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Opposition puts new early elections case

Slovakia's calendar for the year 2002 already contains a number of significant events: Parliamentary elections are set for the end of September, while a few months later, a summit of NATO countries in Prague will decide if Slovakia becomes a new member of the military alliance.
For the country's political opposition, the timing of the critical Prague NATO Summit is a strong argument for moving parliamentary elections up a few months, perhaps to June 2002, in order to give the new government time to pick its ministers and draw up a program manifesto before its NATO-worthiness is judged.
No politician advocates changing election dates more fervently than Robert Fico, leader of the non-parliamentary party Smer.

Slovakia's calendar for the year 2002 already contains a number of significant events: Parliamentary elections are set for the end of September, while a few months later, a summit of NATO countries in Prague will decide if Slovakia becomes a new member of the military alliance.

For the country's political opposition, the timing of the critical Prague NATO Summit is a strong argument for moving parliamentary elections up a few months, perhaps to June 2002, in order to give the new government time to pick its ministers and draw up a program manifesto before its NATO-worthiness is judged.

No politician advocates changing election dates more fervently than Robert Fico, leader of the non-parliamentary party Smer.

"We may not be interesting for NATO if, at the same time the Alliance is deciding on expansion, we are fighting over the construction of a new government," Fico said.

However, foreign policy experts and government politicians have ridiculed Fico's hypothesis, saying that NATO does not make expansion decisions based on the composition of national governments, and that Fico's enthusiasm for early elections is more likely due to his own unparalleled popularity.

According to the MVK and Statistics Office polling agencies, Fico was chosen by respondents in two March surveys as the most trustworthy politician in the country (selected by 27.8% of MVK respondents and 22.4% of people polled by the Statistics Office).

"For all opposition parties, it is better to have elections as early as possible, because current economic trends are improving and will eventually bring results, which will likely cut into the popularity of these politicians", said Soňa Szomolányi, head of political science at Bratislava's Comenius University.

While unwilling to comment on the political reasons behind the early elections proposal, Martin Bruncko, a Slovak analyst with the OECD mission in Paris, said that the foreign policy reasoning of opposition parties was faulty. "Whether elections happen in June or September will play no role," he said. "The decision on whether Slovakia will receive an invitation at the Prague Summit will not be made in September or October, but at the beginning of the summer. That means that if early elections were held in June, the government would be being built at the same time."

Deputy Defence Minister Rastislav Káčer, who since taking his post in January 2001 has been known as 'Mr. NATO' for his focus on winning Alliance membership, added that not only was NATO not interested in whether a new Slovak government had been formed by November, it was not even particularly concerned with who was in the government. "These [details] are followed very closely instead by NATO member countries," Káčer said.

Explaining their motives

This is not the first time that opposition parties - Fico's Smer, Vladimír Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) - have called for early elections. Changing the election date would mean amending the Constitution to cut the set four-year term to one whose length was approved either by parliamentarians or in a referendum by voters.

On November 11, 2000, a referendum on just this issue was held, but attracted only 20.3% of eligible voters, far short of the 50% of voters needed for the results to be valid.

But opposition parties have not given up their hopes of forcing early elections; on the contrary, they say the NATO summit simply gives greater force to their existing arguments.

"The Prague Summit is not the only reason why Slovakia needs early elections," said Štefan Zelník, head of the SNS parliamentary caucus. "The government has not been able to stabilise the country's economy, and the unemployment rate is increasing while society is falling apart economically. For these reasons, it has lost its mandate to lead the country. If we had early elections, a new government could immediately start work on the state budget and lead the country out of its crisis."

The importance of giving the new government time to create a state budget has recently joined the Prague Summit as a principal justification for changing the election date. Oľga Keltošová, a member of the parliamentary European Integration Commission and an MP for the HZDS, said she had participated in the formation of governments since 1992, and that "based on my own experience, June elections could help the government to be formed quicker [during summer holidays] and be ready to work by September", meaning that the country would not have to enter the following year under a provisional budget, as it did in 1999 following the failure of the outgoing Mečiar government to begin budget work.

It's a logic which also appeals to a few coalition politicians, including European Integration Commission member Rudolf Bauer, an MP for the Christian Democrats. "The new government coming out of June elections would have enough time to prepare the next budget and would not have to come forward with a provisional budget. We should really think about this in the future, mainly in connection with the upcoming election period."

The difference between government and opposition politicians, however, lies in that the former are discussing shortening the term of the 2002-2006 government, while the latter would like to see the current administration leave office early.

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