On Sunday April 17, the voters of Slovakia chose Ivan Gasparovic as their president in only the second direct presidential election since independence in 1993. The first was in 1999, prior to which the president was selected by the national unicameral parliament. In this election, Gasparovic faced former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in a runoff occasioned by the failure by any one of 11 candidates in the first round on April 4 to secure a majority vote. Gasparovic won with nearly 60% of the vote and a turnout rate of 43.5% and will take office in mid-June.
Who is Ivan Gasparovic, and what will his presidency mean for Slovakia, the region, and the Western Alliance? What might account for the surprising failure of the government-backed candidate, Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, to make it to the second round? And what might the consequences of Gasparovic's presidency be for Slovakia, and for NATO, into which Slovakia has been so very recently inducted as a member? What effect also might his presidency have for Slovakia's coming membership in the EU as of May 1? These questions are significant for Slovakia itself, but they also concern the Western world directly, since Slovakia can be seen as somewhat symptomatic of political trends in Eastern Europe. A brief background to the April 17 election will enable a clearer response to these questions.
The first-round election on April 4 produced a shock to both Slovakia and to the outside world, particularly Western Europe. No candidate received a majority of votes and, with only 47.5 % voter turnout, seemed to confirm suspicions of Slovakia‚s rather passive electorate. Pre-election surveys in late March indicated that the government's favored candidate, Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, had the support of nearly 28% of the electorate, whereas former prime minister and President Vladimir Meciar had 26%. Ivan Gasparovic had 18% of public support, and current but unpopular President Rudolph Schuster had a rather shaky and declining 10.8%. 7 other candidates all had single-digit support. It was widely expected to be a runoff election between Kukan and either Meciar or Gasparovic - but definitely not a runoff between the last two. Both Meciar and Gasparovic were viewed by many within Slovakia, and even more so in Europe and America, as rather authoritarian holdovers from a by-gone era.
The success of Meciar in the first round was not surprising, as his popular support by nearly all indicators -- various public opinion polls, the 1999 presidential elections, and the 1998 and 2002 parliamentary elections -- is a quite predictable and stable range of 33 - 36 %. It was largely his policies as prime minister from 1993 - 1998 that earned Slovakia the opprobrium of the West, expressed perhaps most emblematically by U.S. Secretary of State Madelaine Albright when she referred to Slovakia under Meciar as the "black hole" of Europe. That moniker was not lost on the electorate, who aside from being abashed to have their country's politics being responsible for it being tagged a chierna diera (black hole), managed to turn Meciar out of office in the election of September 1998. That election brought to power the pro-Western SKDU-led coalition, which continued in power after the 2002 parliamentary elections.
Significantly, Ivan Gasparovic was closely involved in Meciar's regime during the 1990s, raising fears in Europe that he would function as a shadow-Meciar. The two had a political falling out in 2002, however, after which Gasparovic defected from the Meciar-led Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) to form the HZD (Movement for Democracy) prior to the September 2002 parliamentary elections.
Who is Ivan Gasparovic, and what might his presidency mean for Slovakia and the West, and particularly for the EU and NATO? Born in 1941, he was a professor of law at Comenius University in Bratislava from 1968 to 1990 and again since 2002. He served as the General Procurator of the former Czechoslovakia from July 1990 to March 1992, served as Speaker of the Slovak Parliament from 1992-1998 and was acting President of Slovakia together with Meciar from July to October 1998. Thus he and Meciar have intertwined political careers, and both have experience as President. After the April 17 run-off election, however, Meciar explicitly shunned Gasparovic "ani nie podal ruku," ("wouldn't even shake hands"), as reported by the major Slovak national newspaper SME. This suggest that Meciar's plurality party in the Parliament, the HZDS, will not necessarily have a smooth working relationship with the Gasparovic presidency. Other party leaders, particularly Robert Fico's opposition SMER which led the forlorn fight this year for early parliamentary elections, have indicated willingness to work with Gasparovic.
The president plays a largely symbolic role in the governance of Slovakia. According to the Constitution adopted in autumn 1992 in anticipation of Slovakia's coming independence on January 1, 1993, the President is largely restricted to protocol functions. But this symbolic role is increasingly significant as Slovakia finds itself more and more deeply enmeshed in the affairs of the Western world, and particularly with full membership in NATO as of April and in the EU as of May. Protocol and national- symbolic functions can be particularly significant in times of substantial political change, and these are just such times for Slovakia, and particularly with respect to foreign policy and Slovakia's place in the Western alliance. Survey research during the past several years indicates strong, consistent public support for Slovakia's membership in the EU. Though support for NATO membership has generally been in the 50 - 60 % range, it did dip below 50% in the early spring of 2003 due to the impending U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Public support for NATO membership has since been back in the 50 - 60% range and higher among the younger cohorts.
Thus, as spokesperson and representative of the nation, Gasparovic will be uniquely positioned to stamp upon Slovakia and upon Western Europe a certain image and disposition of Slovakia. After 1000 years of national identity but only 11 years of political independence, that peaceful and good-willed country is in many ways still forming its political identity and fully self-governing character. This can be seen in various aspects of recent Slovakian political behavior: most of the 7 national referenda since 1993 have failed due to insufficient voter turnout (since 50% minimum is required for a valid result); voter turnout for this presidential election was quite low at 47.5% in round one and 43.5% in round two; and voter turnout in parliamentary elections of 1998 and 2002 was rather low by European standards. Further, Eurobarometer surveys also indicate a level of political trust, engagement and confidence in political institutions and parties that consistently lags behind most of Europe. Indeed a post-election survey conducted by the newspaper SME indicated that 40% of the population believed Gasparovic would be a better president than the current Rudolf Schuster, 15% believed "anyone would be better," 38% that Gasparovic will be as bad as Schuster, and 7% that Gasparovic would be worse.
The above data reflect no great optimism for the further development of a vibrant, broadly participatory democracy, but neither is there deep, simmering political disaffection in Slovakia. Rather, a somewhat passive political culture appears to predominate. However, on indicators of citizens' sense of national identity and sense of pride in the nation, recent surveys indicate that Slovakians have a rather keen sense of themselves as a people. They also reflect a deep desire, especially among the younger generations, to continue integrating Slovakia into the Western world culturally as well as politically and economically. Perhaps president-elect Ivan Gasparovic can help channel these aspects of Slovakian self-awareness in a positive political direction, notwithstanding his previous associations with the internationally ostracized Vladimir Meciar. There seems to be good reason that this professor of law can be expected to do so. If he can, then this presidential election, occurring as it did in a critical juncture in Slovakian, European, NATO and EU history, will be not only successful but a significant historical threshold. The Slovakian citizenry deserves Western support for these endeavors, and so does president-elect Ivan Gasparovic.
James W. Warhola is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine.