The April 19th referendum held in the southern Slovak city of Štúrovo offered convincing proof that the seed of democracy has begun to take root among Slovak citizens. Thousands of city residents turned out to exercise their constitutional right to participate in public affairs despite ominous warnings from the Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, despite an incendiary media campaign waged by a government newspaper, despite a district court ruling that the referendum was illegal, and despite the fact that the results of the plebiscite will not bind the government to act on them (see related story, page 1).
On the surface, there was little to distinguish the Sunday vote in Štúrovo from similar democratic events in western countries. But the referendum's true flavor was hidden in the details of the day.
Though the occasion was peacefully and professionally staged, there were many signs of fear and unease among both participants and organizers. Members of one election committee said that they had not been intimidated in the slightest by a provocative editorial in the government daily Slovenská Republika (see opinion column, this page) but then refused to divulge their names. Štúrovo mayor Peter Oravec, during a twenty minute interview, twice got up from the table in the middle of a sentence to peer into the rain-swept street. "What's that, the police?" he asked. "What's going on down there?" People coming out of polling stations spoke of rumours that pensioners would be denied state support if they participated in the vote, and that Slovakia's elite anti-terrorist unit, the 'black masks,' were holding field exercises in the nearby town of Gbelce. Others replied curtly to questions. "I came here because I had the right to, OK?" said one man.
And come they did - babkas muffled in winter coats and black shawls, businessmen fiddling with mobile phones, town elders polishing fogged glasses, students pushing back sopping-wet hair. A harried waitress in a busy downtown restaurant paused with an armful of dishes to say that she had voted before starting her shift at nine a.m..
Nor were Štúrovo residents the only ones to brave the inclement weather - a man with three gold teeth was making the rounds of all 11 polling stations to encourage committee members. He had travelled 200 kilometers with two colleagues from the northern Slovak town of Dolný Kubín, he said, "to cross my fingers for these people and show them they aren't alone."
The media, too, turned out in force, and provided the day's only hint of conflict. An afternoon press conference held by the Central Referendum Committee (ÚRK) attracted more than 80 reporters, photographers and cameramen from Slovak, Austrian, Czech, Hungarian, German and British agencies. Amidst the media scrum was Slovenská Republika reporter Ladislav Uhrin, who had the ill-fortune to have been assigned the Štúrovo story. The hapless Uhrin tried to put a question to ÚRK delegates without identifying himself, but was abruptly taken to task by a neighbouring journalist who demanded to know if he wasn't ashamed. Uhrin remonstrated at length, but his words were drowned out by jeers and whistles from his colleagues. And when ÚRK member Juraj Himmler finally responded to Uhrin's original questions - how much would the poll cost, and didn't the town of Štúrovo have better things to spend its money on than pointless referendums - his answer was that the tab was being picked up by a local businessman, and would certainly have been lower if so many people hadn't turned out. The room erupted in raucous laughter at Uhrin's expense, which then gave way to applause, as the implications of Himmler's answer dawned on all present.
4,933 Štúrovo residents, or 47.8 percent of the electorate, expressed their opinions on direct Presidential elections and NATO membership on April 19. What Štúrovo citizens think about NATO and their President matters little, but the fact that at least half of them were willing to publicly defy Mečiar in the face of such psycholgical pressure matters a great deal. As long as citizens were not allowed to speak out, the coalition was able to maintain the pretence that it had the support of a majority of Slovaks. And as long as the government was able with impunity to deny its citizens a basic constitutional right, apathy ruled the electorate and fostered the belief that a HZDS victory in September was almost inevitable. But as the residents of Štúrovo demonstrated on April 19, ordinary Slovak citizens need not be afraid to stand up for their rights, and need not regard the results of national elections as a foregone conclusion.