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East European Perspectives: April 29, 2004

29 April 2004, Volume 6, Number 9


By Kieran Williams*

In the brief interval between its accession to NATO and to the EU, Slovakia elected a new president. His electoral program consisted almost entirely of a promise to defend the country's sovereignty and independence, to save it from being "degraded" to a border region, and to make sure that other peoples hear "the voice of [Europe's] heart." He also vowed to uphold the Slovak nation's integrity by preserving its distinct culture, and by resisting pressure from ethnic minorities.

Someone familiar with the Slovak politics of the 1990s but out of touch lately might assume on hearing this kind of talk that the new president is Vladimir Meciar, the three-time former prime minister, whose heavy-handed methods kept Slovakia out of the first NATO enlargement and would have endangered its EU accession had his party not lost power six years ago. He sought the presidency in 1999 and lost; he stood again this year and was leading the pack after the first round of balloting with one-third of the vote. The winner of this year's presidential election, however, was not Meciar but Ivan Gasparovic, and all in NATO and the EU who were watching sighed with relief.

From Meciar Lieutenant To Meciar Challenger
In Slovakia, Gasparovic's victory over Meciar by a margin of almost 20 percent in the 17 April runoff was viewed with far greater ambivalence. Not so long ago, Gasparovic was Meciar's loyal sidekick; as chairman of the Slovak parliament from 1992 to 1998, he oversaw the passage of dozens of laws later deemed unconstitutional, denied the opposition its due influence on committees, and unlawfully stripped one legislator of his mandate after he quit Meciar's party. While not publicly associated with the more sordid misdeeds of the Meciar regime, he was an essential player in that he kept the legislature in line and exuded an avuncular calm that complemented Meciar's volatility. Although quarrels between the two men were rumored periodically, Gasparovic stood by Meciar for more than a decade, when so many other co-founders of their party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), fell out and away; he quit only when it emerged before the 2002 parliamentary elections that there would be no place for him on the HZDS list.

Gasparovic's political views differed so little from Meciar's that his new party received an almost identical name, the Movement for Democracy (HZD), and espoused the same vague centrism that HZDS has long championed. The HZD had little time to prepare for the 2002 elections and won no seats. That the leader of a minuscule extraparliamentary party could triumph in direct presidential elections over the candidate of one of the most powerful political organizations in Slovak history was possible thanks only to the endorsement of Gasparovic by the various ultranationalist parties (themselves outside parliament but possessing resources and networks) and above all by the second-largest opposition party in the legislature, Robert Fico's Smer (Direction). (For a profile of Fico and Smer, see Haughton, 2002). Smer is the sole voice of the democratic left in national politics, and Gasparovic won its backing by combining his pledge to defend the nation with one to defend the welfare state against the neo-liberal reforms of the current four-party, center-right government.

With the help of these parties, Gasparovic picked up 442,564 first-round votes (22.3 percent of those cast), and from postelection surveys we know that in every regard these people fall into the middle: the middle age range (25-44), middle education (complete secondary), and middle population size (towns of 20,000 to 100,000 inhabitants) (Krivy and Gyarfasova, 2004).

Why Kukan Lost
Other forces in Slovak politics inadvertently helped Gasparovic on his path to the presidency. For example, he would not have made it to the second round had the ruling four-party coalition agreed on a single candidate of its own. Instead, more than a year ago, Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) put forward the foreign minister, Eduard Kukan, without first securing the endorsement of the SDKU's partners. These, in turn were dismayed by the choice of someone who, as a career diplomat, had once been a member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party; the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) therefore struck out on its own, putting forward Frantisek Miklosko, who chaired the Slovak parliament before Gasparovic in 1990-92 and before 1989 was a leading figure in underground Catholic circles.

Rather than going into the first round as the common choice of a government that, despite numerous scandals and quarrels, deserves credit for clinching Slovakia a place in NATO and the EU, restoring fiscal sanity after the Meciar spending spree and luring in foreign investors, Kukan was running very much as the representative of his party alone, the SDKU. In recent months, the SDKU's standing in public opinion has sunk in large measure because of the leadership style of Prime Minister Dzurinda, which is at once combative and ineffectual. When the first round was held on 3 April, Kukan's vote total (438,920) was almost identical to that earned by the SDKU in the 2002 parliamentary elections (433,953). Had Kukan made it to the finale, he would have picked up the hundreds of thousands of electors who wanted to vote with their hearts for more idealistic no-hope candidates in the first round (Abraham, 2004); as it was, Gasparovic snuck past by 3,644 votes.

