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Economic reforms by Slovakia's coalition government, which helped lead to impressive economic growth in 2005, also cost its member parties somewhat in popularity. One coalition partner left the government in August, worsening the coalition's minority status in the parliament, and a parliamentary boycott in September nearly toppled the government.
Anti-Communist opposition forces brought about the collapse of the Czechoslovak government in 1989, and the country held its first free elections the following year. After elections in June 1992, negotiations began on increased Slovak autonomy within the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic. These discussions eventually led to a peaceful dissolution of the federation and the establishment of an independent Slovak Republic on January 1, 1993.
From 1993 to 1998, Vladimir Meciar-who served twice as prime minister during this period-and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) dominated politics in the newly independent Slovakia. Meciar battled with then-president Michal Kovac over executive and governmental powers, opposed direct presidential elections, flouted the rule of law, and intimidated independent media. His policies resulted in Slovakia's failure to meet the criteria necessary to open European Union (EU) accession talks and to join NATO.
In the 1998 parliamentary elections, voters supported a major shift in Slovakia's political orientation by rejecting Meciar's rule and electing a broad right-left coalition. The new parliament selected Mikulas Dzurinda as prime minister and pursued policies to enhance judicial independence, combat corruption, undertake economic reforms, and actively seek membership in the EU and NATO.
In September 2002, 25 parties competed in free and fair parliamentary elections, although only 7 parties exceeded the 5 percent representation threshold. Meciar's HZDS obtained 19.5 percent of the vote, but his party did not receive sufficient support to form a new government. Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) finished second and succeeded in forming a center-right government in partnership with the Party of the Hungarian Coalition (SMK), the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), and the Alliance of the New Citizen (ANO). Seventy percent of eligible voters participated in the election.
Slovak nongovernmental organizations were particularly active during the campaign, organizing get-out-the-vote initiatives, publishing voter-education materials, and monitoring media coverage. By law, public television channels provided equal airtime to candidates during the official campaign period. While parties were free to advertise in newspapers, laws prohibited campaign advertising on private television.
In April 2003, the legislature ratified Slovakia's accession to NATO, and in a binding national referendum that was held the following month, Slovaks voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining the EU, with 92 percent supporting membership. However, turnout for the referendum was a disappointing 52 percent of eligible voters, just slightly above the 50 percent needed to make the vote valid. Slovakia duly joined NATO and the EU in April and May 2004, respectively.
In Slovakia's first election for the European Parliament, enthusiasm for participation lagged far behind the zeal for membership itself. Just 17 percent of eligible adults voted in the June 2004 elections, the lowest total in the 25-member EU. The SDKU, KDH, and HZDS each took around 17 percent of the vote, as did a new left-wing populist party, Smer. Each received three seats in the European Parliament. The Hungarian party, SMK, took two seats.
In April 2004, Slovakia held a two-round election for the presidency. Former prime minister Meciar did best in the first round, winning 32.7 percent of the vote. He faced a runoff against his former right-hand man, Ivan Gasparovic, later in the month. In the second round, with a turnout of just 43.5 percent, Gasparovic won with 59.9 percent, as Slovaks rejected the man who had caused their international isolation in the 1990s.
In 2005, the economic reforms pushed by the government caused it to drop in popularity. ANO left the coalition in the fall, after its founder, who was minister of the economy, was dismissed by the president (at Dzurinda's request) following accusations of conflicts of interest in his financial dealings. In September, opposition legislators boycotted the opening of parliament, which led to repeated failed efforts- due to lack of a quorum-to open the new parliamentary session. Finally, with the help of a handful of opposition members and independents, Dzurinda succeeded in opening parliament, but doubts remained about whether the government would survive until the deadline for new elections in September 2006.
Along with other countries that have made NATO and EU membership strategic objectives and which are eager to have solid relations with the United States and the EU, Slovakia has sought to find an appropriate political and diplomatic balance in its relations with the United States and the EU. Slovakia sent a small number of troops, mostly de-mining specialists, to Iraq, where three Slovak soldiers have been killed.
