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East European Perspectives: October 16, 2002

16 October 2002, Volume 4, Number 21

Look for Part 4 of "Deflective Negationism of the Holocaust in Postcommunist East-Central Europe" in the next issue of "RFE/RL East European Perspectives," which will be published on 30 October.


By Cas Mudde

Few countries have experienced as many crucial elections in recent years as Slovakia. In 1990, Slovaks voted in their first postcommunist election; in 1992, in the last Czechoslovak election; and in 1994, in the first independent Slovak election. Still, for many Slovaks, the 1998 election was even more important, as they saw it as possibly the last chance to save democracy in the country. Now, in 2002, another crucial election has been held, deciding, according to many national and international politicians, whether Slovakia is going to join its neighbors in the Western alliances of NATO and EU or fall behind, joining the ranks of the "second Europe."

As it appears now, the doors to the West are wide open and Slovakia should expect invitations to join both NATO and the EU in the coming months. The new prime minister is neither the much-feared national-populist Vladimir Meciar nor the much-courted but still-untested moderate populist Robert Fico -- but rather the internationally respected Premier Mikulas Dzurinda. Political leaders throughout the West have reacted with delight to the election result, universally describing it as a vote in favor of Euro-Atlantic integration. Has the ugly duckling of East European politics become a beautiful swan?

The Election Campaign
Compared to other election campaigns in Slovakia, most notably that of 1998, the campaign of 2002 was only marginally dominated by the struggle between pro- and anti-Meciar forces. During the first Dzurinda government (1998-2002), the pro-Meciar camp became increasingly divided and marginalized: Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) distanced itself from the Slovak National Party (SNS), while the SNS was primarily involved in internal struggles. The anti-Meciar camp finally developed into a more independent and positive force, creating its own visions rather than trying to block those of Meciar. Finally, an important new force entered the political arena: the Smer (Direction) party of charismatic leader Robert Fico, who created the party in late 1999 after being snubbed for a major position by the leadership of the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL). Smer was to be a "new" and "pragmatic" party, overcoming old divisions (Haughton 2002; Rybar 2002). This was a clear reference to the polarization of Slovak politics (rather than society!) into pro- and anti-Meciar camps. On this question, Fico also took a middle position; while he rejected any cooperation with Meciar, he kept the door open for a coalition with the HZDS party.

Despite almost constant internal bickering and severe tension between certain coalition parties -- most notably the SDL and the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) -- the first Dzurinda government achieved its main aim: getting Slovakia out of its international isolation and back en route to Euro-Atlantic integration. By July 2002, Slovakia had closed 27 of the 31 chapters of the acquis communautaire and was once again considered to be among the front-runners for early EU accession. On the downside, socioeconomic development was slow and uneven, favoring mainly the better educated in urban regions, while scandals and corruption remained rampant. In addition, the government was hardly successful in punishing Meciar's cronies from previous administrations (as was most painfully clear in the ongoing saga concerning former intelligence chief Ivan Lexa). This was not so much to the credit of the political opposition, which failed in virtually all of its many antigovernment activities, but rather reflected some serious problems within the legal system (including both legislation and personnel).

The election campaign was relatively low-key within Slovakia but soon became an important focus of international actors. Alarmed by polls that showed Meciar's HZDS still solidly leading, high-ranking representatives of the U.S. and EU administrations expressed their voting advice increasingly openly. In June 2002, two months before the official election campaign in Slovakia started, for instance, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns said that government participation by the HZDS would be "a fundamental obstacle to Slovakia's accession to NATO" ("Die Presse," 20 June 2002). EU Commissioner for Enlargement Guenther Verheugen was only marginally more subtle, calling the elections "the most important election in the history of the country" and arguing that, "Slovakia needs a government that is trusted in Europe and is able to lead Slovakia into the EU, while guaranteeing the continuation of the process of political, economic, and social change" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September 2002).

In addition, a lot of foreign money was invested in a get-out-the vote campaign. According to "The Washington Post" (23 September 2002), "The U.S. Agency for International Development and nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] funded primarily by the United States spent more than $1.2 million on elaborate campaigns to encourage Slovaks to vote despite widespread frustration with a government that failed to improve living standards during its four-year term." Pavol Demes, director of the Central and Eastern Europe branch of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said that the 2002 pro-vote campaign by NGOs was the strongest ever in financial terms (CTK, 10 April 2002); even stronger than the already massive (and, ironically, more visible) pro-vote campaign for the 1998 elections (see Butora et al. 1999).

Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU), as well as the SMK and to a lesser extent the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), tried to capitalize on the government's progress in Euro-Atlantic integration and their more or less open support from the West. They stressed that the elections were crucial in determining Slovakia's future and that it was a choice between the East (read: Meciar, HZDS) and the West (read: Dzurinda, SDKU). The HZDS, on the other hand, hoped to fight the elections mainly on domestic issues, most notably the socioeconomic hardship of many Slovaks; but it was increasingly forced onto the defensive by comments from abroad. Consequently, Meciar was compelled to spend most of his time trying to convince people in- and outside the country that he had learned from the past and was a political born-again. Over and over again he reiterated his support for Euro-Atlantic integration and nuanced his importance in a possible future HZDS-led government. Smer and, to a lesser degree, media mogul Pavol Rusko's Alliance of New Citizens (ANO) tried to position themselves between the two blocks, stressing their support for the Euro-Atlantic integration of the first Dzurinda government yet at the same time criticizing their socioeconomic policies and alleged corruption. Both parties called for a "new politics" without making clear what specifically would be new about it, while Fico in particular also addressed some more emotionally laden topics (crime, Roma) by using strong populist rhetoric.

A particular role was played by President Rudolf Schuster, whose high-handed actions and continued search for a more prominent role in Slovak politics have been among the few things that united the Slovak government and opposition in recent years. A good example was his annual State of the Nation speech to parliament on 28 June, less than three months before the elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 July 2002). On the one hand, Schuster repeated the opinions of Western officials by stating, "These are the most important elections since November 1989." On the other hand, he sharply criticized the ruling coalition, alleging that the quarrelsome governing coalition has proven unable to take more resolute decisions, with the result that many reforms have been delayed. He also pointed to high unemployment and problems in the health-care sector, arguing that citizens did not believe the situation was improving.

By the end of the campaign, a more or less clear picture of the political landscape in Slovakia was emerging. The HZDS was losing support, and Meciar was increasingly isolated outside of his party and even criticized within it. The right-wing parties of the government (SDKU, SMK, and KDH) were all going to make the 5 percent threshold and were looking to build a new government with ANO (despite criticism of Rusko's political use of his TV Markiza station) and, if necessary, Smer. Fico seemed destined to become the new prime minister, at the head of the most popular "democratic" party and the most trusted politician in the country. There was only some question as to which political party would become the strongest force in the new parliament. Two weeks before the elections, in the final polls before a moratorium on election coverage, the Public Opinion Research Institute (UVVM) had the HZDS ahead of Smer (18.7 and 15.2 percent, respectively), while the MVK agency had Smer ahead of the HZDS (18.5 and 17.6 percent, respectively).

The Election Results
On 20-21 September, 25 political parties contested the Slovak elections, eight more than in 1998. Initially, 29 parties registered in July, but three parties later withdrew -- of which the Democratic Party (DS) pulled out just a week before the elections -- and one party (the Active Women OS of Slovakia) was deemed ineligible to participate in the ballot by the Central Election Committee ("RFE/RL Newsline," 26 July 2002). The remaining parties were a mix of the new and the old, though many of the new parties actually came from the old: the Movement for Democracy (HZD) had broken away from the HZDS just two months before the elections; Smer and the Social Democratic Alternative (SDA) were both hived off the SDL; while the Real Slovak National Party (PSNS) broke away from the SNS. In addition, the SDKU and the KDH emerged from the 1998 anti-Meciar umbrella party of the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), which had since disintegrated.

This division meant that five center-left and six center-right parties competed in the elections, as well as two Romany parties. Only the Greens and the Hungarians were united and contested the elections in their respective unified parties. On the extremes, five extreme-left and three extreme-right parties contested the ballot, all but one unsuccessfully (the remaining two parties are sui generis). The number of candidates per party ranged from 24 to the maximum of 150. As is common throughout Europe, older, better-educated males with party affiliation dominated the party lists. Only three parties were led by women, of which ironically the extreme-right SNS under Anna Malikova's leadership was the only party with a chance at winning parliamentary representation.

Despite predictions to the contrary in some polls, Meciar's HZDS remained the strongest political party in the Slovak parliament. However, its 19.50 percent of the vote (36 seats) means the party lost a significant share of support compared to both the last elections (27 percent) and its previous months' popularity in opinion polls. At the beginning of the year, the HZDS polled over 30 percent, while even in July it still attracted some 25 percent. Even more surprisingly, it was not Smer that ran second, as was widely expected, but the SDKU. The party of the much-criticized prime minister, officially supported by the Democratic Party, gained a surprising 15.09 percent (28 seats), several percentage points higher than the last polls had indicated. Smer had to settle for third place with 13.46 percent (25 seats). Paradoxically, this meant that Fico, the most popular politician in Slovakia, gained fewer votes than Dzurinda, the most mistrusted politician in the country: a clear indication that Slovak politics are not simply about personalities and that political institutions (most notably parties) do play an important role.

