The End of Illiberal Democracy in Slovakia?

An Analysis of the 1998 Election

As Slovakia is about to go to the polls in September, Samuel Abraham looks back at the pivotal elections of 1998. These elections, Abraham argues, signalled an end to the era of the “illiberal democracy” under Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. But what has the current government learned from these elections and how well has it fulfilled its mandate?

The 1998 election has been widely perceived as turning point of Slovakia’s post-communist history. After the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993, it seemed that Slovakia was rapidly drifting towards becoming an authoritarian regime under the leadership of the Prime Minister, Vladimir Meciar. Fortunately and a bit surprisingly it did not and the reasons for this development are complex and manifold. In this paper it will be argued that the fall of illiberal democracy after the September 1998 elections was not an incidental event. It was the result of a shift in the overall political culture in a society that had overwhelmingly rejected populist and nationalist policies and rhetoric; the democratic heritage that, although much damaged and distorted, survived somehow in the historical memory and allowed for the emergence of a civil society.

The popularity of the populist leaders that had been so dominant since a few months after November 1989 fell dramatically because the overall conditions in society, and thus political culture too, had altered. After nine years of a difficult and turbulent post-communist transformation period, dominated by populist and nationalist governments and the break-up of Czechoslovakia, the outcome of the September 1998 elections resulted in the majority of the population and the new government both being genuinely for democratic reforms. Slovakia again aspired to become a serious NATO and EU candidate. What is even more significant is that the shift was generated from within society assisted by free private media, the non-governmental organizations and international pressure and happened, as will be explained, only partially due to the activities of the democratic opposition politicians who took power after these seminal elections.

There is no singular explanation to account for this momentous change in a society that was for so long considered to be dangerously swayed by a nationalist and populist elite. In general, we can state that the defeat of illiberal democracy in Slovakia in 1998 was due to the combined effect of long-term factors such as the history, political culture and legacy of the Communist regime, and short-term factors such as contingencies of post-communist transformation and international pressure exerted on Meciar’s regime. The important mobilization effect stimulating the civil society and altering dominant political culture in Slovakia, came from the free printed and electronic media and, just prior to the elections, the non-governmental organizations, and civic associations. Other factors were: general dissatisfaction with the gradual international isolation of Slovakia, and the fear of being left out of transatlantic Western institutions.

In this paper, first we will describe the concept of illiberal democracy as the key tool used for the analysis of the period prior to 1998. Second, we will outline the role of free media considered here as the crucial component in the process of change of political culture that took place during this period. Third, considering illegal acts, breaching the Slovak Constitution prior to 1998 elections, we will ponder over a poignant question as to what held back Meciar from establishing an outright authoritarian regime. Fourth, we will assess the role of the political opposition that after the election formed the government. I will argue that it did not and could not play a very active role in the whole revival of civil society before 1998. It was intimidated, marginalized and squeezed out of state media by the populist-nationalist government coalition. The above factors will allow us to explain the reason for the fall of illiberal democracy in Slovakia in 1998. Finally, we will briefly discuss the action of the democratic government that came to power after the 1998 election. Its current action, or lack of it, the future prospects, reflects the conditions set in 1998.

Rise of Illiberal democracy

Following the collapse of Communist regimes in 1989 in Central Europe, ultimate political authority rested not with self-appointed communist leaders but with the voters. Thus it is not surprising that the policies and conditions in various of these post-communist countries reflect their particular history, tradition, and religion as well as recent political developments. People are free to govern themselves, to participate in the political process and choose governments as they deem appropriate. There is no outside pressure to deny this choice. Yet, there is nothing to prevent them from choosing badly. And there is no one to blame for it but the electorate. Yet, for someone nursed on liberal-democratic doctrine any blame of the electorate is not only undemocratic but sounds like sacrilege.

