Mario Canseco – The year 2010 promises to be particularly important for Slovakia. The country has effectively enacted a power shift after last month’s legislative election, and is just weeks away from a referendum that could significantly alter the way national lawmakers are elected.

In 2006, Robert Fico led the Direction-Social Democracy (Smer) party to a first place finish in the legislative election with 29.14 per cent of the vote and 50 seats. Fico later invited the Slovak National Party (SNS) and the People’s Party-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS) to form a government. Fico’s administration was successful in placing the country in a position to adopt the euro in 2009, but was nevertheless criticized over the presence of the SNS—branded as extremist for its stance on minorities—as well as diplomatic rifts with Hungary over citizenship and immigration issues.

Smer topped every single voting intention poll released from mid-2006 to mid-2010, and it was clear that the opposition parties would be unable to tackle Fico’s popularity unless they worked together. In December 2009, representatives from six parties—the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU), the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), the Party of the Hungarian Coalition (SMK), Bridge (Most-Hid), Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), and the Civil Conservative Party (OKS)—met to establish the guidelines for electoral cooperation.

The opposition deal was not as comprehensive as Sweden’s centre-right alliance, but aimed at making the most of Slovakia’s proportional representation system. The goal was to control more seats than Fico’s three-party coalition, even if the most popular opposition party—the SDKU—finished a distant second on election day. In February, former prime minister Mikulas Dzurinda stepped down as SDKU leader—following a public spat with Fico over electoral campaign contributions—and was replaced by Iveta Radicova, who was defeated by incumbent Ivan Gasparovic in the run-off to elect the country’s largely ceremonial president in 2009.

When all ballots from the Jun. 12 election were tallied, Smer finished in first place with 34.79 per cent of the vote and 62 seats. The ruling party had increased its share of the vote by more than five per cent and secured 12 more seats than in 2006. Still, due to the poor showing of its coalition partners, Fico’s days as head of government were numbered. The SNS won only nine seats and the LS-HZDS finished below the five per cent threshold to elect members.

The election was not a victory for the SDKU, which garnered only 15.42 per cent of the vote and 28 seats—both lower than in 2006. However, the party could count on the support of SaS, the KDH and Most-Hid to form a stable coalition administration, controlling 79 of the 150 seats in the National Council.

The real winner of the election was SaS, which emerged from the fringes to become the third most popular political force in the country. The party, headed by renowned economist Richard Sulik, openly supports the legalization of same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of marijuana. SaS also connected with voters with its discussions on bringing democracy closer to the people and away from the elites.

The first order of business after the election was to validate the signatures of a referendum drive initiated by SaS last year. The vote, which has been scheduled for Sept. 18, will ask Slovaks to say "Yes" or "No" to six different questions related to elections, expenditures and taxation. The biggest changes would be a reduction in the number of sitting lawmakers in the National Council from 150 to 100 by 2014, and a proposal to allow Slovaks to cast ballots over the Internet in national elections.

Since the "Velvet Divorce", Slovakia has held six referendums and only one—the 2003 vote on accession to the European Union (EU)—was declared valid when more than half of voters took part. Voter turnout in the 2010 legislative election was 58.83 per cent, four points higher than in 2006. SaS has been credited with using the Internet effectively to generate interest in politics and engage with younger Slovaks. These strategies will be essential in ensuring a successful referendum in September, which could clearly position SaS as a strong contender for years to come.