Four more parties (re-)gained seats in the Slovak parliament. The SMK won 11.16 percent of the vote (25 seats), which is more than 1 percentage point above the portion of the Hungarian-speaking minority in the population, and an increase of 2 percentage points compared to the 1998 election result. The KDH, which was below the threshold in most polls at the beginning of the year, made a strong comeback with 8.25 percent (15 seats), while Rusko's center-right ANO gained a respectable, though somewhat disappointing, 8.01 percent (15 seats). Most surprising, however, was the 6.32 percent for the unreformed Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS), which for the first time since the fall of the communist regime entered parliament, with 11 seats, against the predictions of most pollsters.

Among the almost-20 parties that failed to gain entry into the new parliament were some long-standing members. Both the SDL and the SNS have been represented in all postcommunist parliaments in Slovakia but did not pass the 5 percent threshold this time. The SDL was left with a mere 1.36 percent, collapsing from 14.66 percent in 1998! The SNS plummeted from 9.07 percent in 1998 to 3.32 percent; meaning it was surpassed by its split, the PSNS of former SNS leader Jan Slota, which gained 3.65 percent. Finally, the SDA of Peter Weiss proved to be a mere elite project, with just 1.79 percent of voters supporting it.

Another positive sign was the relatively high turnout of 70.07 percent. Though this was the lowest figure in Slovak electoral history and almost 15 percent lower than the turnout in 1998, the figure is equal to that in the highly polarized Hungarian elections (71 percent) of 2002 and much higher than in this year's Czech elections or the 2001 Polish elections (58 and 46 percent, respectively). Moreover, despite all the rhetoric from mainly foreign officials, and the even better funded get-out-the-vote campaign of NGOs, most Slovaks apparently considered the 2002 elections less crucial than those of 1998.

Party Movement vs. Voter Stability
At first sight, the Slovak party system seems to have lost little of its fluidity. Of the four parties that formed the government after the 1998 elections, only one returned to the parliament (the SMK). In addition, only one of the two opposition parties was able to surpass the threshold. At closer examination, the former SDK was amply represented by the KDH and the SDKU -- the latter a coalition of parts of the Democratic Union (DU) and other parts of the KDH, which was also officially supported by the Democratic Party in the elections. The SDL and the SNS both contested the elections but failed to reach the parliament as a consequence of party splits. Only the Party of Civic Understanding (SOP) did not contest the elections and has by and large ceased to exist.

Despite this somewhat chaotic image at the party-system level, there are strong indications that the chaos was mainly the result of actions by the elite rather than by the electors. According to a postelection poll published by the website of the Slovak daily Sme (, the Slovak electorate voted relatively stably in comparison with 1998. Obviously, the most loyal electorate was that of the SMK (91.9 percent!), which remains first and foremost an ethnic party. Almost two-thirds of the 1998 SDK electorate voted for its two main components in 2002 -- the SDKU (41.3 percent) and the KDH (21.7 percent) -- with the two personality-based parties -- Smer (11.9 percent) and ANO (10.8 percent) -- taking most of the rest. The largest change was caused by former SDL voters -- that party having lost more of its 1998 electorate to Smer (25.3 percent) than it was able to keep for itself (18.4 percent). In addition, the KSS (13.8 percent) took a larger share of the 1998 SDL vote than did the SDL-split SDA (9.7 percent). This is somewhat similar to the HZDS, which lost more to Smer (13.7 percent) than to the HZD (10.5 percent). As was to be expected, former voters of the personality-based SOP of President Schuster largely voted again for personality-based parties -- i.e., ANO (28.4 percent) and Smer (24.8 percent) -- but some segments of this electorate nonetheless voted this time for the party of the prime minister, the SDKU (16.1 percent).

The situation at the extreme right end of the Slovak political spectrum is a bit more complex. While this will be the first postcommunist Slovak parliament without an extreme-right faction, the divided PSNS and SNS together gained 6.97 percent of the votes, which is 2.1 percent less than the still-united SNS received in 1998. Although those two parties' combined 2002 support was approximately three-quarters of the SNS vote of 1998 (9.1 percent), only half of the SNS voters from 1998 remained "loyal" to either of those two parties: 31.7 percent stuck with the SNS, and 19.3 percent moved with the PSNS. An additional 15 percent went to Smer, while over 10 percent went to the HZDS and the HZD.