This paradox is the central theme of “The Rise of Illiberal Democracies”, an article written by Fareed Zakaria.1He stresses the difference between liberalism and democracy, which may be well known to specialists in western political theory, but it has been too easily forgotten in many contemporary discussions about how best to promote and consolidate democracy. The two terms are today often taken together but in fact have distinct histories and distinct meanings. His characterization of the difference is aptly captured by his observation that, “constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power, democracy about its accumulation and use”.2Zakaria draws this distinction in order to make a broader observation about contemporary political life. “Today”, he says, “the two strands of liberal-democracy, interwoven in the western political fabric, are coming apart in the rest of the world”. In a growing number of countries, “democracy is flourishing, constitutional-liberalism is not”. Increasingly, Zakaria argues, free and competitive elections are producing a new breed of illiberal democracy.

Zakaria presents a minimalist understanding of democracy as “the rule of the people”. According to him, it is simply a method of selecting governments through mass plebiscite and free and fair electoral procedures, which, in the modern world, have become synonymous with competitive, multiparty elections.3 Understood as a procedure, democracy offers little information and still less certainty about the character and content of the government, which emerges from this process. Reviewing the experience of the 20th century, Zakaria observes that democratic elections have frequently produced illiberal and sometimes even non-democratic leaders. Hitler and President Fujimori in Peru are but a few of the examples he mentions.4This reminds us that democracy alone can provide no firm guarantee of a just and decent society, nor for any definitive protection against continued tyrannical abuse. For this sort of protection, we must look not to democracy but to liberalism. Liberalism, as Zakaria further explains, “…is not about the procedures for selecting governments, but rather government’s goals. It refers to the tradition, deep in Western history, that seeks to protect an individual’s autonomy and liberty against coercion, whatever the source – state, church, or society”.5 In the western tradition, the protection of individual political, civic, and economic liberties has engendered a specifically constitutional form of liberalism, the principle features of which are: the rule of law, equality under the law, impartial courts, checks and balances on power, and the separation of church and state. According to Zakaria, “…constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power, democracy about its accumulation and use.”6

Zakaria’s analysis offers several important lessons. First, it serves to disabuse democratic advocates, both East and West, of the simplistic assumption that all good things necessarily come with democracy. Or that for the creation of a “civil society”, democracy is the only necessary condition. It is not a sufficient one. Here, Zakaria offers a sober warning:7

Democracy is only one public virtue, not the only one. …Democracy without
constitutional-liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war.

Finally, Zakaria’s discussion also makes it abundantly clear that any politician who would seek to acquire power through electoral manipulation, political bribery, and constitutional sleight of- hand is not only illiberal, but also not even a democrat.

For the purpose of explaining the rise and fall of Meciar in Slovakia, his sudden emergence in 1990 and his subsequent defeat in 1998, the “illiberal democracy” theory seems the most suitable. Zakaria’s theory provides a framework that allows us to incorporate and link together the long term and short-term causes that influenced developments during this period. Let us now analyze the concrete factors that brought about the change in 1998.

The Role of Free Media and NGOs

There are two possible explanations why a society rejects illiberal democracy: one is a matter of efficacy; another, of principles. The first scenario is that a corrupt and arrogant leadership, due to its exercise of power, is perceived as being too politically and economically overtaxing and damaging to the well being of society. The operational radius of populists and nationalists – to stir emotions, arouse nationalistic pride, search for and mob an internal enemy and to condition the society as being under constant threat – becomes less potent in comparison to the economic hardship and international marginalization of such a society. Thus the society, pragmatically calculating the pros and cons of such a political compact, rejects illiberal democracy as an inefficient political entity. This aspect certainly played a role and there were some Slovaks who had previously supported Meciar and his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) but subsequently started to see him simply as a liability to their own welfare. However, there is an argument contrary to such a purely pragmatic and instrumental scenario explaining why the vast majority of Slovaks rejected Meciar in September 1998. Surprisingly, to many observers, the Slovak economy after 1993 did not deteriorate as expected. On the contrary, the economic performance even improved in the 1995 – 1996 period, and it was not until 1998 that it plummeted – even then it remained within reasonable limits. The reason for this was a combination of the following factors: very tight monetary policies by the Slovak Central Bank, heavy state borrowing, and a relatively good base inherited from the “Czechoslovak era”.

