Slovakia Votes “Yes” to EU Accession

One of EuroSavant’s reader services, as regular visitors to this site will have noticed from past entries, is tracking the series of referenda by which EU candidate countries will (presumably) approve their entry into EU membership on 1 May 2004. Earlier this month Lithuanians voted in favor. This weekend it was the turn of Slovakia, and according to most press reports the important question was not whether “Yes” votes would prevail, but whether there would be enough votes cast, whether “Yes” or “No,” to attain at least the level of 50% participation which would make the referendum valid. It seems that that did indeed come to pass: according to the president of the Slovak electoral commission, Julius Fodor, 52.15% of eligible votes were cast, of which 92.46% were in favor of EU accession.

Naturally, there were worries that too many people would stay away from the polls. For one thing, that essentially was what happened during the Hungarian referendum on EU accession back in mid-April (discussed in EuroSavant here), when there was a participation of only 45.62% of the electorate. But at least that woke up Slovak politicians to the danger of the same thing happening on the other side of the Danube. Le Monde’s coverage of the Slovak referendum results termed the Hungarian referendum a douche froide – a “cold shower” – for the Slovak political class. What resulted was epitomized by a very surprising photo appearing last Friday in the Dutch NRC Handelsblad (sorry, no link available to an on-line version): a tableau of present and past leading Slovak politicians, smiling and posing together in the courtyard of the presidential palace in Bratislava, all clutching EU flags and/or balloons. It was surprising because included in the scene was the unmistakable, bulky form of Vladimir Meciar, the former Slovak premier and strong-man whose quasi-dictatorial behavior and contempt towards Western Europe did the most to almost exclude Slovakia from participation in EU expansion (and which did exclude it from the first wave of NATO expansion, which saw sister-state the Czech Republic join). “Yes, of course I’m going to vote for the referendum,” the NRC quotes Meciar as saying. “My party and I have always been for European integration!”

In the same row of politicians was included current Slovak president Rudolph Schuster – of course, since he was after all the gathering’s host – but also Michal Kovac, who was Slovak president at the same time that Meciar was in power as premier. Their power struggle featured, among other things, the Slovak intelligence service kidnapping Kovac’s son, getting him drunk, packing him in the trunk of an automobile, and then driving him across the border onto Austrian territory. (There was an international warrant out for the younger Kovac to be questioned about some of his financial dealings, you see, and so he had preferred to avoid that by staying within Slovakia where he was safe from such questioning.) So the elder Kovac’s presence at the same photo opportunity as Meciar was itself remarkable, and almost as much a testament to the urgency which the Slovak political class felt to convince citizens to come out and vote as was Meciar’s own belief-conversion (whether he actually means it or not; anyway, Meciar’s vehicle-party, the HZDS has recently splintered, so its possible that he represents a declining political force, although with Meciar you can never be quite sure).

The second reason why there was nervousness about whether the 50% level of participation would be achieved is because many Slovaks felt that they had already made their approval for integration into Europe clear with the 1998 and 2002 electoral results. 1998 was when, almost miraculously and basically relying on the fact that there had to be legislative elections then – that’s when they had been scheduled – and that they could not be manipulated, no matter how much the current Meciar regime would have wanted to do so, because of the presence of outside observers, the Slovak electorate threw Meciar and his political coalition out of power. Then 2002 was when they kept in power the fragile progressive coalition (including the Slovak Hungarian party) which had resulted from those 1998 elections – despite the fact that in the intervening four years it had proved a big disappointment, and despite the demagogic allure of Meciar’s party waiting in the wings again. (Indeed, many polls just before those 2002 elections forecast that Meciar’s HZDS would come back into power.) So you see, Slovak voters had done the hard work back in those two previous elections, at least once completely confounding those who had presumed to predict what would be the results, so I guess it was logical that they wouldn’t take so kindly to being asked to return to the polls to express a collective opinion that they thought they had already made clear.

The third reason why there was nervousness about participation was the rather unfortunate history of referenda which Slovakia already boasts in its short existence as a state (since 1993). For all their good points, referenda are also political tools notorious for misuse by autocrats and dictators – going back to Louis Napoleon in France in the middle of the 19th century, not to overlook president/dictator Aleksandr Lukashenka of Belarus in 1995, but in general the history of referenda-abuse is rich and would require a book on its own to cover sufficiently. Meciar had tried this trick a couple of times himself, only to be stymied by insufficient participation from the electorate rendering these referenda null and void. Ironically, and confusingly, voter apathy can sometimes be a good thing, but then such lazy habits of political-gesture-by-omission are understandably hard to break.

OK, so they were nervous about the level of participation – and it showed. For one thing, ordinarily there is a ban on campaigning 48 hours before any Slovak national election. But the government decided that that provision could be scrapped this time, in view of the vital national importance of this vote. Or how about campaigning during an election? Even while the vote was taking place – when it still seemed touch-and-go whether the required participation would be attained – the top three national officials (president Schuster, premier Mikulas Dzurinda, and president of the legislature Pavol Hrusovsky) issued a statement: “We want to appeal to you to make use of these last minutes [of the referendum> and go to the polls to give your judgment on the next path our country is to follow.” (Translated from the French)

So everything came out alright in the end? After all, they got their 50% participation. Well, you don’t have to be too much of a spoilsport to think that rather more of a turn-out was called-for for such an important historical moment for Slovakia. One such is Grigory Meseznikov, head of the Bratislava-based think-tank IVO (Inštitút pre verejné otázky or Institute for Public Affairs). He blamed what he characterized as the “weak” level of participation (quoted in the French newspaper Libération) on the usual suspects: failure of politicians to mobilize the electorate and clearly explain the specific benefits of EU accession to their everyday lives, no matter what sum of state money they had allocated to trying to encourage turn-out and a “Yes” vote.

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