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HISTORIC CHANCE TO VOTE ON NATO WASTED BY HIGH-PROFILE FEUD

Government mars referendum

The first of the post-communist countries in central and eastern Europe to have its citizens vote on whether or not to join NATO - a military alliance that just eight years ago was the enemy - Slovakia stood at a historical threshold.
But it came to naught. Less than 10 percent of the 3.4 million electorate cast ballots in the NATO referendum. Many left the polls in anger and disgust at the Slovak government's last-minute decision to print ballots leaving off a question of whether the people should elect the country's president, an issue that had galvanized public leading up to the May 23-24 vote.
"The referendum...was thwarted," Central Referendum Committee Vice-Chairman Jozef Krumpolec said on May 27. "The total number of eligible voters taking part in the vote was nil. The number of citizens who replied 'Yes' and those who replied 'No' cannot be assessed because no [valid] ballot papers were delivered."


Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar leaves a Bratislava precinct after voting with his wife, Margita. Mečiar and his cabinet is accused of obstructing the people's right to vote in a referendum in which less than 10 percent of the Slovak population participated
Vladimír Hák

The first of the post-communist countries in central and eastern Europe to have its citizens vote on whether or not to join NATO - a military alliance that just eight years ago was the enemy - Slovakia stood at a historical threshold.

But it came to naught. Less than 10 percent of the 3.4 million electorate cast ballots in the NATO referendum. Many left the polls in anger and disgust at the Slovak government's last-minute decision to print ballots leaving off a question of whether the people should elect the country's president, an issue that had galvanized public leading up to the May 23-24 vote.

"The referendum...was thwarted," Central Referendum Committee Vice-Chairman Jozef Krumpolec said on May 27. "The total number of eligible voters taking part in the vote was nil. The number of citizens who replied 'Yes' and those who replied 'No' cannot be assessed because no [valid] ballot papers were delivered."

The vote's outcome left the country's two main political camps - one allied with Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar and the other allied with President Michal Kováč - blaming each other for the debacle.

"The referendum was important to show who was in favor of NATO and who was trying to prevent this. It was possible to reach a decision which would be favorable to the Slovak Republic, but this was foiled," Mečiar said on May 25. "The chaos began when...political parties and the president wrote to the mayors telling them to ignore the government."

Kováč told citizens to boycott the vote since the presidential election question was not on the ballots, and targeted Mečiar for orchestrating the chaos. "The biggest responsibility for the worsening situation of our country in the world...lies personally with...Mečiar," Kováč said in a statement on May 26.

Slovakia's two leading public officials have been fierce enemies ever since Kováč, who at the time was a member of Mečiar's ruling Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), gave a speech in parliament in March 1994 denouncing Mečiar's government and urging a no-confidence vote. The government fell that day.

When Mečiar came back to power after his party swept through the parliamentary elections in fall 1994, he immediately went after Kováč, clipping powers from the president's portfolio and slashing funding for his office for the past three years.

While the decision to print ballots without the presidential question was made by Interior Minister Gustáv Krajči the day before the vote, many political analysts are convinced that it was really Mečiar who directed the action, again wanting to deny Kováč any victory.

Indeed, the government had been fighting staging the presidential election vote ever since opposition parties successfully collected almost half-a-million signatures in early March, forcing a referendum on the matter. Opposition deputies argued the vote was critical to prevent Mečiar from assuming presidential powers after Kováč's current term as president runs out in March 1998 and before parliamentary elections scheduled for the fall of the same year.

But it was not until more than two months after Kováč called the referenda that the cabinet mounted an official challenge, arguing to the Constitutional Court that it was illegal to change the constitution by a referendum. The court refused the request, ruling that the government was not one of three official bodies able to submit it. Then, a group of coalition MPs filed essentially the same motion to the court, which then ruled that while the question itself was valid, having the draft text to the constitution on the back of the ballot was not appropriate.

But Krajči interpreted the court's ruling as meaning that both the question and the draft text were not valid, and ordered the printing of ballots with only the NATO questions, despite stringent objections from the central referendum committee, the only body that can sanction the ballots, who maintained the minister's ballots would not be valid. Constitutional Court Chairman Milan Čič also weighed in, saying the question's inclusion on the ballot was legitimate.

The great swirl of charges and countercharges left the public in total confusion. People went to the polls not knowing what to expect. Even those in charge of manning the voting stations didn't know which set of ballots they would get. In the largest Bratislava district of Petržalka, its mayor decided not to distribute any ballots after the district only received sheets with three questions. In another large Bratislava suburb of Dúbravka, its mayor told one voter who had called to complain that he was afraid that this vote would be a foreshadowing of what may happen in the 1998 parliamentary elections.

Even some HZDS voters came to the polls and left without voting. "It's not logical," said one. "It's not logical that the direct presidential election has been on the ballot for over a month and now it's not there."

Leading international papers buried the country with an onslaught of stories negatively and derisively portraying the affair. The French daily Le Monde wrote that the vote "shows that the coalition government is not yet ready to respect a legal state," while the Austrian daily Die Presse and the International Herald Tribune both characterized it in headlines as a "fiasco."

Meanwhile, opposition party representatives said on May 25 they would call an extraordinary session of parliament for June to discuss a new constitutional law on direct elections.

POSS ADDS

Kováč also did not vote, citing the same reason, but Mečiar did. After he cast his ballot, though, the premier was subjected to a rare verbal confrontation with the citizenry, when one older man accosted him for taking the question off the ballot. Visibly shaken, Mečiar only responded that he ------.

There has been no official reaction from the European Union to date.

The fallout continued at home. "With great probability this has ruined our last chance of being among the first contenders for membership in NATO and the European Union," Kováč said in a statement to the nation on May 26. "We are really facing international isolation."

Within hours, Foreign Minister Pavol Hamžík tendered his resignation. "Contemporary political events in Slovakia, especially the circumstances surrounding the referendum ... have to the greatest possible extent narrowed the scope for me as foreign minister to pursue the foreign policy priorities of our nation," Hamď'k said in a statement.

"The referendum was thwarted by the government and premier Meciar," opposition Christian Democratic Movement leader Ivan Simko told a joint opposition news conference on Saturday.

But parliament chairman Ivan Gasparovic of Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), which dominates the ruling three-party coalition, accused Kovac and the opposition of causing the confusion. "The president also contributed to the failure of the referendum," he told Slovak television on Saturday. "He indirectly called on the population to boycott the refereendum before it was held."

"The United States has expressed concern about certain aspects of Slovakia's democratic transformation," Clinton said. "...more work needs to be done to promote an atmosphere of openess to opposing views and concerns of minorities." The letter, delivered to Kovac on Wednesday and made available by his office, hinted that Slovakia was no longer considered among post-communist countries expected to join NATO in the first round of the alliance's eastward enlargement.

"While neither the United States nor the NATO Alliance has yet decided which nations should be invited at Madrid to begin accession negotiations to join (NATO)...some of our core principles are clear," Clinton said. "Each prospective member country must demonstrate a commitment and respect for democratic principles," he said.

"(Meciar's ruling Movement for a Democrtatic Slovakia) should seriously consider whether the departure of the premier and interior minister from political life would not bring considerable relief for our sorely tested land," he added.

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