Six of One, Half-A-Dozen of the Other

Let’s continue today our “When Good Central European Electorates Go Bad” series in which, while defending to the death the right of voters there to choose the governments they want, we take out our spectacles, lean in for a closer look, and then blurt out “You want to choose that lot?!”

Today’s subject is one I mentioned in passing in this weblog’s last post, namely the seemingly unstoppable ascent of Vladimir Meciar to the presidency of the Slovak Republic. I took a closer look myself, and while the crisp, succinct, bottom-line summary of what’s going on that I’ve just given you is bad enough, in fact the situation viewed more broadly is even worse – not that there aren’t plenty of comic elements that can’t be extracted to put a little sugar on the bitter pill. Or at least that’s for those of you who are not Slovak and so will not have to live through the next few years with the results of what is about to happen. We’ll do our best to do this in the following, so get yourself in tune for some bittersweet humor.

(Linguistic note: I took a closer look at what was happening via the Czech press, which on the whole is close enough and knowledgeable enough about what is going on among their Slovak brothers next-door to be well worth consultation. It would have been even better, of course, at least theoretically (but see below), if I had used the Slovak press. Believe it or not, I could have: I don’t advertise it, but I’ve had enough past experience with Slovak to also be quite capable of getting a grip on what is being written in that country’s press at any given time. But I didn’t do that here because 1) It would have been slow; yes, I can handle Slovak, but that doesn’t mean I can handle it fast. My Czech is much faster. And 2) Surveying what the Slovak press had to say about the remarkable goings-on happening in its own country would paradoxically have been much too deep. Just from the brief looks I took at some of the on-line Slovak dailies (try Sme, or Pravda if you want to try this at home yourself, or if you think I’m bluffing about knowing a little something about the Slovak press), there’s a whole lot for Slovaks to say on this subject. A proper treatment really requires someone’s PhD. thesis, and not just some weblog entry on EuroSavant. The Czech approach – with an Always Look on the Bright Side of Life emphasis on finding humor wherever we may – should do quite well for our own purposes.)


Last Saturday Slovaks were called out to the polls to vote on two questions: 1) Who should become their next state president, and 2) Whether early general elections should be held for the legislature, elections which would overwhelmingly-likely change the composition of that legislature prior to its previously-determined end-date in 2006. Note that I wrote “were called out to the polls,” not that they actually went. While it’s true that #1 above was an ordinary election, #2 two was properly a referendum, and Slovaks have a bad record with referenda; they’ve staged a bunch of them during their short going-on-11-years existence as an independent country, but the only one such that actually had enough people vote in it (whether “Yes” or “No” doesn’t matter) to count – by Slovak law, that has to be at least 50% – was the one last year that approved EU accession.

(Psephological note (Oh please, do click that link to find out what that adjective refers to, if you don’t already know): On the other hand, maybe it’s good that Slovaks seem to have extraordinary trouble getting themselves out of bed on mornings when they’re supposed to go out and vote in a referendum, since a number of those past referenda were what you could frankly call “BS referenda” – and you know what “BS” stands for, no need here for a dictionary link – called by the government of the day to try to steamroller the electorate into giving ill-considered approval to that government’s nefarious designs. Yes, the electorate always duly gave its ill-considered approval – but not enough of that electorate voted to make that approval count! This goes back to a theme EuroSavant has dealt with before – but a rather long time ago – of government manipulation via referenda, and just what good are referenda anyway? Now, that “government of the day” of whose “nefarious designs” I speak was headed by Vladimir Meciar – and so we come full circle and back to the subject of this entry.)

Yes, those Slovaks “were called out to the polls” last Saturday to vote on those two issues, and the very fact that they were called out to vote on two issues on the same day (as opposed to, say, being called out twice, i.e. at different dates, to vote on one issue and then later vote on the other) had not to do with any quest for efficiency (not really a Central European concept), but rather with politics. According to this article in the Czech business newspaper Hospodarske noviny, the scheduling of such elections is something up to the president, and the current president, Rudolf Schuster, did things this way deliberately, for two reasons: 1) He wanted to boost his popularity among Slovaks – he, too, was a candidate in the election to succeed himself as president, you see – by making such a popular, efficient move (so that Slovaks would only have to get themselves out of bed once, for two different elections), and 2) He doesn’t like the current governing coalition, and the governing coalition does not like (obviously) the “early elections” referendum. (The referendum question qualified for a national vote via a petition campaign). So Schuster scheduled the two votes together to boost the chance that the referendum would actually get the 50% participation rate it needed to be valid, meaning probably a “Yes” decision for early elections.