In terms of regional division, Slovakia followed a common East-Central European pattern. As was the case in the recent elections in Poland, Hungary, and, to a lesser extent, the Czech Republic, there was a clear urban-rural cleavage in party support in Slovakia. The SDKU was the largest party in the districts in and around the main cities of Bratislava, Kosice, and Banska Bystrica. In sharp contrast, the HZDS fared poorly in the cities yet was the strongest party in most rural areas (except for those with large Hungarian-speaking minorities, which constitute the heartland of the SMK). The KSS received its strongest support in the industrial wastelands of Eastern Slovakia, and even became the strongest party in the district of Medzilaborce in the northeast of Slovakia. This regional divide was confirmed in a postelection study by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), which showed that the election results were welcomed more by citizens of Slovakia's largest cities than by those from smaller towns and large villages (TASR, 24 September 2002).

Interpretations And Explanations
Most postelection commentaries in the national and international press emphasized the importance of the political campaign, most notably the role that Western powers played in it. "The Washington Post "(23 September 2002) went so far as to argue that the election result "represented a victory for Western powers led by the United States, which took unusual steps to influence the result of a free ballot in a Central European country."

It is undoubtedly true that high-ranking members of both the U.S. and the EU administrations had stressed for months the importance of the upcoming elections for Slovakia's future position in world politics. Despite professed neutrality, their statements had been clearly interpreted as a call to refrain from voting for Meciar -- as well as, though less clearly, a call to vote for parties represented in the outgoing Dzurinda government. (For example, there was a remarkable overlap in the themes and the idiom used during the campaign by both Western officials and the SDKU -- e.g., stressing the choice for "integration vs. isolation" and the importance of "continuity" and "responsibility.") That these calls were taken serious within Slovakia, at least at the elite level, could be seen from the change in the HZDS campaign and the fact that Euro-Atlantic integration became the key issue of parties' electoral campaigns.

That said, it is difficult to empirically substantiate or refute the claim that the warnings of the West decided the vote, as there are no data that explicitly link the statements from Western officials with voters' decisions. However, a poll conducted by the Polis agency in July showed not only that 77.5 percent of Slovaks backed joining the EU and 60.9 percent supported joining NATO, but also that 51.3 percent of respondents considered the HZDS to be the biggest obstacle to Slovakia's integration into these two organizations ("RFE/RL Newsline," 30 July 2002).

Other available data point to greater caution, however. First, a poll by the Focus agency showed that during the campaign a majority of 57 percent of Slovaks expressed dissatisfaction with the open interference in the Slovak election campaign by Western officials, while only 30 percent supported it ("Focus," August 2002). Particularly within the main target group of the Western campaign -- i.e., the (potential) supporters of the HZDS -- resentment was high: A full 87.5 percent of HZDS supporters rejected the interference of Western officials, while only 2.5 percent supported it. Second, according to the same Focus poll, the major concerns of the Slovak electorate were related to the socioeconomic situation in the country (unemployment, standard of living, health care) and to crime (including corruption and "tunneling," or embezzlement). Third, the losses of both the HZDS and the SNS are most strongly related to internal party problems and consequent splits, which were the result of elite struggles unrelated to the issue of Euro-Atlantic integration.

Finally, data on when people decided to vote for a specific party, published on the "Sme" website (, indicate a rather mixed picture. As was to be expected, SMK voters were least influenced by the campaign, with 88 percent saying they decided to vote for the party before the election campaign. But among the voters of the two most pro-Western parties, the ratio of decided voters ahead of the campaign was not much lower: 76 percent among KDH voters and 72 percent among SDKU voters. Among supporters of the most clearly anti-Western party, the KSS, 65 percent said they were unaffected by the campaign. Not surprisingly, the electorates of the new, personality-based parties (Smer and ANO) decided generally only during the election campaign -- in which both parties were active and visible. Remarkably, though, of all major parties the electorate of the HZDS was most affected by the election campaign; almost half (48 percent) decided to vote HZDS in the last month before the election, while an additional 20 percent decided on the day of the elections (of which 5 percent only in the voting booth!). Whether these voters were confused but ultimately unconvinced by the warnings from abroad cannot be ascertained on the basis of these data. However, they do provide another indicator of the general weakening of HZDS support, which used to be rock solid.

