Freedom in the World
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In 2006, the broad coalition that had delivered Slovakia from government by the far right in the 1990s fell apart. The new coalition government that emerged from June elections, led by the leftist populist party Smer, included the ruling party of the 1990s, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), as well as a nationalist party. The economy continued to perform well, and the new government proposed modest reforms of the flat-tax system as well as new spending. But Slovakia’s European Union (EU) partners expressed concern at some of the coalition’s positions on political and social issues.
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 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 his 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 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 seven exceeded the 5 percent representation threshold. Meciar’s HZDS won with 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 elections. Slovak nongovernmental organizations were particularly active during the campaign.
In April 2003, the legislature ratified Slovakia’s accession to NATO. 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. Slovakia duly joined NATO and the EU in April and May 2004, respectively.
In April 2004, Slovakia held a two-round election for the presidency. Former prime minister Meciar did best in the first round, but lost a runoff against his former right-hand man, Ivan Gasparovic, later in the month. In 2005, the government’s economic reforms caused it to lose popular support. ANO left the coalition in the fall, after its founder, the minister of the economy, was dismissed by the president at Dzurinda’s request. Opposition legislators boycotted the opening of parliament, leading to a lack of quorum that delayed parliament’s new session.
In February 2006, KDH left the coalition, prompting the government to schedule early elections in June. In the balloting, the leftist populist party Smer (Direction) took the largest share of the votes, winning 50 of 150 seats. Dzurinda’s party came second, but several of his potential coalition partners failed to make the 5 percent threshold. To some surprise, Smer’s leader, Robert Fico, formed a coalition with the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and Meciar’s party, now called the People’s Party–Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS).
International and domestic concern immediately arose about the unusual new coalition’s stability and responsibility. The Party of European Socialists (PES), the EU-level group of European center-left parties, suspended Smer in October for its coalition with the SNS, which the PES leadership considered racist and extremist. The SNS leader, Jan Slota, had made highly insulting and inflammatory remarks about Slovakia’s Hungarian and Romany (Gypsy) minorities. For example, he said he would “jump in a tank and flatten Budapest” to stop Hungary from reoccupying Slovakia, which had been under Austro-Hungarian control until after World War I.
Economic forecasters predicted that despite his populist rhetoric, Fico’s reforms would not damage Slovakia’s overall economic progress. He had campaigned on promises to scrap Slovakia’s 19 percent flat tax in favor of a more progressive one and to institute two-tier value-added taxes that would tax staples like food at a lower rate. He insisted that Slovakia still planned to adopt the euro as its currency in 2009, which would require the country to meet strict fiscal and economic standards.
Slovakia is an electoral democracy. Voters elect the president for five-year terms and members of the 150-seat, unicameral National Council (Parliament) for four-year terms. A 2001 law granted 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. Parliamentary elections in 2006 were considered free and fair.
Slovakia’s political party system is fragmented. In 2006, the governing parties were Direction–Social Democracy (known as Smer), the HZDS, and the SNS. The SDKU, the ethnic Hungarian SMK, and the Christian democratic KDH form the opposition. All other parties failed to reach the 5 percent electoral threshold required for representation in Parliament.
Corruption is a problem in Slovakia, especially in health care, education, law enforcement, and the judiciary, according to the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. Slovakia began a program of reforms in 1999 that have 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 49 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 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 issued a positive assessment of 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. Subsequently, an Anti-Discrimination Act was passed in 2004, bringing Slovakia into line with EU legal standards.
Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are guaranteed by the constitution; any restriction must be designed “to protect the rights and liberties of others, state security, public order, or public health and morality.” 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 affect media outlets. In December 2004, a court ordered Sme , a daily newspaper, to pay $96,750 for libeling a Supreme Court judge. 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 has noted the persistence of anti-Semitism among some parts of the population. Academic freedom is respected in Slovakia.
The authorities uphold the rights 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 in 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 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 Romany 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 education and housing for Roma in 2002. The government has also established an informal advisory board to widen dialogue with the Romany 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 in opposition.
Slovakia has a market economy in which the private sector accounts for approximately 80 percent of gross domestic product. Official unemployment remains high—approximately 10 percent in 2006—but has fallen steadily in recent years. 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. Domestic violence is punishable by imprisonment, but remains widespread. Human trafficking from and through Slovakia, mainly for the purposes of sexual exploitation, remains a problem. In 2005, the government began a National Action Plan to combat trafficking, resulting in increased attention to, and prosecution of, traffickers.