The second reason for a society rejecting a populist regime is that it refuses to tolerate its government excesses and is no longer indifferent to the fate of its country and actively participates in the regime’s downfall. It seems that this was the predominant case of Slovakia a few years after its independence. A country that was no longer either a part of larger ideological bloc, as was the case during the Communist era, nor a political unit, as being part of Czechoslovakia, became much more responsible for its own destiny. The population was free to support or reject, without being prompted by outside pressure, liberal democracy. It could continue, as it did for several years after 1993, tolerate an illiberal democracy or even an authoritarian regime or it could fight to become a liberal democratic society. Perhaps for the first time in modern history, Slovak citizens realized that it was only they themselves who would decide whether their country was to be led by narrow-minded politicians or those who help Slovakia to be a freer, prosperous society striving to become a genuine civil society. It could be that they became aware that not forces from outside, but they themselves were to decide the fate of the future Slovakia. This was certainly the most surprising, if indirect, development derived from the breakup of Czechoslovakia. Indirect, because the main protagonists who fought against illiberal democracy were those who also had fought against Meciar even before 1993 and who had generally been against the split of Czechoslovakia.

What was the catalyst that mobilized public opinion and caused a strong enough outrage among the majority of the population which led in 1998 to an extraordinary mobilization of civil society being witnessed? Was it the case of the kidnapping of the then President Michal Kovac’s son and the cover up of its investigation that was very reminiscent of the performance of some South American Junta regime? Or was it the Meciar government’s repudiation in 1997 of a referendum on the direct election of the President? The public must have been outraged that after the opposition collected half a million signatures supporting the referendum, the Minister of Interior simply terminated the referendum on technical reasons and refused to comply with the subsequent Constitutional Court decision that his action had been unconstitutional. Or was the main reason the massive privatization of state property for a fraction of the real price among the government coalition members and their cronies? It is difficult to pinpoint a particular case or occasion that represented a watershed in the public perception of the true nature of Meciar’s government. One can assume that it was rather a synergic effect caused by several factors.

There is one aspect in the mobilization of civil society, hence rejecting illiberal democracy, and that is the activities of free and private media in Slovakia. The relentless disclosure of the excesses and abuses of power in the independent media seems as important as the scandalous behaviour of the government itself. Although under pressure, some media more, some less preserved their freedom from the governmentís manipulation and control. It could be argued that without the brave work of the free media the balance of the September 1998 election could have been tipped in favour of populist and nationalist parties. It must be said at the same time, that despite the immense importance of the free media, it would have been to no avail if society itself had not been receptive enough and ready to stand up against the populist regime. The free media can induce and compel the civil society, but it cannot create it. Free media has little chance of succeeding in a society where the appeal of populism demagoguery and sirens of nationalism is stronger than the voice of reason and common sense. There has been some free media in the former Yugoslavia and Russia, and yet their appeals fell on deaf ears. There must be mutual reciprocity and support between the free media and the majority political culture.

The profile of two media outlets in Slovakia, the daily SME and the television station Markiza will demonstrate such mutual interdependence. Both were first supportive of Meciar and his policies, but gradually distanced themselves and became the main target of government attacks against free media. As a result of this harassment, Slovakia was designated by Freedom House, a prominent international agency monitoring freedom of the media around the globe, as being a country with “partially free media”.8 The state-run TV and Radio, after in 1994 being thoroughly purged of anyone who was not actively pro-government, became a tool of political indoctrination. They did not provide objective information about government operations. On the contrary, they spread sheer propaganda in order to discredit political opposition, the President and the free media.9 The most outspoken and also most harassed media in Slovakia was the daily SME. It was founded after the Meciar government tried to change the editors of the SME predecessor SMENAduring the early months of 1993 due to the paperís critical stance towards the break-up of Czechoslovakia. A group of journalists, led by Karol Jezik, split from SMENA, and within a couple of weeks created a new daily newspaper, SME.

