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Coalition frets over plebiscite

The 10-day campaign leading up to a national referendum on early elections began last week with the opposition saying they had no doubts that the required 50% voter turnout required to make the results valid would be achieved. While coalition MP's responded by calling on voters to ignore the plebiscite, one Bratislava analyst said that fear that the November 11 vote would succeed was growing among the government.
This nervousness could be seen, the analyst said, in the government's telling decision to postpone discussion of vital reforms until after the vote - a "disruption" of the nation's political life that could not be hidden by government declarations of solidarity.
"There are concerns among the government that the referendum will be valid," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs. "As a result, they are trying to avoid taking any steps which would effect the citizenry's social status until after the referendum.


Government MP's say that if the November 11 referendum is successful, current reform efforts will be stymied.
photo. TASR

The 10-day campaign leading up to a national referendum on early elections began last week with the opposition saying they had no doubts that the required 50% voter turnout required to make the results valid would be achieved. While coalition MP's responded by calling on voters to ignore the plebiscite, one Bratislava analyst said that fear that the November 11 vote would succeed was growing among the government.

This nervousness could be seen, the analyst said, in the government's telling decision to postpone discussion of vital reforms until after the vote - a "disruption" of the nation's political life that could not be hidden by government declarations of solidarity.

"There are concerns among the government that the referendum will be valid," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs. "As a result, they are trying to avoid taking any steps which would effect the citizenry's social status until after the referendum.

"The referendum has had a negative impact on Slovak politics because it has made the government put off reforms," continued Mesežnikov, who himself estimated that voter turnout would be around 35%. "Two examples of this can be seen in how the government postponed public administration reform and in how they postponed parliamentary debate on amendments to the constitution."

Coalition party representatives, who have advised their voters not to participate in the referendum, renewed their call to ignore the referednum on October 30, the first day of the campaign period. A change in government, they said, would bring a halt to other reforms which were now promising to show results.

"This referendum makes no sense at all," said Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ) MP Ladislav Ballek. "If it succeeds, all current reforms would be halted and Slovakia would then have to wait even longer to become a credible country."

SOP member Katarína Čižmáriková added that the government should be allowed to fullfil its four-year term before being judged on its performance. "The hardest part of Slovakia's transformation process is behind us, and now we should abandon the process? A football match is played in two halves and the first half results alone are not valid," she said.

When asked whether the coalition's decision to ignore the referendum was a dangerous one, Hungarian Party MP Gyula Bárdos said that acknowledging the referendum would have been even more dangerous.

"The referendum hurts the interests of Slovakia, both socially and politically, by creating instability," he said. "We are not interested in destabilising Slovakia. This referendum is [former Prime Minister Vladimír] Mečiar's referendum and we will not support it to enable him to come back and stop what we've started. While we are not yet satisfied with our results, the current government needs four years to eliminate the problems that existed here before."

The most recent poll conducted by the Slovak Statistics Office in October reported that 33% of the respondents were unambiguously determined to participate in the referendum, 46% would not vote, while 21% were undecided. Earlier polls done by the Focus polling agency also suggested that less than 50% of the voting population would attend.

Confident opposition

The opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and Slovak National Party (SNS) began their campaigns to gain referendum support by taking a grassroots approach. Both parties said they would focus on local and regional media outlets and hold small rallies around the country in an attempt to take their message "to the people".

"I am sure the referendum will be successful," said SNS head Anna Malíková in parliament on October 30. "The main argument in our favour is one that does not even have to be presented to the people: their current lifestyle. People must compare what they had [under the former government led by the SNS, HZDS, and Workers Party], what they now have and what they can have."

The HZDS - which is running their campaign under the slogan "I voted for a change and I am not satisfied. I am not afraid to vote for a change of the change" - also expressed confidence that over 50% of the voting population would participate.

HZDS MP Ivan Gašparovič said he had "no doubt" the referendum would be successful, while party-mate Oľga Keltošová said that the vote would servce as a barometer of public opinion for the current government. "The referendum is a test of the government because it will register the satisfaction or dissatisfaction among Slovak citizens with the current economic and social situation," she said. "It's nothing more and nothing less."

But analyst Mesežnikov called the referendum an "abuse of the constitution" by a single party. "This is the HZDS's concern, not the government. Why should the government tell its voters to participate in the HZDS's attempts to bring back Mečiar?"

Malíková countered that the referendum had more to do with democracy than individuals. "This referendum is not about one politician or another, but about the lives of everyone," she said. "It is important for the citizens to realise that democracy is about their possibility to express themselves, not to throw away their voice, not to allow their ability to say something be taken away. We don't tell voters to vote for or against the referendum, just to vote."

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