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EU: Slovaks Head To Polls To Vote In Referendum

Slovaks are going to the polls tomorrow and Saturday (16-17 May) to vote for or against joining the European Union. The biggest concern, for the country's leaders, is making sure enough voters take the time to cast their ballots. With support for EU membership running at over 70 percent, the question is not whether Slovaks want to join the EU -- but if the referendum will be valid.

Prague, 15 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "Let's go Slovakia, let's go, everyone. Let's go Slovakia, let's go in unison."

That groovy tune is Slovakia's unofficial "euro-anthem" -- a song urging Slovaks to say "yes" to joining the European Union. The anthem emerged after the government last month was forced to hastily withdraw the official referendum song for copyright reasons.

Unfortunately for the artists, "Let's go Slovakia" is not getting much airplay. But while the musical accompaniment to this weekend's referendum may have fallen flat, Slovakia's leaders are hoping they'll have more success with the poll itself.

The problem isn't a well-organized "no" camp, or even widespread euro-skepticism among the population. Every major party is in favor of joining. And polls show public support for EU membership running at over 70 percent.

The biggest adversary is potential voter apathy. The worry is that turnout won't reach the 50 percent needed to make the poll valid.

In a survey last month, fewer than half of the Slovaks interviewed said they would definitely go to the polls -- though another quarter said they would "likely" turn up.

"The main purpose of the campaign wasn't to persuade people to vote 'yes,' but rather to mobilize them for participation," Grigorij Meseznikov, a prominent commentator on Slovak affairs, told RFE/RL. "There are some fears and concerns about this issue because Slovaks have not [had a] very proper experience with referendums as an institution for direct democracy. We have had four invalid or obstructed referendums. Moreover, every year in Slovakia we have [had a] national electoral act since 1997. There is a certain electoral tiredness among the population. That's why there are some concerns."

So politicians have been stressing the importance of the vote. Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said it will cap a process that began with the fall of communism in then-Czechoslovakia in 1989. Guenter Verheugen, the EU's enlargement commissioner, said the referendum is probably the most important decision for the future of the country since its independence.

The president and leaders of seven political parties gathered this week to drive home the point. Their joint statement told Slovaks: "This is the moment when you have to take into your hands the responsibility for the future development of this country."

"No matter what our political affiliation, ethnic background, or world outlook, we are convinced that Slovakia's return to the community of developed nations is a step that will in future secure our prosperity, stability, economic growth and security. We will also gain the opportunity to help shape an increasingly integrated Europe," presidential spokesman Jan Fule said.

There have been other efforts to attract voter attention.

After their meeting, the leaders hit the streets of downtown Bratislava for a campaign walkabout. They mixed with culture and sports celebrities and touted blue balloons and little European Union flags.

The government also said it plans to send text messages to voters' mobile phones urging them to turn up. And leaders say they don't mind breaking the "blackout" on electoral campaigning to spur on apathetic voters. "We agreed that if the first day doesn't go as planned, on that first day we'll call on people to take part in the referendum," President Rudolf Schuster said.

Analyst Meseznikov said all the political unity could help -- as could the success of Lithuania's referendum last week.

There, too, there were fears that apathy could scupper the referendum, and polling was held over two days in an effort to maximize turnout. After an initial slow start, turnout was sufficient and a whopping 91 percent voted "yes."

Meseznikov said Slovaks also won't want to be the first candidate country to have a failed referendum, after successful polls in Hungary, Malta, Slovenia, and Lithuania:

"I think the whole result of the Lithuanian referendum is very encouraging for the country, really it's a chain of referenda in Central and Eastern Europe and Slovaks don't want to drop from this chain. So from this point of view the results of the Lithuanian referendum really can encourage and can help Slovaks to show a good result," Meseznikov said.

A "yes" vote will mean Slovakia is well on the way to joining the EU along with nine other candidate countries next year. And perhaps just as important for Slovakia's weary voters, it'll mean no more need for songs like this one: "Let's go Slovakia, let's go, everyone. Let's go Slovakia, let's go in unison."

(RFE/RL's Slovak Service and Zydrone Krasauskiene of RFE/RL's Lithuanian Service contributed to this report.)