The abstention of the Hungarian minority was a big blow to Kukan. Although he received more of their votes than any other candidate, turnout rates in the southern districts in which ethnic Hungarians are concentrated were the lowest in the country. This contrasted sharply with the first direct presidential election in 1999, when Hungarians turned out in large numbers for Rudolf Schuster, the then mayor of the eastern Slovak city of Kosice, a fluent Hungarian speaker and joint candidate of the ruling parties.

It has also been observed that Kukan would have been an excellent occupant of the presidency but was a poor campaigner for it. This brings up a vexing problem that lies in the very nature of the Slovak presidency. In its powers and duties it remains a largely ceremonial elder-statesman sort of job -- the sort normally filled by presidents elected by the legislature, as it originally was and its Czech twin still is. Now that the head of state is directly elected, however, the position requires the savvy and self-promotion of a more streetwise party professional. The urbane, thoughtful Kukan was not well matched with the grandiose, rather overbearing campaign that was organized for him; nor was he on form in the televised debates, in particular that on private station TV Markiza. In many respects he was at a peculiar disadvantage: As a career diplomat, he had less in his past to explain and defend than the other candidates, who were challenged on various scandals and abuses of power. These questions paradoxically gave Meciar and Gasparovic ample opportunity for spirited, sometimes eloquent expositions of their personal histories and current intentions, with the requisite passion and, in Gasparovic's case, a nonchalance that many found charming.

The Making Of President Gasparovic
The outcome of the 17 April showdown between Meciar and Gasparovic at first seemed utterly predictable. Although Meciar led Gasparovic in the first round by 10 percent, the actual number of votes he received was a fraction of what he had earned in the first round of the 1999 election. At that time, with turnout of 74 percent, Meciar had attracted 1,097,956 votes, or 27 percent of all eligible voters. In 2004, with first-round turnout of only 48 percent, Meciar received just 650,242 votes, or 15.5 percent of all eligible voters. The combined number of votes given to Gasparovic and the other major candidates in the first round totaled 1,287,834; so as long as a comparable number were cast for Gasparovic in the second round as the "stop Meciar" candidate, his victory was assured. Comparisons with the choice confronting French voters in 2002 (between Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen) or Romanians in 2000 (between Ion Iliescu and Corneliu Vadim Tudor), when the "lesser evil" triumphed, quickly came to mind.

The governing coalition, having bungled its presidential candidacies, then unsettled predictions when it refused to encourage its voters to turn out for Gasparovic. The SDKU and the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) left it to their supporters to decide for themselves, while the KDH and the fourth member of the coalition, the Alliance for a New Citizen (ANO), openly advised theirs to boycott the second round.

This remarkable development fueled speculation that the coalition would actually prefer to cohabit with a President Meciar, for a number of conceivable reasons: that over the past year he had been more constructive in parliament; that the HZDS (called People's Party-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia [LS-HZDS] since June 2003) ideologically had moved closer to the governing parties' center-right position; or that victory might finally extract Meciar from the leadership of his party and begin his drift into eventual retirement. Gasparovic, by contrast, was beholden to the populist-leftist Smer, which had more aggressively opposed the government's reforms of the welfare state, sought to unseat ministers, and with the Communists and trade unions initiated a referendum demanding early elections. (Like all previous referendums except that in 2003 on EU accession, the plebiscite was invalidated by low turnout on 3 April.) While the LS-HZDS has been steadily sinking in the opinion polls over the past couple of years, racked by factional disputes and defections, Smer has assumed a commanding lead. Even if a President Meciar would behave badly from the very first day he took office, the speculation went, he represented a political force that was fizzling out, while a President Gasparovic would be associated with the ambitions of the generation in waiting.

While some of the ruling parties' voters probably did refrain from casting a ballot in the second round, the drop in turnout to 43.5 percent was not as steep as was feared. Postelection surveys found that around 20 percent of those who voted for Kukan turned out for Gasparovic, as did 19 percent of the 2 million Slovaks who did not vote in the first round at all (Sme, 23 April 2004).

Many of these second-round voters might simply have wanted to deny Meciar the presidency, but others might have been inspired by Gasparovic's astute handling of the two-week confrontation with his former colleague. Initially cordial relations between them quickly broke down during debates on radio and television, with Meciar lashing out at Gasparovic for quitting the HZDS on the eve of the 2002 elections. Accusations of lying, backstabbing and "ass-licking" were exchanged. While often unable to conceal his irritation, Gasparovic nevertheless emerged as the more composed, and thus more presidential, of the two contenders, leaving Meciar to bluster and rant. Gasparovic also made some wily semi-apologies for the actions of the HZDS regime in the 1990s, which he could afford to do as he was rarely openly implicated in the worst of them (Kusy, 2004b).

