THE MAJORITY of Slovaks ignored the referendum initiated by the trade unions and opposition parties to have the government of Mikuláš Dzurinda sacked for what they called socially insensitive reforms.
Voter turnout in the April 3 plebiscite was far below the required 50 percent, which brought some respite for the ruling parties, especially Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), which has received some major blows over the past few weeks, including media reports of problems with the party's financial reporting.
The Central Referendum Commission reported 35.86 percent turnout in the plebiscite, which was held on April 3, the same day as the first round of the country's presidential elections.
According to official results, of 4,193,347 eligible voters, 1,503,784 cast their votes.
The low turnout came as a surprise: The latest poll by the Statistics Office's UVVM agency had estimated turnout at 56 percent and political analysts had given the referendum a decent chance of success.
"The low turnout is a great failure for the organisers of the referendum," said Michal Vašečka, a political analyst with the Institute for Public Affairs.
However, he did not think that the failure would weaken the critical voice of the opposition party Smer or discourage the protests of the trade unions.
Smer boss Robert Fico said that the ruling coalition had been successfully destroying itself and the opposition would only assist it in its fall.
During a toothless campaign, the ruling parties appealed to the Slovak people to ignore the popular vote.
Dzurinda told the press that he was pleased by the results of the referendum and that citizens had rejected early elections. However, he admitted his deep disappointment over the failure of the SDKÚ's candidate, Eduard Kukan, to make it to the second round of presidential elections.
The referendum on early elections was based on a petition initiated by the trade unions that collected more than 600,000 signatures in two months time.
President Rudolf Schuster merged the referendum with the April 3 presidential elections, a move that caused the ruling coalition to accuse him of trying to win the votes of those unhappy with the right-wing reforms.
"In an unprecedented way, Schuster is misusing his post for his own re-election," said Pavol Minárik, deputy chairman of the Christian Democratic Movement.
Schuster failed to make it to the second round of presidential elections after collecting only 7.43 percent of the vote.
Analysts and the ruling coalition had questioned whether a referendum on early elections could be called at all, arguing that governments were elected for four-year terms and that the temporary unhappiness of the people could not result in the recall of cabinets, as no government would then be able to carry out unpopular reforms.
Slovakia has a history of failed referendums; of five so far, only a single plebiscite - on the country's entry to the EU - has reached the required level of participation.
Referendums in Slovakia
October 22, 1994 - Shortly before parliamentary elections, deputies approved a plebiscite in which citizens were asked whether they wanted a law requiring the investigation of funding sources in the massive privatisation process. However, voters ignored this first referendum in the country's history. Turnout was 20 percent, leaving it void.
May 23 - 24, 1997 - The ruling Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) initiated a referendum on the country's entry to NATO. The referendum featured three questions: (1) whether the citizens supported NATO membership; (2) whether they wanted to have nuclear weapons located on Slovak territory, and (3) whether they wanted to have military bases in Slovakia. At the same time, they collected 521,000 signatures on a petition for a referendum on direct presidential elections, far exceeding the required 300,000 signatures. President Michal Kováč merged all the referendum questions into one referendum. Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar's interior minister, Gustáv Krajči, ignored the president's will and ordered the referendum ballots printed without the question on direct presidential elections. The Central Referendum Commission ruled that the referendum be annulled and Krajči faced criminal prosecution.
September 25 - 26, 1998 - Shortly before Mečiar was ousted by Mikuláš Dzurinda in the parliamentary elections, his HZDS party launched a petition for a referendum on banning the privatisation of energy and gas companies. The HZDS collected 620,000 signatures and Mečiar, who gained presidential powers due to the parliament's failure to elect a new president, announced the referendum for the day of parliamentary elections. The turnout was 44 percent, which made the referendum void.
August 24, 1999 - The HZDS and SNS called for a referendum on the use of the languages of national minorities in official communications and the ban on the privatisation of strategic companies. The petition was signed by 381,529 citizens. President Rudolf Schuster refused to announce the referendum, which, according to constitutional lawyers and experts, was at odds with the Constitution.
November 11, 2000 - The HZDS managed to collect 697,000 signatures on a petition for a referendum on early elections. The vote was invalid, as only 20 percent of eligible voters turned out.
January 31, 2002 - Slovak parliament did not approve a referendum on the privatisation of a 49 percent share of gas utility Slovenský plynárenský priemysel. Smer boss Robert Fico wanted citizens to say whether or not the utility should be privatised.
January 15, 2003 - Parliament turned down a proposal by the Slovak Communist Party that the country hold a referendum on its entry to NATO. Of the present 132 deputies, only 11 voted for the Communists' proposal.
May 17, 2003 - Slovakia saw its first valid referendum ever, as 52 percent of voters attended the plebiscite on the country's entry to the European Union. The prevailing majority of the voters (92.5 percent) supported Slovakia's membership.
5. Apr 2004 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová