TCS Daily

The 18 Percent Solution

By Marian Tupy - June 21, 2006 12:00 AM

Much of the world's media portrayed the victory of the socialist party SMER in the Slovak elections on Saturday as the voters' rejection of the free market reforms pursued by the current center-right government. The Financial Times, for example, wrote of "a popular backlash against Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda's sweeping free market reforms that turned Slovakia from international pariah into a country championed by foreign investors." The truth is more complicated.

First, the election turnout was only 54.67 percent. In contrast, it was 70.07 percent in 2002. It is true that SMER increased its support from 13.46 percent in 2002 to 29.14 percent this year, but the low turnout means that SMER had its program endorsed by about 14 percent of the eligible voters - not exactly a ringing endorsement of a return to socialism. Second, Dzurinda's party did better than last time. It received 15.09 percent in 2002 and 18.35 percent this year. So did its coalition partners. The Christian Democrats were up from 8.25 percent to 8.31 percent, and the Hungarian minority party was up from 11.16 percent to 11.68 percent.

There were two real shockers. First, the support for the Movement for Democratic Slovakia of the former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar collapsed from 19.5 percent in 2002 to 8.79 percent this year. Second, the Slovak National Party, which was not represented in the last parliament, managed to get 11.73 percent in this year's election. The good news is that the communists, who got 6.32 percent of votes in 2002, did not make it to parliament in 2006. The bad news is that the liberals, who got 8.01 percent in 2002, did not make it to parliament either.

So, what does all of this mean?

As has been predicted, the three parties of the center right can count on 65 seats in the Slovak parliament of 150 seats. They will be 11 seats short of a majority but powerful enough to be a strong opposition, or form a part of the next government. The socialists will have 50 seats. They will thus be 26 seats short of a majority in parliament. The Slovak National Party will have 20 seats. The coalition potential of the Slovak nationalists is not clear. Their economic program is to the left of the communist party. The party is racist in its targeting of the Roma (or Gypsy) minority, ultra-nationalist in its anti-Hungarian rhetoric and homophobic. Not surprisingly, Brussels has already declared that its inclusion in the new government would not be a good idea.

Still, Robert Fico, the SMER leader, might be tempted to include the nationalists in the government. Fico and Jan Slota, the head of the Slovak National party, are friends. Moreover, Slota's support could make the passage of Fico's economic proposals easier. With the nationalists in government, there would be less need for messy coalition compromises. Both leaders oppose privatization and the flat tax, and favor the introduction of higher tax brackets on individuals and corporations making "above-average" profits.

That leaves Vladimir Meciar and his 15 seats in the role of the kingmaker. Ironically, Meciar's worst electoral performance coincides with a huge increase of his party's relevance for the future of Slovakia. If he throws his weight behind the socialist leader Robert Fico, he will, once again, take the country down the wrong path. If he goes into a coalition with the center-right, the continuity of the liberal reforms will be assured. Unfortunately, the Christian Democrats have already stated that they will not go into government with Meciar because of his past authoritarianism. That is an admirable position, but a risky one. Meciar would do a lot less damage to Slovakia's reputation by being restrained by the right, than by running rampant with the left. As Lyndon B. Johnson said of his spymaster J. Edgar Hoover, "Better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in."

The upshot of the election is that under the Slovak voting system, elections don't conclude the process of political horse-trading. They begin that process. True, Fico will get the first crack at forming a government, but that does not mean much. In 1998 and 2002, Meciar won the elections, but could not form the government. Instead, it was the second largest party in parliament that formed the government. In both cases, that party was Mikulas Dzurinda's party. Will history repeat itself? One can only hope.

Marian L. Tupy is assistant director of the Project on Global Economic Liberty at the Cato Institute.


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