15/05/2006 - Analysis
On 17th June two weeks after their Czech neighbours nearly 4.5 million Slovaks are being called to renew their Parliament. On 6th February last the government coalition disintegrated after the Christian Democrat Party (KDH) decided to quit following the refusal on the part of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda (Christian and Democratic Union SDKU) to adopt a conscience clause planned for in the treaty signed in 2002 with the Vatican enabling people of the Catholic faith to refuse the execution of certain activities in the name of their conscience. With this clause an employee could have refused to work on a Sunday, a doctor to undertake an abortion, a teacher to teach the theory of evolution etc... This measure, unique in its genre was criticised by the network of experts in fundamental rights in Brussels.
Political analyst Grigorij Meseznikov believes that via this polemic Slovakia has found itself face to face with an alternative which committed it to nothing less than the future of the country since for Bratislava it was a question of choosing between "its foundations in a liberal Europe" or within "a conservative, traditionalist trend in Europe". Slovakia, that has a 70% Catholic population is, after Poland, the second most religious country in Central Europe.
After the resignation of three ministers belonging to the Christian Democrat Movement – Home Minister Vladimir Palko, Justice Minister, Daniel Lipsic and Education Minister Martin Fronc – the head of Government Mikulas Dzurinda put forward the holding of early general elections.
The Political System
The Parliament is monocameral; the National Council of the Republic comprises 150 members elected for four years by proportional representation. In order to stand in the elections any party or movement has to deliver a declaration certifying that it has rallied at least 10,000 members. If these numbers are inferior to this a party can however hand in a support petition bearing a number of signatures enabling it to reach the correct figure. A political party must win at least 5% of the votes cast in order to be represented on the National Council of the Republic, a coalition of two or three parties must win at least 7% (10% if it rallies four parties or more).
Seven political parties are represented at present on the National Council of the Republic:
- The Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), long time the main party in Parliament before the defection of thirteen of its members led by former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar (1993-1998).
- The Christian and Democratic Union (SDKU) Mikulas Dzurinda's party, Prime Minister since 30th October 1998;
- Direction (SMER), a Social Democrat movement created on 29th October 1999 and led by Robert Fico;
- The Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), a liberal party chaired by Bela Bugar;
- The Christian Democrat Movement (KDH), a party created in 1990 and member of the government coalition from September 2002 to 6th February 2006;
- The New Citizens' Alliance (ANO), a party created on 21st and 22nd April 2001, led by former Economy Minister Pavel Rusko;
- The Communist Party (KSS), lying to the extreme left of the political scale.
21 political parties are running in the general elections on 17th June next. Around 2.5 million Slovaks live abroad 400,000 of who have Slovakian nationality and are therefore entitled to vote. For the first time in the country's history Slovaks living in the Czech Republic (around 200,000 people) have been allowed to vote by mail and therefore did not have to travel to fulfil their citizen's duty. A month ago only 300 expatriates had registered on the electoral rolls of Petralka, the town chosen to receive their votes. According to Vilma Privarova, manager of the office for Slovaks living abroad this low number can be explained by the lack of advertising undertaken.
An overview of Mikulas Dzurinda's second government (2002-2006)
"We want to do everything in our power so that Slovakia does not lose its renown, image and economic stability", declared Mikulas Dzurinda who after eight years as head of government is standing as candidate for his own succession. The Prime Minister has not ruled out collaborating with any political party except for the Communist Party. He said that the Christian Democrat Movement and the Hungarian Coalition Party were the most likely partners for the Christian and Democratic Union. "The country must have a government and we must respect the electorate's will", he declared.
During his two terms in office as head of government the Prime Minister has turned Slovakia, which was an isolated nation after the government led by Vladimir Meciar (1993-1998) suffering from a lack of economic development into a modern, dynamic country. Since 2002 national economic activity has increased by 17% and the unemployment level has dropped by eight points falling from 20% to 12% of the working population (the east of the country is still the most affected part of the country however). For the first time government debt lay below 3% of the GDP in 2005. Finance Minister and Vice President of the Christian and Democratic Union Ivan Miklos attributed this drop in the deficit to the pace of economic growth and the increase in income taxes "My only aim is to continue the policy established by the government for Slovakia", maintained the Prime Minister who wants to continue his policy of reform. "I know what I don't want: a return to socialism," he repeats believing that this is the danger run by the country if Direction - (SMER-SD) wins the general elections on 17th June next.
For four years Mikulas Dzurinda has faced some tension on the part of the partners within his government coalition. Since the autumn of 2003 his government has also been the minority in Parliament and has had to negotiate each of its projects with unregistered MPs or members of the opposition. The members of the parties in the government coalition signed a pact of good conduct making their attendance obligatory when the National Council of the Republic holds a vote. In July 2005, the government fought off a challenge finally voted in by only 60 MPs, i.e. 16 less than the necessary figure to bring down the Prime Minister. On 24th August 2005 the Economy Minister Pavel Rusko chairman of the New Citizens' Alliance had to resign from his post after the press revealed that privately he had borrowed more 2.5 million euro from a business man.
