17/05/2003 - Analysis
"Do you want Slovakia to become a member of the European Union?" This is the question that Slovaks will have to answer on 16th-17th May during a referendum on their country's membership of the European Union. This electoral consultation will be obligatory, and to be declared valid must imperatively reach a participation level that is more than half of those registered on the electoral role. However a majority of votes in favour of membership will be enough to confirm Slovakia's membership of the European Union.
Slovakia, that was governed between 1993-1998 by Vladimir Meciar (Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, HZDS), the populist leader who was not liked by the Western countries, has often been the bad boy in the old group of States of Eastern Europe that are being democratised. The country, that has now been ruled for five years by a coalition government and led by Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda (Slovak Democratic and Christian Union, SDKU), suffered greatly from its international isolation and has made entry into the European Union its main objective (as well as its integration into NATO). Slovakia started negotiations with Brussels on 15th February 2000 and thanks to its remarkable efforts and a very strong will it was quickly in a position to join the first group of candidate countries. Günther Verheugen, European Commissioner for Enlargement said just a few months ago: "Not only has Slovakia caught up with the other candidates who started negotiations earlier, it is now amongst the leading countries en route for integration."
Politically the progress achieved by Slovakia is major. During the last general elections on 20th and 21st September 2002 Slovak voters clearly made a choice for Europe. If a great majority of the population did not express its support for the government parties at least they expressed their desire for a European future and their will not to return to the period of isolation that they had experienced during the four years when their country was led by Vladimir Meciar. Mikulas Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) emerged strengthened from this general election. When the results of the vote were announced Michael Wygant, observation director of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) during the Slovak general elections declared "These elections clearly showed the durable nature of democratic development in Slovakia,"
On an economic level Slovakia is continuing to catch up. The GDP growth level has continued to gather speed over the last few years coming into line with its neighbours and growing to surpass the average across the countries of Central and Eastern Europe: it reached 3.3% in 2001 versus 2,2% in 2000. Privatisations have brought in more than 300 billion Slovak Crowns. 2002 witnessed the completion of rehabilitation and restructuring of the national banking system that started in 1998. Slovakia now also has the third best banking system in Central and Eastern Europe. In addition to this the country is increasingly oriented towards the EU that represents 62% of its exports and 49% of its imports.
The fact that many economic reforms have not been completed has however damaged the state of government finances and led to an increase in the public debt that rose from 177 to 366 billion Crowns over the last four years. The budgetary deficit has also increased to reach 4.6% of the GDP in 2001. Although companies have seen an improvement in their results the unemployment level remains high; it effected 18.9% of the working population in 2001 (versus 12.6% in 2000) reaching up to 30% in some Eastern parts of the country.
The European Union granted an additional 20 million euros to Slovakia to develop the country's administrative capabilities that were still deemed insufficient. Bratislava must also work towards a better co-ordination of the European structural funds across all of the regions in the country. The government has said that it aims to use around 30% of the aid received from the European Social Fund for professional training for those who are under qualified and members of minorities.
The first programmes to improve living conditions of Gypsies was launched in 2001. The following year the government granted 50 million Slovak Crowns in subsidies that were added to by the aid from the EU. The construction of council homes has started across the country and three billion Crowns were dedicated to gas and electricity equipment. However few measures have really been launched to fight against unemployment that effects the Gypsy community quite seriously. Finally the government's action in favour of minorities is coming across opposition on the part of some of the population as well as some nationalist parties that lie at extremes on the political chess board.
The Slovak Opinion and European Integration.
A great majority of Slovaks say they are in favour of their country joining the EU. According to an opinion poll undertaken by MVK in March 74.9% said they intended to vote "yes" on 16th and 17th May versus 11.2% of the population who said they would vote "no", 13.9% said they had not yet decided. 73% of Slovaks maintained that they would vote in the referendum. The last poll undertaken between 27th March and 2nd April by the Institute for Culture and Public Opinion at the National Cultural Centre bears witness to the continuation of the support for Europe: 74.5% of those interviewed said they intended to vote "yes", a percentage that is up by 10 points in comparison with last month. 2.5% said they still had not decided.
The main worry is not about the election result but about the level of Slovak abstention. In order to be valid the electoral consultation must imperatively record a participation level that is more than half of those registered on the electoral role. However the four previous referenda organised by the Slovak government since the country's independence (1993) all failed due to an insufficient participation rate (in 1997, Slovaks voted on NATO and privatisations and in 1999 on the election of the President of the Republic by direct universal suffrage and on the holding of early elections). Officially even if the referendum was invalidated Slovakia could become a member of the European Union if 60% of Parliamentary Members say they are in favour of European integration. However although a failure of the referendum would not totally close the doors of Europe to the Slovaks it would still be serious in terms of the consequences suffered.
The low participation rate seen in Hungary during the vote for the country's membership to the EU (45.6%) on 12th April worries most political analysts. Pal Csaky, Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration said that the low participation rate by the Hungarians was "a very, very serious warning" for Slovakia. Vladimir Meciar, leader of the main opposition party: the Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), recently called for a modification to the law surrounding the referendum so as not to subordinate the validation of the election to the participation rate. Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda refused this suggestion arguing that greater mobilisation on the part of the political parties ought to convince the Slovak electorate to go and vote. We should also point out that the head of government refused to appear on an electoral poster in favour of the country's integration into Europe with the leaders of the six other political parties represented on the Slovak Republic's National Council (the only Chamber in Parliament) mainly because the former populist Prime Minister was also to feature on it.
The electoral campaign
Whilst the government had announced its strategy aiming at an early mobilisation of the population on the referendum as early as January, the start of the electoral campaign was chaotic. Last month the President of the Republic Rudolf Schuster announced his concern about the government's delay. The Slovak delegation at the European Commission said it was dissatisfied with the delays and the inadequacies of the means employed and initiated its own campaign for the referendum in January. The delegation, who had requested in vain 25,000 additional euros from Brussels will distribute leaflets and t-shirts in the near future travelling around the country for the next 20 days organising several televised debates with the help of NGO's including the Slovak Football Federation.
Pal Csaky, Deputy Prime Minister who is officially in charge of the campaign believes that the planned two weeks of campaigning (the official campaign will take place between the 4th and 14th May) are more than sufficient to mobilise the Slovaks. The advertising agencies, Creo/Young Rubicon and Monarch, were selected to undertake the first media campaign (that started mid-April): create radio and televised ads, compose campaign slogans ("The choice lies in our hands", "It's better to be in than out"), publish articles on the EU in the main daily papers and magazines and draw up different posters and information brochures. These two agencies have at their disposal a budget of 478,000 euros (Creo/Young Rubicon) and 227,000 euros (Monarch) respectively. A « hot line », that operates 8 hours a day has been set up to answer any questions that the Slovaks might have. Concerts have been organised in "Eurodiscos" targeting the young people across the country. The culminating point of the campaign will be two enormous concerts to be organised on 13th May in the capital, Bratislava and Kosice, the country's second biggest town under the banner of "Three days away from Europe".
All of the country's political movements both those in the government coalition as well as the opposition are calling to vote in favour of Slovakia's entry into the EU, and this includes the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) led by Vladimir Meciar. Indeed, after having been anti-Europe and anti-NATO for many year the populist leader made a complete turn around last year and does not miss any opportunity to assert strongly his pro-Atlantic and Community commitment.
"We are going to do away with the frontiers that have divided Europe since Yalta" declared Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda just before his departure for Athens to sign Slovakia's membership treaty of the EU. Like him most Slovaks see their country's integration into Europe as the reward for their effort and recognition of Slovakia's European nature. It is up to the politicians to make this popular referendum a success and to find the right word to convey to the population how important their participation will be on 16th and 17th May.