Since its onset, Meciar’s regime used various legal and semi-legal methods to undermine its position, and ruin this newspaper. For example, it arranged that SME could not print in a printing house that was privatized by people closely connected to HZDS. The Editor-in-Chief, Jezik, was arrested and interrogated several times over published articles and news reports criticizing the government. On several occasions, members of government, including Meciar, sued the newspaper for libel and various damages – the courts, being independent of executive power, did not accept the charges. In October 1997, the association of journalists and publishers of the majority of dailies, again led by SME, managed to thwart the most serious threat to free press. The government of Meciar tried to introduce a disproportionately high tax for the daily newspapers that have any foreign shareholders.10Considering that all free press had some foreign co-ownership, the tax would ruin them.

The daily SME set the tone for almost all other newspapers that gradually, and mostly only reluctantly, became critical towards the Meciar government. More than any other medium, SME through its objective, critical and courageous work, was seminal in the period 1993-1998 in convincing democratically minded individuals not to give up hope about the future of democracy in Slovakia. Every government coalition misuse of power, every illegal and scandalous act was reported and analyzed on the pages of this daily. SME was also instrumental in helping various individuals, professional groups and NGOs in providing space for voicing their concerns, proclamations and appeals to the public. In short, for all those years, SME was a medium whereby citizens could get their encouragement, check their political location within the society and be aware that if they despair in facing the policies of Meciar’s regime they are not alone. In as much as a newspaper has influence, SME truly had such a major impact that a passive, dissatisfied and despairing majority in 1997 – 1998 became a full blown active civil society that took the fate of its country in its hands.

The evolution and motivation of the other medium, TV Markiza, which also had great influence in defeating Meciar’s regime, was very different than that of SME. Its change of direction and joining the opposition to Meciar was symptomatic for the whole of Slovak society during the Meciar regime. It would not have received a licence to broadcast had its Slovak founders not been close to HZDS and to Meciar himself. Indeed, Meciar had first hoped that in Markiza, there would finally be a private medium friendly to his government. At the beginning, TV Markiza did not broadcast any political programs and did not even provide a regular news service. It was commercially successful thanks to popular TV series, but its earnings could not match NOVA, the remarkably successful Czech TV channel which was the most financially successful station in post-communist central Europe for its tabloid news and political reporting. Surely, Markiza wished to emulate its more successful TV station. And to counterbalance the state run TV that was flagrantly a mouthpiece of Meciar’s regime might have been seen as a lucrative opportunity for a commercial television station.

Markiza owned its license for five years, and knew that Meciar’s government could be troublesome but would not shut down a private TV station. It thus launched in 1997 news broadcasts, political debate programs and investigative journalism, a new phenomenon in Slovakia. There was evidently public demand for such TV programs and, moreover, TV Markiza could benefit financially. Indeed, it succeeded in capturing a very high share of TV audiences – state TV, considering its highly unprofessional pro-government reporting, was no match for Markiza. So, although Markiza became a mouthpiece for the opposition, it seems it was motivated more by commercial considerations than by striving to support democracy in Slovakia, as was the case with SME.

This rather cynical calculation by the owners might have been based on their realization that the mood in society was turning against Meciar, and being in opposition to him could bring financial benefit. In addition, TV Markiza, feeling the strength of its influence, was instrumental in shaping developments within the opposition political scheme.11 Thus, although important in defeating Meciar’s regime, TV Markiza financially benefited from the already sprawling civil society that needed an independent source of information regarding the government and the opposition.12

Why Meciar did not Become an Autocrat

There is one nagging question why Meciar, facing electoral defeat in 1998, did not turn Slovakia into an authoritarian regime and did not manipulate the elections. Why did he not organize a coup when he had all the means and the potential to do so? Considering that during his leadership the laws and the constitution were openly violated and the secret police used criminal tactics to intimidate and even liquidate opponents, what prevented him – while being alarmed by the opinion polls showing gradual decline of his popularity 13 – from moving one step further and use force in order to remain in power for another four years? It might sound, in retrospect, as an exaggerated argument, but considering the defiance of the Slovak Constitution and thus the Rechtsstaat , such a move was feasible.