In conclusion, rather than having kept people from voting for the HZDS, the Western officials seem to have been successful mainly at making Euro-Atlantic integration the main topic of the election campaign (see "Transitions Online," 24 September 2002). This had a profound effect on the elite level, as both the HZDS and, more importantly, Smer saw their preferred topics (standard of living and crime) lose importance. In sharp contrast, the SDKU (and to a lesser extent the KDH) was elevated into a comfortable position: It no longer had to defend its poor record on the economy and crime, but instead could boast its undeniable success in re-integrating Slovakia into the West. That said, the SDKU was still only the third party in polls held just prior to the elections. The most plausible explanation is that a large group of former SDK-voters, disappointed by the government over the years and pondering either not voting or possibly supporting the SMK or the KDH, decided only in the last days (if not on the election days themselves) to (a) vote and (b) vote for the SDKU. These likely better-educated, urban, second- and third-time voters decided in the end that at this point in time Euro-Atlantic integration is the key issue and that Dzurinda is the best guarantee of that. "At the same time, though, he will have to keep in mind that this support did not come because the voters were enthralled with him and his party. To a great extent, it came because they couldn't stomach the alternatives" ("Transitions Online," 17-23 September 2002).

The Next Steps
After an obligatory if futile attempt to construct a government by the HZDS, a center-right government of SDKU-SMK-KDH-ANO under new-old Prime Minister Dzurinda was formed quickly. The new coalition has the support of 78 of the 150 Slovak members of parliament, a narrow majority of three seats. Though this is not much, particularly in the fluid context of postcommunist politics, it should be enough to see Slovakia through the crucial coming years, in which the country is widely expected to gain entry into both NATO and the EU.

There are a few reasons why the new coalition should be able to govern with less interference than the last one. First, the coalition is far more coherent in ideological terms, particularly with regard to the two key issues: Euro-Atlantic integration and socioeconomic reform. Whereas the last coalition included also left-wing parties, most notably the SDL and the SOP, the second Dzurinda government is constituted exclusively of center-right formations. Second, the coalition is more coherent in organizational terms. The first Dzurinda government included two newly constructed umbrella parties (SDK and SMK), one completely new party (SOP), and a deeply divided party (SDL). The SMK has proven to be stable (despite occasional problems with the nationalist wing of Miklos Duray), while the uneasy SDK has given way to two more coherent parties, the SDKU and the KDH. The only dark horse is ANO, though as long as its leader Rusko is kept satisfied, there seems little reason for dissent. Third, the opposition is more divided than before and is less opposed to at least the key international goals of the new government (particularly Smer).

So, it does indeed look like the ugly duckling of East-Central Europe has become a beautiful swan. Slovakia has the most pro-market and pro-Western coalition in East-Central Europe. It even has a pure ideological government-opposition divide on the left-right scale, often seen as a sign of "Westernization," with the center-right in government and the center- and extreme left in opposition. Still, this should not obscure the fact that more than 15 percent of Slovaks voted for an extremist party (most notably the SNS, the PSNS, and the KSS), and some 20 percent still support the erratic populist Meciar (see "The Economist," 26 September 2002). Moreover, an IVO postelection poll showed, in addition to the regional divide mentioned above, that young voters were particularly dissatisfied with the elections results (TASR, 24 September 2002).

This notwithstanding, the trend is in a positive direction. If anything, Slovakia has finally reached the post-Meciar era, in which the "father of the fatherland" no longer dominates national politics (directly or indirectly). In addition, the extreme right is out of the parliament; and even if it returns in the future (after a reshuffle and reunification), it will be more isolated than ever. In short, the people of Slovakia have fulfilled their part of the deal. Now it is up to the elite and their friends abroad to ensure that this opportunity for Euro-Atlantic integration is used to the full.

(Cas Mudde is lecturer in politics at the University of Antwerp. He is grateful to Anna Siskova and Peter Ucen for their valuable assistance.)


Butora, M., et al., (eds.), 1999, The 1998 Parliamentary Elections and Democratic Rebirth in Slovakia (Bratislava: Institute for Public Affairs).

CTK (Prague), 2002.

"The Economist" (London), 2002.

"Focus" (Bratislava), 2002.

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

"Die Presse" (Vienna), 2002.

"RFE/RL Newsline," (Prague), 2002.

Rybar, M., 2002, Slovak Political Parties Before Parliamentary Elections 2002 (Bratislava: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung).

"Sme," (Bratislava), 2002.

TASR, (Bratislava), 2002.

"Transitions Online," (Prague), 2002.

"The Washington Post," (Washington), 2002.