In a two-day referendum, a majority of Slovaks voted to join the European Union. The country's leading parties breathed a collective sigh of relief that enough voters turned out.
The country's president made a desperate appeal to Slovaks to vote just hours before polling stations closed.
Slovakia's voters have decided to join the European Union. The Central Election Commission in Bratislava announced on Sunday that 92.46 percent of votes cast in the referendum were in favor of joining the EU. The officials said 52.12 percent of those registered voted, slightly more than the 50 percent necessary for the referendum, which took place on Friday and Saturday, to be valid according to the Slovak constitution.
"The referendum is valid, and an overwhelming majority of our citizens said 'yes' for Slovakia to enter the EU. Good luck to you all in the EU," Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said in an address to the nation on Saturday evening.
The European Commission welcomed the result, congratulating Slovakia for "the overwhelming support for EU accession." "This demonstrates the strong will of the Slovak people to join the European family of democratic nations as a member of the Euorpean Union, with equal rights and obligations," it said in a statement.
Opinion polls had shown that around 80 percent of Slovaks wanted to accede to the EU, but people were sluggish about casting their votes. By noon on Saturday just 48 percent of the 4.2 million registered voters had been to the polls. The day before, only 25 to 30 percent had voted.
Slovak President Rudolf Schuster, (center), Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda (right) and Speaker of Parliament Pavol Hrusovsky
Shortly before polling stations closed at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, Slovak radio and television broadcast a joint statement from President Rudolf Schuster (photo, center)and Parliament Speaker Pavol Hrusovsky (photo, left) appealing to their countrymen and women to vote.
"We were sweating it out a bit in the morning and afternoon because it looked touch and go, but at the end of the day, it turned out fine," European Commission Ambassador to Slovakia Eric Van der Linden told Reuters.
Analysts attributed the low turnout to several factors. They said that voters were expressing disillusionment with Prime Minister Dzurinda's center-right government, which had implemented harsh reforms that allowed the country to shake off the political and economic isolation it had been subjected to under the autocratic leadership of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in the mid-1990s.
Observers criticized the government's promotional campaign in favor of joining the EU too, saying it had failed to explain what EU membership would mean for ordinary Slovaks. The government also reaped criticism for not publicizing information on the referendum in the language of the Roma minority.
Even if the referendum had failed to attract 50 percent of the country's voters, parliament could still have decided to join the EU. But it would have been an embarrassment for both Slovakia and for the European Commission. All of Slovakia's leading political parties support EU membership.
Slovakia is the fifth country to vote to join the EU in the group of nine candidate countries scheduled to accede to the Union in May 2004. Hungary, Lithuania, Malta and Slovenia have already voted to become members. The Czech Republic and Poland plan to hold referenda in June.