So here’s humor element number one: If those were Schuster’s motivations, then he’s batting 0-for-2. Schuster’s support in the presidential election was in the single-digits, and, true to form, only 35,86% of the electorate voted in the early elections referendum, so it failed. (Sure, of that 35,86% who voted, 86,78% voted for those early elections, but that’s neither here nor there at this point.)


As for those presidential elections, 48% of the electorate voted in them. Yes, that’s below 50%, but hold your horses: this was an election, not a referendum, so there was no minimum level of voter participation required. (The sharper-eyed among you readers will now say “Now wait, it was essentially the same election, just with two different questions, yet the voter turn-out on those two questions was still so different?” Quite right, that is unusual, but it reflects that fact that the referendum for early elections was considered by so many to be illegitimate. Yes, it couldn’t have been truly “illegitimate” since those pushing it clearly followed the requirements that the Slovak constitution prescribes for the placing of a political question before the nation, but still many viewed it as an unfair attempt to cut short the term of office that the legislators currently making up the governing coalition thought that they had won in the last general election. So, rather than dignify the vote in the first place by actually participating in it, even with a “No” vote, better to ignore it and trust it to fail due to lack of participation, as of course did happen. Even as high a functionary as Eduard Kukan, current Slovak foreign minister and leading presidential candidate, when interviewed while going to the polls Saturday freely admitted that, while he was going to vote in the presidential election (no prizes for guessing for whom), he would ignore the referendum.)

Ah, but Eduard Kukan . . . well, prepare for humor element number two, and we get really bittersweet here. Eduard Kukan has been Slovak foreign minister for the last couple of years, and therefore deserves the lion’s share of credit for the two greatest Slovak Republic foreign policy achievements ever (although remember that it is still a young country; we expect even more of it in the years to come), both of which are coming to fruition right about now: Slovakia just joined the NATO alliance last week and will join the European Union on May 1. Eduard Kukan was also the favorite candidate of the current ruling coalition – not that he was endorsed explicitly by the political parties involved; that could have been counter-productive, as we will see – as the one politician who, as president, could be expected to continue their Western-friendly policies. And Eduard Kukan was the favorite candidate to win among most political observers who, while assuming that no one candidate would win the outright majority of votes in the first round of the presidential voting (i.e. that took place last Saturday) and that Vladimir Meciar would go through to the second round on 17 April, counted on Kukan to finally dispatch Meciar then and become president. Eduard Kukan was also the favorite candidate of Eduard Kukan, as this article from the Bratislava correspondent of Hospodarske noviny made clear. He, too, generously conceded that he might not gain the absolute majority of votes to prevail in the first round, but that he was confident of being elected in the second. He even let HN in on the secret that he was running a little betting-pool within his family on just what percentage of the vote he would receive in the first round; his own money was on 28%.

Well friends, in the actual presidential election last Saturday, it was Vladimir Meciar who came in first place, by far, with 32,7% of the votes, as recorded in Mladá fronta dnes in the article Slovak Shock: Meciar Wins. Kukan was somewhat behind with 22%. Unfortunately, a certain Ivan Gasparovic also got around 22% of the vote – to be very precise, 3.644 more votes than did Eduard Kukan. As the Slovak constitution prescribes things, in the second round there is no room for a “barely made it” third-place also-ran: Meciar and Gasparovic go through to the second round, and Eduard Kukan does not.


