The results are particularly heartening given Slovakia's doleful historical legacy of foreign domination until the early 20th century, followed by decades of Nazi and Soviet authoritarianism from 1939 until 1989. Although overcoming that legacy will surely take more than a decade, the recent elections show considerable progress toward the establishment of a stable democracy. (2)

The results of the election are thus very good news from the perspective of continued European integration, inclusion of more countries of the region in NATO, and peaceful stabilization of democracy in the region. Prior to the election, the leading party in the governing coalition, the SDKU (Slovak Democratic and Christian Coalition) under the prime ministership of Mikulas Dzurinda, campaigned heavily for Slovakian membership in the EU and NATO. Most of the other 25 parties that ran in the election favored such membership for Slovakia, although with some conditions and not without considerable reluctance. The new governing coalition will also be led by the SKDU (with 28 parliamentary seats) and will have a broad base of popular support, a solid majority within the parliament (78 of 150 seats), and support of the EU itself for inclusion of Slovakia. The governing coalition is also to include the SMK (Hungarian Minority Party, 20 seats), KDH (Christian Democratic Movement, 15 seats), and ANO (New Citizens Alliance, 15 seats). Inclusion of the SMK (Hungarian Minority Party) bodes well for the continuation of reasonably peaceful and civil resolution of various ethnic-minority issues that have arisen in the decade of Slovakian independence, not only with the 10 percent Hungarian minority, but also with the Roma.

Although the HZDS received a plurality of 36 parliamentary seats (having won 19.5% of the vote), this party will almost certainly not be included in any governing coalition due to the stated refusal of six other parties that gained parliamentary seats to cooperate with him or his party. Meciar's post-election fevered attempts to convince President Rudolf Schuster to include the HZDS in any governing coalition will in all likelihood come to permanent grief, to the demonstrable relief of Western leaders. EU Commissioner for Expansion Gunter Verheugen offered on the Monday following the elections: "For Europeans and other observers, it is important that no one is interested in forming a coalition with HZDS and the unreformed Communists, and the rest [of the parties] are part of a democratic process."

The sense of this writer, based on many conversations with Slovak citizens during the summer, is that Meciar's electoral support was largely with the older generation. The voter turnout of slightly over 70% (down from 84% in 1998) probably worked somewhat to the advantage of Meciar and the HZDS, according to predictions by Slovak political scientist Pavel Haulick, inasmuch as a higher voter turnout would have probably resulted in more votes for the other parties. It also seemed quite clear that the younger generation (40 and below) placed a primacy on EU and NATO membership, and voted accordingly--namely for parties other than the HZDS. The lesson from this is clear: prospective membership in democratic multilateral institutions can have a highly positive effect on the political behavior of a given population, perhaps inducing democratic change that may or may not otherwise occur. The implications of this for Russia and other countries in Eastern Europe are also clear.

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