Campaign posters towered over Bratislava streets during the two-week presidential campaign. But many voters paid little attention, apparently having already decided for whom they would vote.
The nine candidates vying for the post in the first round of the presidential elections also gave little insight during their campaigns into the purpose of the presidency, and have said little concrete about their plans if they won the seat. So what, exactly, is the need for a Slovak president?
"You know, that's a good question," said US Ambassador to Slovakia Ralph Johnson when asked by The Slovak Spectator. "I don't really have a full answer... therefore I take my cue from the Slovak people. I think they want a president and that it's significant to them that the office be filled."
Domestic political analysts tended to reach for the constitution when questioned. "Slovakia needs a president mainly because as the top figure in the Slovak constitutional system, the president serves as a security buffer in times of government or parliamentary crisis," said Alexander Duleba, an analyst with the non-governmental Slovak Foreign Policy Association.
Duleba explained that without a president, Slovakia could eventually drift into constitutional crisis, and said the fact the state had functioned well since March 2, 1998, the day when former President Michal Kováč ended his term in office, did not mean that Slovakia could continue to survive without a head of state.
"It can work like that for a long time, but there's always a threat that when either the government or the parliament is deadlocked and cannot execute their powers, the country can fall into a constitutional crisis and simply cannot operate. It's always better to have this security tool, because political crises in government or in parliament can never be ruled out," Duleba added.
The presidential palace has been empty for 14 months.
photo: Vladimír Hák-Profit
Of course, the fact that the EU and NATO have cited the election of a president as one of the pre-conditions of Slovakia's joining the ranks of front runners for membership in either alliance has also given the May elections strong impetus.
After former President Kováč left office, most of his powers devolved to former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. Mečiar's subsequent use of the amnesty power to shield political allies from criminal prosecution, as well as parliament's inability to elect a successor to Kováč over 11 rounds of voting spanning five months, were harshly criticised by EU and other western diplomats.
"Naturally, the EU pressure had an effect, because electing a president was one of the main criteria for entry," said Ľuboš Kubín, a political scinetist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
"Fortunately, Slovakia did not endure a constitutional crisis while it was without a president, but now, having a president will not only save the country from such a danger, it will also send a strongly positive signal abroad that we have all our constitutional positions filled," agreed Michal Ivantyšyn, a political scientist with the Institute for Public Affairs, Bratislava-based independent think tank.
Analysts may be united on why a president is being elected - to avert consitutional crisis, and because Slovakia wants to enter western alliances. But they are less sure of what the president's exact powers will be once he takes office.
According to the constitution, the Slovak president has an important but limited role. The president can block the naming of the government ministers proposed by the prime minister when the new cabinet is being formed after national elections, but during the cabinet's term in office, he cannot recall the prime minister or ministers once their appointment has been approved.
The president can also return laws passed by parliament for discussion, but if deputies push the law through the approval procedure a second time, the president must sign the law into effect.
But while the country's next president may officially be without great powers, the key to his real influence seems to be whether he attempts to get along with Slovakia's four-member coalition government, or whether he attempts to disrupt it. Curiously, his power is greater if he does the latter.
"When the cabinet and the parliament work properly without blocking one another and execute their powers in a normal way, the president actually doesn't have much power to change things directly," Duleba said.
However, if the president is a foe of parliament and the government, Kubin said, he can greatly exacerbate political and social tensions through his access to media as the head of state. "Through media pressure and appeals to citizens, the president can be a very counter-productive force in politics," said Kubin.
The final strand in the web is the fact that the president will, for the first time in Slovak history, be elected directly by the voters rather than by parliament. The government of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda pushed an amendment allowing for direct presidential elections through parliament in January.
Directly elected, the president will have - in the hackneyed phrase employed so often these months past by the Slovak media - a 'moral authority' out of all proportion to his constitutionally granted powers.
"The stronger authority among the people he is, the more power to influence state administration he has," Duleba said.
Direct elections, Duleba added, "strengthens the president's indirect power to influence the administration of the state. It is a big step forward for Slovakia in the domestic as well as international context, because it brings the Slovak constitutional system to a higher and more democratic level."
Ivantyšyn, for his part, said that the very novelty of a directly elected president made it difficult to predict how the powers of the office might change. "The powers of the president are not set by tradition in this country," he said. "We'll have to wait and see how the new president uses his office."
17. May 1999 at 0:00 | Ivan Remiaš