Could a woman be president?

The final list of candidates is known and one thing is certain even before the presidential race has begun: Slovakia's new president will be male and Slovak.
Although Rudolf Schuster may quit the office in a couple of months, it may take decades before the archetype he and the other presidential hopefuls represent is replaced.

The final list of candidates is known and one thing is certain even before the presidential race has begun: Slovakia's new president will be male and Slovak.

Although Rudolf Schuster may quit the office in a couple of months, it may take decades before the archetype he and the other presidential hopefuls represent is replaced.

Yet there are at least three large groups in Slovakia that could try to present their own nominations - women, Hungarians, and the Roma.

The fact they do not is a sign of deeply rooted problems found in all areas of political life.

Women make up 51.4 percent of the country's population, according to the 2001 census by the Statistics Office. However, they are a clear minority in regard to political representation.

There are no women in the 16-member cabinet and the head of the constitutional court, the attorney general, and the boss of the Supreme Court are all men, as are the heads of most administrative bodies.

Only 29 out of 150 legislators are female. Until recently, the Free Forum's Zuzana Martináková acted as one of the parliament's three deputy speakers, but after her resignation there are no women among the parliament's top officials.

In Slovakia's first direct presidential elections in 1999 there was one woman among the 10 candidates (that number later dropped to nine after former President Michal Kováč withdrew his candidacy and endorsed Schuster).

Magda Vášáryová, who never stood a real chance of reaching the second round, received a mere 6.6 percent of the vote.

But she still outperformed most other candidates and finished third.

Schuster was first with 47.4 percent and ex-PM Vladimír Mečiar, who lost in the second round to Schuster, gained 10 percent less.

However, it is not at all the case that female candidates would not be attractive to the voters.

Take, for example, former Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová, who has just announced that she will serve a second term as the Executive Secretary of the UN's Economic Commission for Europe.

Although Schmögnerová has been out of the country since she took up her post in February 2002 and has never even seriously considered running for president, 8.7 percent of voters surveyed in October 2003 would have liked to see her in the office, according to the MVK agency.

That result put her in fifth place, just 0.3 percent behind Schuster. A December opinion poll by the same firm showed some decrease but maintained her fifth place position and demonstrated steady support for the absent, left-wing politician.

The one thing all candidates that stand a chance of being elected share is prominence - Schuster is the current president, a former mayor of Slovakia's second largest city, and a former head of parliament.

Mečiar is a three-time MP and his former second man, Ivan Gašparovič, was speaker of parliament. Eduard Kukan has been foreign minister in three governments and has brought Slovakia into the EU and NATO.

It is Schmögnerová's decent performance as finance minister and her successes on the international scene that give her the aura of prominence that led to her positive results in opinion polls.

However, no woman currently has the chance to prove her abilities to voters and build a similar status, as there is no woman in a major decision-making position.

The chances of an ethnic Hungarian being elected are smaller still. The problem is the clear ethnic divide in Slovak politics. Hungarian politicians are not spread evenly between political parties of various orientations; they are all concentrated in one - the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK).

The SMK was formed as a union of three parties, the conservative Hungarian Christian Democratic Movement, the nationalist party Coexistence, and the liberal Hungarian Civic Party, which were and continue to be united by only one thing - ethnicity.

Ethnic Hungarians make up 9.6 percent of Slovakia's population and the SMK does not strive to receive more backing than that.

In the 2002 parliamentary elections, the party gained 11.2 percent of the votes and opinion polls place its support at a steady 10 percent.

Although there has been much talk of reaching out to Slovak voters in the SMK, the party has so far always decided to play it safe and not experiment with new strategies.

Slovak political parties, on the other hand, have no known representatives of Hungarian origin, which could help overcome the ethnic divide.

The message this sends to Slovak voters is clear: Hungarians care only about Hungarian interests.

Under the current circumstances, any Hungarian candidate for president would find it impossible to prove the opposite.

As Slovakia enters the EU, it is likely even more emphasis will be laid on national identity, making it harder still for Hungarian presidential hopefuls.

As regards the Roma, it will take years before the country is able to deal with the most basic of their needs.

Considering the experience of minorities in more advanced and liberal societies, it will be a matter of centuries, not decades, before a Roma candidate can hope to win the hearts of Slovak voters.

However, presenting a common candidate could help the Roma minority articulate their beliefs and needs, which would be a valuable contribution to the progress of Slovak society.

Would it help Slovakia to have a minority president? Perhaps not; even a majority president can efficiently care for the well-being of all Slovak citizens.

But the reasons for which it is currently impossible for a woman, a Hungarian, or a Roma to be head of state raise important questions about the involvement of minorities in public life.

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