On the other hand, one could argue that Meciar, as a populist, was dependent on popular support, believing that what he was doing was good for society and the majority must be convinced of his virtues. What was also possible was that until the last moment before the election he believed that he could still win. Indeed, he did everything short of using force to win the favour of the electorates – he redesigned electoral laws that were to paralyze the opposition parties, led a smear campaign against the opposition leaders in state TV and radio, and unsuccessfully attempted to close the popular TV station, Markiza. The HZDS spent a much larger sum of funds on the electoral campaign than the law permitted, and in January 1998 Meciar’s electoral machinery spread the news – yet another time – that Meciar was going to be assassinated.14 All this did not work, but it was not because of lack of effort by Meciar and the HZDS. Flashy billboards and an evidently expensive campaign did not fool the majority of Slovaks. On the contrary, it was counter-productive.

There is yet another line of argument considering Meciar’s qua autocrat. He, as a leader in Central Europe and not in the Balkans or somewhere in the former USSR, was not as ready to defy democratic order as might be assumed from some of the deeds that took place during his leadership. Frantisek Miklosko, a prominent Slovak politician who had known Meciar since 1990, remarked that Meciar had several opportunities during his career to resort to radical, violent solutions, especially when his popularity was as high as ninety percent. Yet he never did. He never instigated open violence or called people to take to the streets and fight for him. Instead, Meciar backed down, each time during a major crisis he disappeared from the scene for several weeks “going to hunt bears”, as his associates remarked sardonically.15 In addition, despite his frequent anti-Western rhetoric, he desperately and unsuccessfully sought the company of world political leaders. Yet during the 1993-1998 period, he did not receive a single invitation from any prominent Western leader. Several times he tried desperately to meet with the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, or the US President, Bill Clinton, but without success.16 Also, HZDS tried everything to become a partner in an international political socialist or liberal grouping, again, without success. The only people who were happily visiting Slovakia were extremist like Russian Vladimir Zhirinovski, French Jean-Marie Le Pén or a number of leaders from former Yugoslavia.

It is not easy in Central Europe to be an autocrat, especially if one governs a small country like Slovakia. More feasible is to create an illiberal democracy, which is more acceptable because it fulfills the basic precondition of democracy yet, allows for almost unrestrained control and power. International isolation, restrictions by neighbouring countries and the West, as well as the little assistance an autocrat can obtain from fellow autocrats from the south or east, demonstrate that a leader must pretend and follow the modicum of democratic rules. The Western countries are in a dilemma while facing an illiberal democracy because it is easy to pinpoint the abuse of democratic conduct, but much harder to point out a breach of the spirit of democracy – the complex and delicate political arrangement that constitutes a liberal democracy. This is a paradox explaining the prevalence of illiberal democracies throughout the world where individual countries are unwilling or cannot stay isolated from international interaction, yet thanks to a degree of democratic legitimacy, their leaders are free to act, more or less, as they wish. Thus the leaders of various illiberal democracies pay lip service to democracy yet in many respects defy liberal principles and norms. They allow democratic structure, manipulate but allow elections, and try to avoid as much as possible the checks and balances of their rule. These unique features of illiberal democracies make it a convenient political structure for numerous populists, nationalists and fundamentalists and have become prevalent, both among some post-communist countries and also throughout the world.

So it might be stated that Meciar did not become an autocrat after 1994 simply because it is not easy to become one in a society that can be radicalized, but not to a degree that the necessary zeal among the population can be held indefinitely. Additional factors were Slovakia’s central European location, international pressure, and Meciar’s reluctance to create an authoritarian country in 1998.

The Role of Democratic Opposition

It might be erroneously assumed that the main factor in defeating Meciar was the action of his political opposition. In fact, that the opposition politicians did not become Meciar’s principal contenders was only partially their fault. There are several reasons why they remained rather placid and defensive, especially between 1994-1997. Their main concern was to withstand permanent censure and harassment by the government coalition. Thanks to this intimidation, the opposition must have constantly fought for its sheer survival and thus did not have enough energy for exercising standard opposition politics. They were effectively removed from all executive or legislative positions usually allocated for the opposition as well as from state TV and Radio, through which they could have influence or expose the excesses of the Meciar government. Meciar’s political opposition contained parties representing the whole left-right political spectrum. There was the former Communist Party (Party of a Democratic Left), Meciar’s former allies who left HZDS (Democratic Union), the Christian Democratic Party (KDH), former members of Public Against Violence (VPN) since 1996 grouped in the Democratic Party, and finally the Hungarian parties. Altogether these parties somehow reflected the leftright division within the Slovak political scene, each of them represented a different ideological position and outlook and thus they were divided and uncooperative. Meciar tried to keep the opposition divided and occasionally, when himself in trouble within his own coalition, tried with some success to lure, especially, the former communists into closer cooperation. There were several unsuccessful attempts to unify the opposition, but it was only the draconian election law that the governmental coalition passed in 1998 that forced the merger of several parties. First, in 1997, three centrist and right parties formed the so-called “Blue coalition” in order to create a stronger political subject.17 Such a coalition was to guarantee
that the representatives of these parties would get to Parliament in the next elections.18Later on, in order to enhance its position, the “Blue coalition” accepted two small parties19hoping to become, after the next election, the strongest political unit. The governmental
coalition, trying to undermine this expanded “Blue coalition”, passed a law requiring that each party in a coalition must attain at least five per cent of votes.20 So for example, if any single party within the “Blue coalition” did not achieve these five per cent, regregardless of the overall percentage of votes gained by the whole coalition, such a coalition would not enter the Parliament. It would be disqualified and its votes were to be distributed among the other parties entering Parliament. An illogical and undemocratic law aimed solely to enhance the chances of the governmental coalition of winning the election. As a reaction to this law, the five parties of the “Blue coalition”, merged, with some reluctance, into one party, the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK). The governmental coalition tried to disqualify even this merger as artificial and calculated accusing SDK of still being a coalition and not a party. Well, artificial and calculated – yes. But it was due to the draconian electoral law that aimed to eliminate the main opposition parties. The appeal one month before the election to the Supreme Court by HZDS to disqualify the SDK was repelled.21 Being under strong international pressure, the governmental coalition was upheld, this time, by the Supreme Court.

The opposition democratic parties did not synchronize its steps while fighting Meciar until only a few months before the election. Hence, they participated only marginally in the resurrection of a civil society in Slovakia. Only in the Summer of 1998, did the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), former Communists (SDL) and the newly created Party of Civic Understanding (SOP) along with the Hungarian Coalition, agreed that if victorious, they would cooperate and form a new government.22 Duringthe period 1994-1998 the opposition was preoccupied by its own survival, its parties often quarreling among themselves and being under constant threats by the populist and nationalist government coalition. So, the opposition can be only partially blamed for its paralysis and inability to participate in the activation of society. The fact remains that it did not act as the catalyst for the emerging civil society. Only in 1998, sensing the defeat of Meciar, did the opposition start to act together and cooperate, but by then the civil society was active and vibrant.

The Lesson of 1998

The “inaction” of the opposition politicians before 1998 electoral campaign had its consequences after the elections when those four parties listed above formed a new government. The new democratic government did not act as swiftly and as radically against the previous government as the outraged population that defeated Meciar had expected. The population, very much aware of its importance in defeating Meciar, expected much more radical action after the elections than the government was able and willing to deliver. On the one hand, the democratic opposition that took over the reigns of power from Meciar in 1998, reestablished the rule of law and guaranteed liberal-democratic rights and freedoms in Slovakia, and, in this respect, responded positively to the general atmosphere in Slovakia. On the other hand, the democratic leaders did very little to act against those who before 1998 abused political power and defied laws and the constitution, nor did they prosecute the main culprits who privatized state property for a fraction of the real price. For more than two years after the defeat of Meciar’s government, not a single person was sentenced, and only a fragment of embezzled property was recovered. Most of the fictitious contracts made at the last moment to the benefit of Meciar’s cronies before Meciar left office, mostly have been met or compensated.

This was the unfortunate path for the health of democracy in Slovakia after 1998 where the electorate that had voted Meciar out did not see the new government repair the damage left by the previous administration. Instead of trying to work together and sustaining the trust of the majority of the electorate, the new government has spent most of its energy quarrelling, thereby creating political divisions. Before the election they were united against a common enemy, but having won the election they lost their energy, vision and common purpose. Although the government that came to power in 1998 was democratic and much different from its predecessors, it simply did not act on the colossal task it faced after the end of illiberal democracy.

If the end of illiberal democracy is comparable to a revolutionary situation then it follows that a revolutionary situation requires revolutionary action.23 What must be prevented is the maintenance of any continuity of the previous regime’s policies, and those who broke the law or undermined the rule of law should be brought to justice. It is not enough simply to administer a liberal democratic political structure. Those politicians and civil servants who breached the rule of law and committed criminal acts during the rule of previous governments must be prosecuted. Otherwise, those illiberal democrats that have been defeated, after the initial shock, may grasp the opportunity to criticize and undermine the new liberal democratic government. Weak and inactive new governments are open to the damage that might be visited upon by both the regime and the society. Furthermore, if the old culprits are not punished accordingly, the blame for this damage will be laid on the shoulders of the new government. And those who cause it will be the first to blame the new leadership.

The inability to act in the revolutionary political situation after the defeat of illiberal democracy in Slovakia following the 1998 general election, has been a decisive general lesson for other post-communist, or any other societies, that manage to defeat illiberal democracy. What the democratic politicians did not or could not fight for, and received on a golden platter as a result of the 1998 elections, as was argued in this paper, could endanger their future position and slow the momentum in society that had brought down the illiberal democracy. It should also be noted that while they obtained their position easily, they might just lose it easily.

The continuous low electoral preferences throughout 2000 and 2001 for the governmental parties reflect the failure to act swiftly and decisively immediately after the 1998 election against its political predecessors. All the positive results that the coalition undoubtedly achieved after 1998 in economic consolidation, foreign policy and restoration of liberal values in public life have been counterbalanced by one colossal failure to act upon its mandate it received from the electorate in 1998. The disillusioned electorate that previously supported the democratic coalition either shuns politics or supports new opportunistic and populist parties. In addition, support of Meciar’s HZDS remains comparable to that of 1998 or around 25 percent. Thus the prospects for the 2002 election remain uncertain.

One possibility is again a broad coalition against Meciar but a resulting coalition would be even less stable than the current one. On the other hand, such a coalition would have a good chance to guarantee Slovakia with NATO and EU membership. Nevertheless, the result of the post 1998 government’s inaction is not likely to end with the return of illiberal democracy. This is thanks to the maturity and experience of the general public, which demonstrated these qualities before the 1998 elections. In fact, it seems that the process started in 1998 is not reversible – at least not to the extent that illiberal democracy could return to Slovakia. Hence, the momentous change that Slovakia experienced in 1998 is a sign of positive development, and the lack of action after 1998 should be only a temporary setback.

To conclude, it seems in retrospect that the political ordeal which Slovaks experienced during the years following the break-up of Czechoslovakia, has been a worthwhile, if painful and costly experience. Suffice it to say, the decisive factor of a societal shift in Slovakia came with the awareness of responsibility among the majority of the population that they were the masters of their own fate and future. However, it is a paradox that such awareness became possible only after the populists and nationalists dragged Slovakia away from a community of democratic nations and close to the brink of becoming an authoritarian regime. Resulting long but peaceful struggle transformed Slovak society, culminating with the 1998 elections and the overthrow of the Meciar regime. The resurgence of civil society, and the defiance of government action, especially during the period of 1997-1998, is a remarkable story, a key moment in Slovak history. It was, however, a high price to pay for the realization that the problems tormenting Slovakia were of an internal nature, and could only be resolved through a slow and peaceful process of economic hardship and social insecurity.