The Prime Minister also had to overcome several electoral tests. On 3rd April 2004 during the first round of the presidential election the Slovaks had been called to vote by referendum on the possible holding of early general elections. This popular consultation led to a petition on the part of the Confederation of Unions (KOZ) which protested against the economic and social reforms established over the year by Mikulas Dzurinda's government. The referendum failed due to an insufficient number of participants: only 35.86% of the Slovaks fulfilled their citizen's duty whilst the electoral law demands the participation of at least half of those registered to validate the popular consultation. Amongst those who did vote a wide majority 86.78% said they were in favour of early general elections versus 11.93% who voted against. The same day the candidate running for the government coalition for the presidential post, Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, pronounced the favourite in all polls was eliminated in the first round of the election winning only 22.10% of the vote and taking third position.
However the parties in the present government coalition came out victorious in the first round of the regional elections that took place on 26th November 2005. The coalition formed by the Christian and Democratic Union and the Hungarian Coalition Party multiplied the number of its regional councillors by two in comparison with the previous election on 2nd and 15th December 2001 winning a majority in five of the eight of the country's Regional Parliaments. The opposition forces did however win the second round of the election which took place on 10th December taking the presidencies of eight regions (five for Direction including Bratislava and the country's biggest town, Kosice and three for the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia).
"The most recent years have been a success for Slovakia, notably in terms of growth and economic competition. Slovakia, which is no longer controlled economically by the State is a country that has succeeded", declared the President of the European José Manuel Barroso. Calling for the continuation of the reforms he positioned himself in line with the present government coalition and against the main opposition party, Direction, which says that it is in favour of a taking a break from the reforms. Its leader Robert Fico qualified José Manuel Barroso's speech as an "incredible faux pas" explaining that such comments were incorrect.
The Organisation for Co-operation and Economic Development has qualified Mikulas Dzurinda's term in office as "a perfect run". "Slovakia has simultaneously established a healthy macroeconomic policy, a total reform of taxation and social protection and new regulations aimed a products markets, capital and work which have resulted in the acceleration of growth over the last five years and an increase in the pace catching up with the standards of life in the most prosperous countries", indicated a study published on 26th September 2005.
Slovakia is the only country in Europe to having established a single taxation rate of 19% on VAT, income tax and company tax since 1st January 2004. The result of this has been direct foreign investment flooding into this country of Central Europe whose attraction on the part of international companies has simply grown stronger. By establishing themselves in this country the latter have brought new technologies and more effective trading practices which have enabled major gains in productivity.
The Election Stakes and the Electoral Campaign
Social problems are at the heart of the electoral campaign notably that of public health since hospital staff went on strike in April in demand of a 25% increase in salary, hence an increase in public spending for the health sector and the abandon of the plan to privatise hospitals. Medical staff salaries have not been raised in five years and healthcare professionals had already demonstrated in September last in Bratislava to request salary increases and an improvement in their working conditions. Mikulas Dzurinda and Robert Fico called for an end to the strike but whilst the Prime Minister blamed the size of the salaries on the hospital directors arguing that the State did not decide on this type of question, the leader of the main opposition party asked striking staff to be patient promising that if his party won in the general elections on 17th June next there would be an increase in public spending on healthcare. The government coalition accused the opposition of using the social movement for their own electoral campaign.
Direction-Social Democracy (SMER-SD) adopted a new name after its merger in 2004 with some of the smaller parties lying on the left of the political scale. Its leader, Robert Fico sets himself up as the people's spokesman and notably that of the poorest (half of the country's families live with under 9000 crowns – 242 euro – per month, figures from the Statistics Bureau April 2006) and unceasingly criticises the reforms established by the government especially those in the sectors of healthcare and taxation. The party denounces the corruption and vote catching nature of society. It says that it is in favour of in depth changes and greater solidarity especially with regard to healthcare and retirement. "A return to human dignity, the first steps to a Social State", this is the title of the document published by the party during its national congress in May 2005. The programme plans amongst other things to end privatisation and for free university studies. Likewise whilst its leader Robert Fico has mentioned the possibility of delaying the adoption of the single currency until 2011, he says that if his party wins the general election he will ensure that the policy of budgetary rigour will be maintained so that the adoption of the euro is not endangered from 2009 on.
The criticism of the reforms and privatisations on the part of the leader of Direction-Social Democracy was not welcomed by the financial community who are afraid of a pause in the reforms. "In our party no one is so crazy as to want to endanger public finances", answered Robert Fico. However the party which for a long time said it was in favour of a pause in the reform has now modified its approach and no longer talks of the need to correct the reforms that have already been adopted. In order not to frighten the business community Robert Fico has promised that the single tax rate of 19% that he qualified for a long time as "unjust", would remain in place whilst before he had said that he was in favour of lowering this to 15% and of raising it to 25% for some companies. The Social Democrat Party changes its attitude in order not to appear as a weak partner with regard to the other parties that might join it to form a future government. This leads a number of political analysts to think that the present government coalition led by Mikulas Dzurinda has not only succeeded in its reform policy but has also managed to establish its attitude to reform amongst the other political parties.
