Vol 1, No 11
6 September 1999
A Year of New Government
One year after Slovakia's September 1998 parliamentary elections that brought down the government of Vladimir Meciar, the country presents a mixed picture.
The elections were expected to have broad and long-lasting implications for Slovakia's future development, with a crucial impact on whether the country's foreign policy orientation would be aimed at the West or at the East; whether rule of law would prevail over clientelism and corruption; whether the overall political atmosphere would be calm and cooperative versus aggressive and confrontational; and whether the Slovak people would feel free to express themselves openly or feel stifled and afraid.
Because Slovaks turned out in large numbers and gave overwhelming support to the four parties that make up the current government, the elections were presented as evidence that Slovak society had undergone a fundamental shift in political culture, marked by the strengthening of a democratic civil society. Had Meciar gained enough support to obtain the position of prime minister for the fourth time since 1990, it was widely believed that many Slovaks - especially young and educated ones - would lose hope in their country and pack their bags for a more stable democracy.
Courting the West
Probably the biggest achievement of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda's government over the past year has been its success in putting Slovakia back on the path toward European integration. Dzurinda and other members of the cabinet have had numerous visits to Western countries, lobbying to get Slovakia in the same position as its Visegrad neighbors.
Although it was too late to catch up with the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary in joining NATO, the Slovak government has set its hopes on gaining a delayed invitation into the first round of EU enlargement talks during the upcoming Helsinki summit in November. This will be the ultimate test for the government's acceptance abroad.
The cabinet has fulfilled all the political requirements that the EU recommended to the previous Meciar government as a condition for entry into the first round, including the approval of a law on the use of minority languages. Moreover, the country's image has been further boosted by the inclusion of ethnic Hungarians in the government for the first time since Slovakia gained independence, and the appointment of Party of the Hungarian Coalition (SMK) representative Pal Csaky as deputy prime minister for human and minority rights has been especially important.
Another achievement has been the holding of direct presidential elections in May after a vacancy in that position lasting more than one year. Although the country was already showing signs of an economic downturn when the elections were held, the ruling coalition's candidate, Rudolf Schuster, managed to defeat Meciar by a wide margin.
Many Slovaks were reluctant to support Schuster because of his Communist past; however, he passed his first major test in August by refusing to call a referendum demanded by the opposition on the minority language law and the privatization of strategic enterprises. While the minority language law question was considered illegal by many experts since the Constitution guarantees the use of minority languages in official contexts, the question on privatization was considered premature since a similar referendum was held unsuccessfully in September, and three years must pass between referenda dealing with the same issue.
Many Slovaks now fear that despite the new cabinet's accomplishments, the difficult economic situation combined with the emigration of Slovak Roma to various Western countries will prevent Slovakia from receiving the anticipated invitation in Helsinki. If Slovakia were not accepted into the first round despite government efforts to meet the West's recommendations, the EU would simply re-enforce the perceptions of many Slovaks that their country is a perpetual outcast that is judged by different standards than other states in the region. By leaving Slovakia out, the EU would most likely bring about the collapse of the Dzurinda government, which has placed much of its credibility in reaching the first round.
Since it took office, the Dzurinda government has been presented with a number of challenges in the area of economic policy, mainly because of the excesses of the previous Meciar government. Despite the difficulty of negotiations among four parties that span the entire political spectrum, the government has managed to take a number of unpopular but necessary steps to turn the economy around.
The announcement in May of the cabinet's "revitalization program," which includes an increase in the lower rate of VAT, an import surcharge, price deregulation, as well as cuts in state administration personnel, won praise from domestic and international analysts and put a halt to speculation on the Slovak crown. Nonetheless, conflicts within the government over the means delayed the introduction of austerity measures considerably. Approved more as an act of desperation rather than a well thought-out plan, the revitalization program would probably not have been so harsh if the cabinet had acted sooner.
It will take some time before the results of such policies will be apparent, and, in the meantime, the country continues to face economic problems. Unemployment has recently reached a record high, while inflation growth has also accelerated, partly as the result of liberalization of energy and rent prices. The Slovak crown, which before the introduction of the revitalization program fell to its lowest level since the collapse of Communism, has since strengthened, although it remains far below the pre-election value.
Political calm and rule of law
It is still an open question whether the Dzurinda government has ushered in an era of calm on the political scene. Given the frequent public debates among representatives of the four ruling parties - based on both ideological differences as well as personality - it sometimes seems that there is hardly a need for opposition.
