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Poland/Slovakia: The Tale Of Two Referenda

Prague, 26 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Voters went to the polls yesterday in Poland and Slovakia to cast ballots in highly controversial referenda. The outcome both reflected existing political differences between the two countries, and suggested likely direction of future developments.

Poles voted in a referendum on a new Constitution to replace a Communist-era charter enacted at the height of Stalinist rule in 1952. The new document enshrines Western-style democracy and free-market economy, while emphasizing the importance to respect social needs through cooperation and dialogue among separate social groups. Preliminary results show that almost 57 percent of voters approved the new basic law and about 43 percent rejected it.

Slovaks were asked whether they wanted their country to join NATO, and whether they preferred their president to be elected by popular vote instead of by Parliament. Preliminary results indicate that the balloting was thrown into chaos following last-minute political maneuvering by opposing political groups and their leaders.

In each case the turnout was very low. In Poland, less than 40 percent of eligible voters were reported to cast ballots. In Slovakia, less than 10 percent turned out, effectively invalidating the entire exercise -- the threshold was 50 percent.

High absenteeism seems to reflect both excessive politicization of each vote and widespread apathy. In each case, the referendum was seen by many as a specific test of strength between separate groups with very different visions of the future. Both countries prepare for new electoral contests: Poland faces a parliamentary election in the fall, while Slovakia gears up to a new presidential choice.

In Poland, the choice involves a post-Communist-led coalition of leftist and center-left parties, which helped to write the new Constitution, and a right-wing alliance of many groups centered on the Solidarity labor union, which opposed it.

The Polish referendum results show that the Solidarity-led alliance has suffered a setback, owing perhaps to its apparent failure to mobilize supporters with a campaign of vitriolic anti-Communist attacks, patriotic slogans and religious appeals.

But the result also suggests the alliance has the support of more than one fifth of potential voters -- an exit poll by a respected private agency found that the alliance would be backed by more than 22 percent if the vote were held now -- largely because of strong residues of anti-Communist sentiment in the country. The same polling agency suggests the leftist coalition maintains comparable strength. The post-Communists themselves could count on almost identical public support -- more than 22 percent, but slightly less than the Solidarity-led alliance.

This close proximity of public appeal has been maintained for some time, emerging in the last parliamentary elections in 1993 and solidifying in the last year's presidential contest. No other Polish party or group could approach those levels of public following.

This alone suggests considerable stability in political preferences among Polish voters. It also confirms a remarkable crystallization of political divisions. There is little likelihood that the situation could change in the months leading to parliamentary balloting, although the country is certain to witness intense political infighting in the weeks to come.

The Slovakia ballot was a test of political strength between two traditional antagonists: President Michal Kovac and Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. They have quarreled for years.

But their personal infighting has also been linked to major political choices for the country as a whole. Kovac has favored democratic methods and a rapid integration with Western institutions, such as the EU and NATO. Meciar appears to have preferred closer ties with Russia, while displaying authoritarian tendencies of his own.

The referendum on NATO appears to have been conceived by Meciar as a tactical maneuver to undercut Kovac by preparing questions on NATO in such a way as to assure negative votes. The maneuver ran into problems when Kovac suggested that an additional question, dealing with the presidential election, be added to the ballot.

This prompted a series of legal challenges by the Government and, in a confusing move, Interior Minister Gustav Krajci removed, in the last moment, a question on presidential election from the ballot. The move backfired, prompting the voters either to refuse to take part in the truncated exercise or simply ignore the vote itself. With the resulting minuscule turnout, the referendum itself simply collapsed.

And the political confusion and personal infighting between Slovakia's leader are certain to continue, undermining the country's stability and dashing its hopes of joining Europe in the foreseeable future.