About this Gasparovic: this is (bittersweet) humor element number three. For back in the “bad old days” of the mid-1990s, when Meciar’s regime was trying to hoodwink the Slovak people with referenda – as well as doing much worse than that, such as selling off state assets to his cronies, and having the then-president’s son kidnapped by the secret intelligence service and spirited across the border to Austria in the trunk of a car – Gasparovic was Meciar’s right-hand man! In fact, at one point in the past Meciar was chairman of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party, and Gasparovic was the deputy chairman! Yes, they have had a bit of a falling-out in the meantime, but it’s nonetheless clear that these presidential elections have left the Slovak electorate with little-to-nothing to choose between in the second round. It’s like having to choose between Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum – or, say, a US presidential election fought between George W. Bush and John Ashcroft. Or we can use that old stand-by Czech expression, to je prast’ jako uhod’ (that’s six of one, half-a-dozen of the other), as deputy editor Lubos Palata of the Slovak daily Pravda did in a guest editorial for the Czech daily Lidové noviny (A Meciar Relapse).

The main problem is that “six” or “half-a-dozen” is, in the first place, known to be opposed to the current governing coalition’s economic reform program, which has won so much praise from observers abroad but inflicted so much pain on ordinary Slovaks. In the second place, it is almost surely anti-EU and anti-NATO. Gasparovic has frequently expressed such opinions, and while Meciar these days sounds more mellow on these subjects, he was also the single man responsible, during the three times he occupied the premier’s office in the 1990s, for keeping Slovakia shunned by both organizations. And now he comes in first in presidential balloting just one week after Slovakia has in fact now joined NATO, and just four weeks before it joins the EU!

(What’s more, Hospodarske noviny reports in its article Meciar Is Close to the Presidential Seat that Meciar is refusing to step down as leader of the HZDS party even if he becomes president. Imagine, a country’s head of state insisting on staying right in the middle of partisan politics even during his term as president! And the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Newsline reports that Meciar on 6 April “became the first Slovak lawmaker [ever] to be punished for repeated absenteeism,” as he was fined one month’s salary by current Slovak parliamentary speaker Pavol Hrusovsky. Now do you see the sort of problem Slovakia is facing?)


Opinion on these election results from elsewhere in Europe has been predictably dire. In an article entitled Europe Dismayed by Meciar Victory, Hana Lesenarova quotes European Commission spokesman Diego Ojeda as saying “I hope that Slovakia will not deviate from the prescribed path determined by principles of EU law.” That’s the anodyne Commission line on events; but she also quotes Austrian member of the European Parliament Johannes Swoboda that “the election of Mr. Meciar will not be good for Slovakia,” and that Slovakia under Meciar could misbehave such as to (temporarily) lose its EU membership. Elsewhere, Mladá fronta dnes has another one of those articles that I like so much: a press-review, which means I don’t have to go looking too much any more among different newspapers myself, but can just tell you about everything all collected together in this one article. Germany: “Vladimir Meciar, terror of the West,” writes Die Welt; Austria: “neither of those two [i.e. Meciar or Gasparovic] in the presidential office is a very enticing prospect for the Slovak government”; Hungary: “Meciar ante portas” writes Népszabadság, thereby showing off the classical education of its writers, since ante portas (Latin for “before the gates”) was traditionally applied to Hannibal, as in “Hannibal the threat is already right at the gates!” Russia: An exception here. The Russian daily Vremja (which means “time” in Russian) looked forward to Meciar’s victory, and so to a “great friend of Russia” as Slovakia’s next president.

Finally, commentators closer to the action are also split in their opinions. Martin Ehl (in A Complicated Slovak Path) takes up what you could call the US “Ralph Nader” argument of the year 2000 election: Meciar is so bad that he’ll unite the opposition so it can ultimately get rid of him and go on to do great things together for the country. Admittedly, this is more-or-less how things happened in Slovakia in the late 1990s, but this “Nader argument” is still on trial back in the US, at least until we see what happens in the 2004 presidential elections. Anyway, Ehl is not Slovak himself (as far as I know), but simply a Czech commentator for Hospodarske noviny. For a true Slovak commentator, we have to return to Lubos Palata, writing in Lidové noviny. And in his opinion, Meciar coming back to power as Slovak president is nothing but an unmitigated evil for that country. Meciar claims to have changed his views, but in reality he has never changed. And the only thing he understands is force, not the niceties of the democratic process.

Whew! I feel like now just like I’ve in fact written a PhD. thesis! Don’t you feel like you’ve just read one?

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