Probably the biggest conflicts have been those between the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL) and the SMK, most notably concerning the SMK's initial entrance into the cabinet, the choice to head the state Land Fund and funding for minority culture. Meanwhile, the SDL's conflicts over economic policy with the center-right Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) have also been fierce. The small, center-left Party of Civic Understanding (SOP), which holds only two positions in the government, has largely stayed out of coalition conflicts; however, tensions did arise between that party and the SDK because of the latter's reluctance to support Schuster as president. At the same time, the SMK was disappointed with all three partners because of their reluctance to make further concessions in the law on minority languages that was approved in July. Most recently, a conflict has emerged between the SDL and its partners over the privatization of strategic enterprises.
Regarding the strengthening of the rule of law, the Dzurinda cabinet has yet to deal sufficiently with such questions, partly because it is distracted by problems relating to the economy and Western integration. Privatization has remained one of the biggest potential areas for conflict within the government and within society as a whole. Although there was a general consensus after the elections that previous controversial cases would be investigated, this process is proceeding very slowly. The government has been quicker with issues of political abuse, reopening the investigation into such cases as the 1995 kidnapping of former President Michal Kovac's son.
Despite these achievements, a series of public scandals has given the impression that traces of Meciarism linger on. Although many Slovaks have accepted that they will experience economic difficulties during the coming year, the scandals have been disturbing given the high expectations for a real change from the previous government. During the first months of the government's term in office, the SDL was connected with several controversial moves.
More recently, however, the spotlight has shifted to the SDK, whose representatives have been accused of corruption and mismanagement. Economy Minister Ludovit Cernak and Transport and Telecommunications Minister Gabriel Palacka - both SDK - have most frequently been named as candidates for replacement because of three scandals to which one or both of them has been linked: the failed tender for the GSM 1800 mobile telephone network, the selection of an advisor for the privatization of Slovak Telecom, and the sale of the Nafta Gbely gas storage firm.
Other ministers have been accused of simple incompetence or lack of vision. Some journalists have gone as far as to call for the resignation of Dzurinda, who has defended Cernak and Palacka in an apparent effort to avoid a domino effect that could eventually bring down the entire cabinet.
Heads to roll?
Many observers now believe that the ruling coalition can only be saved if changes in the cabinet line-up are made and responsibility is taken; an opinion poll carried out by the Polis agency in early August showed that 57.4% of Slovaks believed that the restructuring of the cabinet was necessary. In an apparent effort to instigate a cabinet shake-up, the SDL has promised to review the work of its ministers and of the government as a whole, and it called on other parties to follow its example.
Palacka was seen as the most vulnerable cabinet member, criticized not only by the media but also by representatives of the ruling coalition. His resignation in August was an unprecedented step that was seen by some observers as a confirmation of the more democratic political culture that is developing within Slovakia. Nonetheless, Palacka's resignation was also presented as a symptom of the widening conflict within the SDK, which consists of five separate parties that hastily merged into one as a result of the controversial 1998 election law.
Although the media began calling for Palacka's departure as early as late May, Dzurinda blamed Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) Chairman and Justice Minister Jan Carnogursky for initiating the resignation of Palacka, who is Dzurinda's close friend and political ally. Both Dzurinda and Palacka are former KDH members who believe that Slovakia's center-right should remain united in the SDK, while Carnogursky and his allies prefer that SDK deputies return to their original parties, with the SDK serving its initial role as a coalition.
Although the cabinet began its term with broad popular support, an opinion poll conducted by the Polis agency in late August showed that only 41.3% of the population trusted the government, compared with 44.4% who mistrusted it. Palacka's resignation triggered a positive reaction, but many Slovaks believe that the government has not gone far enough to convince people that it does in fact represent a real change from the previous Meciar government. Many Slovaks are dissatisfied with their low standard of living, and their patience appears to be wearing thin.
Especially troubling are the increasing demands and threats being made by the Confederation of Trade Unions. The Confederation recently raised 59 demands that the government has been scrambling to meet, although some of them have already been declared unacceptable. Given the difficulties involved in turning the economy around, the government proposed in June that the trade unions join other groups in signing a "pact of stability" aiming to keep social peace for a one-year period. However, the Confederation has rejected the proposal, and it plans to hold a major public protest demonstration in September.
The Dzurinda government does have an advantage in that many Slovaks who are disheartened by the government scandals and the economic difficulties would in any case be unwilling to vote Meciar back into power. Although much public energy has been focused during the past months on criticizing the cabinet, the Dzurinda government can be praised for ushering in a more liberal atmosphere, marked by greater feelings of freedom of expression and a decreased tendency to search for enemies within society. With Meciar widely seen as an unacceptable political partner, most representatives of the ruling coalition realize that despite the problems within the government there is currently no other real choice but to keep it together for the full four-year term.
Sharon Fisher, 2 September 1999
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