When the vote count was over, the contrasting abilities of the two men to reach the wider circle of the electorate that a successful presidential candidate requires were very clear: Gasparovic had increased his first-round total by more than 637,000, while Meciar had added a mere 72,126. In percentages it was a landslide, 59.9 to 40.1, a bigger spread than in 1999 when Rudolf Schuster defeated Meciar in the first direct election of the head of state.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead
All of Slovakia's presidents since 1993 have entered office with low expectations and little fanfare (Kusy, 2004b). The first, Michal Kovac, started out with the reputation of a doughy, steadfast ally of Meciar, but quite quickly asserted his independence and turned out to have sound instincts, mulish resolve, and good advisers. His tenacity in the face of Meciar's wrath and scheming played a vital role in preserving Slovak democracy long enough to get the country to the 1998 parliamentary elections, when the HZDS was removed.

His successor, Rudolf Schuster, was more predictable owing to his long career in local government, and his presidency had a distinct city-hall flavor, without much panache or vision; the fact of his having been directly elected strangely did not endow his time in office with any extra authority. He has been described by one Slovak observer as "smug, egocentric, moody, self-pitying and populist" (Kusy, 2004a), and he will not be missed. He will be remembered as a pale imitation of Czech President Vaclav Havel in two respects: first, in his periodic attempts to lambaste the government, in particular to remind it of the social consequences of its reforms, and second, in the tragicomic fiasco of his treatment at the hands of the Bratislava medical elite when he was operated on for a perforated colon in June 2000 and almost died from complications.

Gasparovic is very much of the same mold: He excites very few, espouses no discernible ideology other than the vague center-leftish nationalism of old HZDS (before its rightward turn around 2000), and seems to be in the office only so that Meciar is not. There is a potentially significant difference, however, in that he is a lawyer and during the post-1968 "normalization" era was a university professor of criminal law. (He first came to public attention after 1989 as the federal prosecutor-general of Czechoslovakia, but was sacked in March 1992 by Havel after the legislature complained about his unsatisfactory performance, especially for failing to bring communist officials to trial). It is conceivable that Gasparovic will have his own strong opinions on many of the bills that are sent to him for signature, either returning them for further discussion and re-ratification (which Schuster very frequently did) or forwarding them to the Constitutional Court for abstract review (which Schuster never did).

Such interventions would be mere hiccoughs if the governing coalition had a comfortable majority, but at present it does not, owing to defections from the SDKU and from ANO in early 2004. Each motion, including each defense of a minister in danger of a no-confidence vote, now entails an agreement with the breakaway factions and independent legislators who control the balance. The junior partners in the coalition are troubled by Prime Minister Dzurinda's apparent complacency regarding this predicament, as they would prefer to conclude a more reliable pact, perhaps even draw some of the defectors back into cabinet, and end the uncertainty. Dzurinda, however, dislikes the strings that would be attached to such a deal, especially as his resignation might be one of them. As only the third prime minister in postcommunist Eastern Europe to serve a second consecutive term, he clearly knows something about survival; nevertheless, there is something about the current situation very reminiscent of that in the Czech Republic in late 1997, when the second cabinet of Vaclav Klaus was nearing its premature end owing to coalition rancor, a weak hold on parliament, and a hostile president.

Even if Gasparovic mainly exercises his office from the president's box at his beloved soccer and hockey matches, he will take it up at a momentous time in Slovak history. The country's first representatives to the European Parliament will have been elected, which will serve as a revealing "midterm" test of the governing parties' standings and prospects for re-election in 2006; if the SDKU bombs, it might reconsider its commitment to Dzurinda. Meanwhile, bruised by yet another defeat, Meciar and the LS-HZDS might abandon its somewhat cooperative attitude and embark on a more aggressive opposition to the government, as Smer has done. It is in precisely such situations that otherwise decorative presidents can suddenly become decisive.

*The author is a research fellow at University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies and teaches political science at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.


Abraham, S., 2004, "Slava mensieho zla," [The Glory of the Lesser Evil] in Sme, 6 April.

Haughton, T., 2002, "Slovakia's Robert Fico: A Man To Be Trusted Or Feared?" in RFE/RL's East European Perspectives, Vol. 4, No. 11, 29 May.

Krivy, V., and Gyarfasova, O. 2004, "Pohlad spat: od referenda k novemu prezidentovi," [A Look Back: From the Referendum to the New President] in Sme, 23 April.

Kusy, M., 2004a, "Cas emocii, cas rozumu," [A Time of Emotion, a Time of Reason], in Sme, 8 April.

Kusy, M., 2004b, "Nech zije nas novy prezident!" [Long Live Our New President!], in Sme, 19 April.

Sme, 2004.