Citizens of Slovakia can change their government democratically. Voters elect the president and members of the 150-seat, unicameral National Council (parliament). A 2001 law grants voting privileges to foreigners, allowing permanent residents to vote in elections for municipal and regional governments. The prime minister is appointed by the president but must have majority support in the parliament in order to govern.
Slovakia's political party system is fragmented. At the end of 2005, the governing parties were the SDKU, the KDH, and the SMK. The ANO (which also means "yes"), a probusiness and promarket party, left the coalition in late 2005. The opposition parties are Vladimir Meciar's People's Party-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS), the left-populist Smer (Direction, which has absorbed smaller groups and is now officially Smer-Social Democracy), and the far-left Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS).
Corruption is a problem in Slovakia, especially in health care, education, the police, and the judiciary, according to the European Commission. Slovakia began a program of reforms in 1999 that has centralized and increased staffing for government anticorruption efforts. Moreover, the Law on Free Access to Information has contributed to improved transparency in government administration. Slovakia was ranked 47 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Slovakia was required to meet the "Copenhagen criteria" in order to join the EU; these standards include "stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities." The European Commission, the EU's executive, issued a positive opinion on Slovakia's candidacy in November 2003 (allowing it to join in May 2004), saying Slovakia had "reached a high level of alignment with the aquis [the body of EU law] in most policy areas." However, the commission noted that more work remained to be done, including in the area of antidiscrimination law.
Slovakia's media are largely free but remain vulnerable to political interference. Prison terms for press abuses such as defamation were eliminated in a 2002 reform, though threats of civil defamation lawsuits still worry media outlets. In December 2004, a court ordered Sme, a daily newspaper, to pay $96,750 for libeling a Supreme Court judge, giving rise to fears of a general chilling effect on journalists. The government does not limit access to the internet.
The government respects religious freedom. Registered churches and religious organizations are eligible for tax exemptions and government subsidies. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest denomination in the country and consequently receives the largest share of government subsidies. Although Slovakia has not banned or impeded any groups from practicing their faith, the U.S. State Department notes the persistence of anti-Semitism among some parts of the population. The government respects academic freedom.
The government respects the right to assemble peacefully, petition state bodies, and associate in clubs, political parties, and trade unions. However, civil society is not as active as in other countries of Central Europe. Judges, prosecutors, firefighters, and members of the armed forces may not strike.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary and a Constitutional Court, and an independent Judicial Council oversees the assignment and transfer of judges. The European Commission has noted the perception of a high level of corruption in the Slovak courts and expressed concern over the judiciary's perceived lack of impartiality. Corruption and a significant backlog of cases have raised questions about the judicial system's capacity to function at EU levels.
There are more than 10 recognized ethnic minorities in Slovakia. While minorities have a constitutional right to contribute to the resolution of issues that concern them, Roma (Gypsies) continue to experience widespread discrimination and inequality in education, housing, employment, public services, and the criminal justice system. In 2003, there were reports of coerced or forced sterilization of Roma women the year before, on the orders of local health officials. Roma also face the persistent threat of racially motivated violence. Even though the law criminalizes such acts, reports indicate that law enforcement officials do not always investigate crimes against Roma. In response to these problems, the government began a new program to improve Roma education and housing in 2002. The government has also established an informal advisory board to widen dialogue with the Roma community.
In December 2003, Slovakia reached an agreement with Hungary on the application of Hungary's Status Law, which grants special health and educational benefits to ethnic Hungarians residing outside of Hungary. A foundation in Slovakia will administer the support for Hungarians living there. Hungarians are represented by the SMK in the parliament, currently a member of Dzurinda's coalition.
Slovakia has a market economy in which the private sector accounts for approximately 80 percent of gross domestic product and 75 percent of employment. Official unemployment remains high at approximately 14 percent, but the government contends that many of those who collect unemployment benefits may simultaneously be working on the black market.
Although women enjoy the same legal rights as men, they continue to be underrepresented in senior-level business positions and in the government.