This essay is based on the Chapter 6 (“1998 Election and the Birth of the Citizen”) of PhD Disertation The Rise and Fall of Illiberal Democracy in Slovakia 1998-1998: An Analysis of Transformation in a Post-Communist Society defended at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. 



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Kitschelt, H. ; “The Formation of Party Cleaveages in Postcommunist Democracies: Theoretical Propositons”, Party Politics, 1/4 (1995).

Zakaria, F. ; “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”, Foreign Affairs. (November/December 1997


F. Zakaria, "The Rise of Illiberal Democracies", Foreign Affairs (November/December 1997).

Zakaria, ibid., p. 30.

Zakaria, ibid., p. 23.

Zakaria, ibid., p. 23.

Zakaria, ibid., p. 25.

Zakaria, ibid., p. 30.

Zakaria, ibid., p. 25.

See Adrian Karatnycky, Alexander Motyl, and Charles Graybow (eds.) Nations in Transit 1999-2000: Civil Society, Democracy and Markets in East Central Europe and the Newly Independent States (New York: Freedom House 2001); see p. 560 for Freedom House rating since 1989 till 2000.

See J. Fule "Media", Slovensko 1998-1999. Suhrnna sprava o stave spolocnosti (Bratislava: Institut pre verejne otazky 1999), p. 508-608.

See J. Fule "Media", Slovakia 1997. A Global Report on the State of Society (Bratislava: Institute for Public Affairs 1998), p. 623-624.

It has been suggested and widely publicised that the key political leaders emerging after the 1998 elections, the Prime Minister of Slovakia, Mikulas Dzurinda, and the President, Rudolf Schuster, were promoted by the owner of TV Markiza.

An additional argument that Markiza's decision to become oppositional for commercial reasons is that at the same time as it was founded, another private TV station, VTV, received a licence. This TV station, from the beginning, explicitly supported Meciar's government while its rating remained very low. Its operation was terminated in 1999 after it lost financial backing from Meciar supporters.

Zora Butorova (ed.) Democracy and Discontent in Slovakia: A Public Opinion Profile of a Country in Transition (Bratislava: 1997).

The tactics to spread the news about the alleged assassination dates back to 1991 and since then Meciar returned to this scheme several times since. See Marian Lesko Meciar a Meciarizmus: politik bez skrupul, politika bez zabran (Bratislava: VMV 1996).

This is based on personal communication with Frantisek Miklosko who was one of the core VPN movement members and the Chairman of the Slovak Parliament 1990-1992. Later he switched to the Christian Democratic Party and has been an influential MP up to this date.

M. Lesko, ibid., p. 166.

The Christian Democrats, the Democratic Union and the Democratic Party formed the "Blue coalition".

According to Slovak electoral law, each party must receive a minimum of five percent of votes in the election. The coalition of two parties (seven percent) and coalition of three parties (nine percent). Any larger coalition must obtain at least eleven per cent.

The Green Party and Social Democratic Party.

See Peter Lebovic "Political Aspects of the Election Law Amendments", Butora, M., Meseznikov G., Butorova, Z, Fisher, S.(eds.) The 1998 Parliamentary Elections and Democratic Rebirth in Slovakia (Bratislava: Institut pre verejne otazky 1999), p. 43-44.

Slovensko 1989-1999, p. 877.

Recently came to light the activities of economy professor and public figure, Juraj Stern, who invited on several occasions in the early 1998 the then opposition politicians to plan the common political strategy and the future coalition arrangements. (Based on personal communication)

By "revolutionary situation" we mean a major political overhaul of the structure of political governance.

Published 12 August 2002
Original in English
First published by Slovak Foreign Policy Affairs (SFPA) Fall 2001

© Samuel Abraham / Slovak Foreign Policy Affairs / Eurozine



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