Transition Online part two
- From Black Hole to Leading Light
page 2 of 2
REFORMS UNLOVED, BUT LARGELY UNCHALLENGED
These are radical reforms. But, somehow, they have not been controversial.
Many other European capitals have been flooded with demonstrators protesting
less extensive reforms. And Slovaks could reasonably be expected to react at
least as strongly: this is a country with a communist past, and support for the
coalition is relatively weak (in both 1998 and 2002, the party of Vladimir
Meciar won the largest number of votes).
But there have not been mass protests and strikes, or major social upheaval
and instability. Bratislava has seen some protests by trade unions and, in
eastern Slovakia, there was a short wave of looting by the country’s
underprivileged and marginalized Roma community. Student protests helped persuade
parliament to block a reform of the university system. But that is the only major
reform bill that has so far failed—and the bill will return to parliament. With
some students and opposition figures accepting that students need to contribute
to tuition fees, the government could also succeed here if it shows
convincingly that the quality of university education will improve.
But the relative ease of the reform drive does not mean that Slovaks largely
back the reforms. In opinion polls, most reject many of the ongoing and
planned reforms. However, there is a certain degree of apathy among opponents.
Slovakia has never been a country of insurgents and permanent revolutionaries, and
this stereotype remains pertinent when it comes to the current reforms.
This social climate is mirrored on the political stage. The only relevant
opposition to the right-of-center government is Smer (Direction), which is led by
the left-wing populist Robert Fico. Yet Fico does not seem to offer a serious
alternative. Meciar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia was abandoned by
some of its parliamentarians. In its weakened state, it is willing to support the
government in many decisions in order to gain the international acceptance
that it craves so much as it seeks to re-establish itself on the domestic scene.
Lastly, the unreformed Communist Party, which also has seats in parliament,
remains marginal, shunned as a potential partner by other parties.
The left-wing opposition--Smer and those trade unions that are politically
active--tried to put an end to the reforms by initiating a referendum that would
have led to early elections. It won the referendum, but the referendum failed
due to indifference. Even though the vote was held on the same day as
presidential elections, 3 April 2004, only 36 percent of the electorate voted on it.
At least 50 percent of eligible voters would have been needed for the
referendum’s result to stand.
Only a few months later, the incredible failings and weakness of the
anti-reformist opposition were highlighted by its inability to scupper the six
health-care reform bills even though the government is a minority administration and
the public disapproves of the reforms. The opposition is even failing to
significantly weaken support for the government. In June’s elections to the
European parliament, the ruling parties (except the Alliance of the New Citizen)
celebrated great victories. Admittedly, their support has declined and the
record-low turnout (a dismal 16.7 percent) makes judgments difficult, but, even so,
the government had good grounds for satisfaction: no other EU ruling parties
fared as well.
Indeed, the greatest threats to reforms are not political opposition or
public disapproval, but relations within the coalition itself. Dzurinda’s sacking
of the defense minister and the National Security Agency split his own party
and meant the government lost its narrow majority. It has operated without a
formal majority since January, relying instead on the comparatively large number
of independent MPs.
So the continued survival of the government, let alone its reforms, shows
that internal divisions can be overcome, even if they remain a threat. They also
highlight the political paradox that is Dzurinda’s reformist government. It
began in a similar position to that of the Czech government led by the Social
Democrat Vladimir Spidla. Both governments had a very narrow majority in
parliament. But while Spidla tried to keep his coalition together by going back on
his reform plans, Dzurinda did the opposite. Paradoxically, ambitious reforms
kept Dzurinda’s coalition together, while Spidla was removed.
And, despite now being a minority government, Dzurinda’s coalition looks
likely to remain in office until 2006. Even then, no U-turn on reforms seems
probable. Unless something unpredictable happens, at least some of the current
ruling parties would feature in a new governing coalition. Though Robert Fico
might, as prime minister, wish to reverse some policies, his coalition government
would probably be unable to abolish the vital reforms undertaken over the past
So forecasters anticipate steady economic growth and cast-iron fiscal
discipline as Slovakia slowly prepares to adopt the euro. Tax reform should boost
foreign direct investment and new labor laws reduce unemployment, while political
decentralization should encourage regional growth and stabilize democracy.
Despite this optimistic scenario, Slovakia faces urgent problems, such as deep
regional disparities, widespread corruption, and how to integrate and improve
the lot of the Roma minority. But at least Slovak society no longer has to face
the fundamental question—how to protect its democracy—and instead can ask
questions about the quality of that democracy.
Some have bigger ambitions for Slovakia. The American businessman Steve
Forbes, owner of the influential Forbes magazine, believes Slovakia could be “the
domino that pushes the rest of the EU, particularly ‘Old Europe’ nations
Germany and France, toward a more free-enterprise, entrepreneurial era.” Few
forecasters would be so grand. But at least Slovak reformers can be glad their
country is no longer seen as a “black hole in the heart of Europe” but as a “
domino pushing for positive change.”
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