Declared winner by all the polls Direction-Social Democracy will still have to find partners with whom to form a government coalition and which enjoys the majority and is sustainable. The Christian Democrat Movement and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia appear to be the two parties with whom the Direction-Social Democracy might form a coalition totally ruling out any negotiations with extremist parties such as the Communist Party or the National Party. Robert Fico might however be happy in the fact that his main adversary for the post of Prime Minister the present Head of Government, Mikulas Dzurinda, does not have any reliable partners with whom he can form a government if he wins the general elections. The Christian and Democratic Union recently mentioned the possibility of forming a government coalition with the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia.
The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, which came out ahead in the general elections of September 20th and 21st 2002 (LU-HZDS, a new name since 14th June 2003) led by the country's former strong arm, Vladimir Meciar, is still an inevitable party in the political arena. The former populist Prime Minister, who remained against the European Union for a long time has now become a convinced European and lies in the centre of the political scale. Thirteen members of the Council of the Republic from the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia have incidentally left the party in expression of their disagreement with the new positions adopted by its leader. The latter, candidate in the presidential election of 3rd and 17th April 2004 was beaten in the second round by Ivan Gasparovic (Movement for Democracy, HZD) who won 59.91% of the vote versus 40.09% for Vladimir Meciar. He is determined to come back to power. "It will not be possible to form a government without the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia", he declared on 21st April last. The former Prime Minister warned against the dangers that Direction-Social Democracy posed for the country with its populist promises. "The promises will not be kept and this also endangers the partners of Direction-Social Democracy within the government coalition. Moreover the party is not stable, a great number of its members are manipulated by financiers and heads of companies", highlighted Vladimir Meciar. His party's traditional voters might however not identify with the new approach adopted by its leader.
To date only three political parties have presented their electoral programme: the Christian and Democratic Union, the National Party (SNS) and the Christian Democrat Party. The latter is in favour of reducing the rate of taxation by four or five points and hopes to reduce taxes on married couples expecting a child by 100,000 crowns. The National Party supports a decrease in VAT on food, medicines and books and is promising to provide free apartments for couples expecting a child (55,000 babies are born in Slovakia each year). As for the Christian and Democratic Union its programme which highlights the importance of education and training, is focussed on the continuation of the ongoing reforms. "I think that we offer an attractive programme to our fellow citizens: catching up with the most developed countries in Europe", declared Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda during his presentation at his party's electoral platform entitled "A successful Slovakia, this is what is at stake".
On 17th June the participation rate might fall below the 60% and even the 50% mark in the opinion of some political analysts. "Participation in these elections will certainly be the lowest ever recorded, the question being whether the rate will rise above 50% since only 30% of the Slovaks say they are certain of turning out to vote", stressed sociologist Pavel Haulik. Olga Gyarfasova, sociologist at the institute of public affairs (IVO) believes that "people who voted after the end of Communism in 1989 are disappointed and do not believe they can influence the action taken by the politicians. They also believe that politicians do not respect their opinion". Indeed 40% of Slovaks in the polls say they are disappointed by the development of political life and 30% say they have no confidence in politics. Young people interest the political parties who have done nothing however to interest them in the upcoming elections. Around 434,000 of them will be called to vote for the first time on 17th June. According to the polls their political preferences mostly lean towards Direction-Social Democracy and Free Forum, a party created on 8th December 2004 by dissidents from the Christian and Democratic Union and the Christian Democrat Party. "Indecision comprises the main characteristic of these new voters", warned however Olga Gyarfasova.
A low participation rate might be damaging to both of the country's main parties, the Christian and Democratic Union and Direction-Social Democracy who have an electorate who are far less stable than the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, the Christian Democrat Movement or the Hungarian Coalition Party. According to the polls barely half of the supporters of these two parties (55%) say they are prepared to go and vote. Vladimir Meciar who understood this very well recently said that if the abstention rate was high his party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia might come out of the electoral battle victorious. "If the participation rate is decreasing the mobilisation of the electorate might make all the difference", declared the former Prime Minister.
Although the participation rate rose to 70.07% in the elections on 20th and 21st September 2002 Slovakia distinguished itself as being the country with the greatest abstention rate during the European elections in June 2004, (16.96% participation rate). Likewise only 18.02% of the electorate fulfilled their civic duty on 26th November 2005 during the first round of the regional elections and 11.07% two weeks later in the second round. According to the latest poll undertaken by TNS-SK, 57% of Slovaks say they will go and vote on 17th June next.
According to a recent poll undertaken by Focus, Direction-Social Democracy is running easily ahead of its adversaries, winning 32.6% of the voting intentions versus 12.1% for the Movement for Democratic Slovakia, 9.8% for the Christian Democrat Movement, 9.3% for the Hungarian Coalition Party, 8.5% for the National Party and 8.1% for the Christian Democratic Union. Finally Free Forum and the Communist Party are also due to rise above the 5% mark necessary to be represented in the Council of the Republic both due to win 6.4% of the vote. However the New Citizen's Alliance is only due to win 2.6% of the vote.
General Elections Results of 20th and 21st September 2002 in Slovakia
Participation rate: 70.07%
Source: National Statistics Institute