YOUNG people favour new faces critical of established parties.
Between 350,000 and 400,000 voters are estimated to have reached 18, Slovakia's age of suffrage, between the last general elections in 1998 and a new national ballot expected to be called for September. The group represents about 10 per cent of eligible Slovak voters.
Parties formed since the 1998 elections, such as the non-parliamentary Smer led by Robert Fico, a charismatic 37-year-old lawyer, have been particularly active in cultivating the disaffection the young feel for the older generation of politicians.
Fico, whose Smer led all other parties in popularity with first-time voters in 2000 and 2001, held an essay competition in 2000 offering a seat in parliament to a top university student. The winner, Edita Angyalová, has agreed to run on Smer's ticket for the September elections. Fico's party recently advertised another essay competition on its web site, promising the top writers a cash prize and places on Smer's candidate lists for municipal elections, expected in December 2002.
The Ano party of media owner Pavol Rusko, formed in May 2001, is not far behind. Rusko, who owns the most popular television station in the country, was recently criticised for his appearance at a secondary school in northern Slovakia's Trstená, where he met students. Although the official theme of the talk was to have been journalism, the students complained that for the first 20 minutes Rusko talked about the current political scene, and only moved on to journalism after a teacher appealed to him.
Winning the political trust of the young is not difficult, say political analysts, provided that parties define themselves in clear opposition to established political forces, and provided they are critical of the government's policies over the past four years. Neither Smer nor Ano lack these elements; analysts note, however, that of all parties likely to contest fall elections, Smer and Ano have the least clearly defined platforms.
Grigorij Mesežnikov from the Institute of Public Affairs (IVO) think tank in Bratislava said that young people, more than any other group of voters, could be influenced in their voting decisions by the personalities that parties hired to appear in support of their campaigns.
"At their age, young voters have little immunity against being manipulated, although they would never admit that," agreed Sooa Szomolányi, head of the political science department with Comenius University in Bratislava.
But while young voters may be more vulnerable to political hucksterism than older or more educated voters, their participation in September elections is seen as the key to ensuring a pro-western democratic government is elected, one that will not spoil the country's European Union (EU) and Nato entry bids.
"Integration into the EU and Nato are themes that particularly appeal to this group of voters," Szomolányi said.
Much effort will be invested into making sure young voters show up at the ballot box this year, as was the case in 1998, when overall turnout broke 84 per cent.
Szomolányi predicted that the third sector's mobilisation activities would focus on explaining to young voters the connection between the elections and western integration.
Western diplomats, particularly American officials associated with Nato, have this year been extremely direct in warning Slovaks that if former leader Vladimír Meeiar and his HZDS opposition party were restored to power after September, Slovakia would be rejected by the alliance.
One voter mobilisation project, entitled 'Volím, teda som' (I vote, therefore I am) is set to start in July. Activists from the Komárno-based Euroglobal non-profit organisation will visit over 220 villages and towns in the south-west of Slovakia targeting young voters, women and citizens from remote villages.
But according to a recent poll, NGO activists may have their work cut out for them in explaining links between integration and elections. The MVK polling agency's survey of the political preferences of first-time voters suggests that the HZDS is the third most popular party among the young with 12.9 per cent. Smer leads with 26.9 per cent, followed by Ano with 21.8 per cent.
Szomolányi, however, was not dismayed that so many young voters seemed not to understand the implications of voting for the HZDS.
"If you consider that average support across the country for the HZDS is around 27 per cent, than the figure is not so high. We need to bear in mind that many of these young voters probably live in smaller communities where support for the HZDS is traditionally high, as well as the fact that the HZDS is a very critical opposition party. Nor do young voters remember the party's past," the political analyst said.
Attempts to mobilise young voters marked the 1998 election campaign, with current Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's now defunct Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) organising large scale meetings which included rock concerts to appeal specifically to young voters. Dzurinda himself built his campaign around a bicycle tour of the country, which he completed in the summer months.
While Dzurinda has written in a recent book that he will not return to his bicycle this year, Mesežnikov said that enlisting public personalities could be an effective alternative for parties to attract young voters.
An IVO survey has shown that young people, more than any other age group, heed the advice of people they regard as role models, such as popular singers and actors.
"That's why political parties are trying to sign up public personalities. They can have a much greater influence, particularly on first-time voters and young voters," Mesežnikov said.