The Slovakian Elections: Integration Can Continue

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.

Beyond possible inclusion in the EU and NATO, however, and beyond a general philanthropic concern for the political well-being of the Slovakian people, there are other reasons for the American public to welcome the results of the election. The deepening of democracy in Central Europe will certainly buttress the long-term prospects for peace there. Democracies have also proven themselves to be much more adept at creating conditions for economic prosperity and balanced social development than authoritarian regimes, and are surely more consistent with the innate dignity of humanity to rule itself with maturity and responsibility. (3)

One of the most significant aspects of the 2002 parliamentary election is the evidence it provides that a reasonably stable political-party system is forming in Slovakia. Political scientists typically view this as a clear sign of successful transition from one-party authoritarianism to stable, responsible democracy. Although twenty-six political parties and organizations ran candidates in proportional representation-type elections (voters had a choice of up to 4 candidates from among all of the participating parties), only 7 political parties passed the 5% threshold barrier necessary to gain any representation in parliament. Given the absence of any single party strong enough to garner a clear majority of seats in the legislature, it was inevitable that a coalition government would be needed. The complex process of coalition formation, guided by President Rudolf Schuster, thus began Monday September 23, a mere two days after the close of the polls.

The election also demonstrated how regional influences (in this case the prospect of being welcomed into the EU and NATO) unquestionably had an effect on the outcome of the election. The ruling SKDU party of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, for example, distributed campaign leaflets depicting an up-close photograph of a honeycomb being worked by busy bees with the title "NATO + EU = Investment = Good Job Opportunities" -- no trifling matter in a country with double-digit unemployment rates. Robert Fico's SMER party was more cautious, with ubiquitous billboards depicting a row of seated, bare-bottomed toddlers with the advice, " YES! To NATO and the EU... BUT not with our bottoms uncovered!" Even the KSS (the communist party, which polled 6.3% of the vote and 11 seats) eventually agreed that EU membership was desirable, and advocated replacement of NATO with a common European-wide collective security agreement. In any case, the KSS will not be in the governing coalition.

The September 2002 election thus represents a welcome, democratic alternative not only to the authoritarianism of the Meciar years of the 1990s and the earlier communist years, but also to the sadly mixed results of attempts at democratization in many of the formerly-communist areas, particularly Belarus, Central Asia and most of the Caucasus region. That is good news for Slovakia, for the region, and certainly for the United States, and should be recognized as such.

James W. Warhola is the 2002 Distinguished Maine Professor and a professor of political science at The University of Maine.

  1. As discussed, for example, by Charles Gati in the Summer 2002 issue of The National Interest.

(2) This was the fifth parliamentary election in Slovakia since the collapse of the Marxist-Leninist regime in the former Czechoslovakia in late 1989, and the fourth since the independence of Slovakia from the former Czechoslovak Republic in January 1993. The succession of five reasonably clean and openly competitive parliamentary elections (1990, 1992, 1994, 1998, and 2002) is clear evidence of the entrenchment of electoral democracy in Slovakia. Voter turnout in this election also provides grounds for optimism concerning the entrenchment of democratic rule. At slightly over 70%, it was down from a high of 84% in 1998 elections, but only slightly down from the figure of over 75% in the 1994 elections. It is probably too early to draw any firm conclusions from these figures, but they do suggest that the traditionally rather parochial political culture of Slovakia is undergoing a significant transition to one more oriented to participation.