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Slovakia: NATO, EU Accession Riding On This Weekend's Elections

Slovakia begins two days of parliamentary elections tomorrow in a closely watched contest, the outcome of which is likely to determine whether NATO and the European Union invite Slovakia to join.

Prague, 19 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As in all four previous parliamentary elections in Slovakia since the collapse of communist rule nearly 13 years ago, amateur boxer-turned-populist politician Vladimir Meciar is expected to finish first.

And just as in the last elections four years ago, no other party of significance is expected to be willing to form a coalition with Meciar.

Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, or HZDS, though still in first place in most polls, has slumped from 27 percent support four years ago to about 19 percent at present. And Meciar, though now 60, has lost none of his legendary aggression, physically attacking a television reporter last week for asking a pointed question about his personal finances.

Former Slovak President Michal Kovac describes the campaign as "the twilight of the Meciar era." As prime minister, Meciar was criticized in the West for running autocratic, anti-Western governments between 1994 and 1998 that forced Slovakia to the brink of economic collapse and led to Bratislava's exclusion from the NATO and European Union accession processes.

President Rudolf Schuster this week appealed for Slovaks to turn out en masse to vote. He calls this weekend's elections "the most important vote in Slovakia since 1990" and of "existential importance" for the country. "I honestly believe that these elections will confirm, once and for all, our irreversible direction toward the democratic world, that they will open the door for us to the North Atlantic alliance [NATO], beyond which is the door to the European Union. The key [to these doors] has never been so near. We have never had such great hope to approach the most advanced countries of Europe and the world," Schuster said.

In an interview published today in the leftist daily "Pravda," Schuster said he intends to appoint a government as quickly as possible and will open talks on 23 September with the parties that get into parliament, starting with the party that wins the most votes. He predicts the new Slovak government will take office before the NATO summit begins in Prague on 21 November.

NATO and European Union leaders have made it clear that membership in their organizations will be open to Slovakia only if Slovaks vote for democratic, pro-Western parties. Meciar, once a die-hard opponent of membership in NATO, now says he favors it, but that has not persuaded Western leaders to soften their stand against Meciar's possible return to power.

Just behind the HZDS in popularity, with between 16 and 19 percent voter support, is a relatively new party known as Smer (Direction), led by 38-year-old Robert Fico, who is widely described as charismatic and ambitious. Fico says he favors membership in NATO and the EU, though "not at any cost."

Fico joined the Communist Party in 1989, just before the collapse of communist power. He was Slovakia's representative at the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg from 1994 until 2000. He founded Smer three years ago as a largely nonideological, pragmatic party favoring a "third way."

Fico, while rejecting any deal with Meciar, has indicated he is amenable to the idea of a coalition with HZDS minus Meciar. Fico has also ruled out forming a coalition with incumbent Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda.

Slovak analysts warn of Fico's close connections with traditionally pro-Meciar lobbyists, above all the nuclear-power lobby, which advocates building a new bloc at the Mochovce nuclear-power plant and abrogating an agreement with the EU that calls for shutting down the Jaslovske Bohunice nuclear-power plant by 2008.

Fico, who is running on a law-and-order platform, has also come in for criticism for hiring Meciar's former campaign manager, Slovak media guru Fedor Flasik, to handle his campaign.

Turnout is expected to be between two-thirds and three-quarters of Slovakia's 4.2 million registered voters. Despite extensive efforts by nongovernmental organizations to persuade the public to vote, observers do not expect a repetition of the 1998 elections, in which more than 84 percent of the electorate cast ballots.

Some 2,500 candidates are running in 25 parties for the 150-seat parliament, according to a proportional system based on the parties' regional lists of candidates. A 5 percent threshold required for a party to enter parliament is expected to restrict the number of winning parties to between five and 10.

The campaign has been largely calm and uneventful. Four years ago, when Meciar was still in power, fears were widespread that the authorities might try to manipulate the election results. Slovakia under Dzurinda's rule, however, has made noticeable strides in establishing the rule of law, although the prime minister's party, the Slovak Christian Democratic Union (SKDU), is unlikely to get more than 10 percent of the vote.

The ethnic Hungarian coalition SMK, which traditionally polls around 11 percent of the vote, would like to remain in government. But if Smer wins and Schuster asks Fico to form a government, he is considered unlikely to invite the Hungarians to join.

SMK leader Bela Bugar said jockeying for a place in the government has begun even before the polls open. "None of the party leaders is crazy. Negotiations, as well as various soundings, are already under way, particularly concerning program intentions and fundamentals," Bugar said.

Initial exit polls and projections should be available shortly after polling stations close. Preliminary results will be available on the morning of the 22 September, with final results not expected until the next day.