The greatest barrier to reforming Slovakia's system of public administration was removed July 4 when parliament voted by a solid majority to create eight new self-governing regions.
The draft Law on Higher Territorial Units, as the reform is known, was supported by 112 members of parliament in the 150-seat legislature; only 27 voted against.
Having created the new self-governing regions, parliament also gave them the power to elect governments in the Law on Elections to Self-Governing Regions (supported by 105 MPs). All that remains now is to equip the new regions with fund-raising powers, competencies and assets, for which bills are gradually making their way to the legislature.
Despite the work that remains to be done, the approval of the Territorial Units Law drew a sigh of relief from some senior government officials.
"I'm a very happy man today," declared Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda at a hastily-arranged press conference on the back lawn of the Government Office building. "We have taken an irreversible step towards decentralising power [in Slovakia]."
Reform of public administration, in creating a new layer of elected government at the level of Slovakia's eight regions, and scrolling back state offices at the level of the country's 79 districts, had been a key demand of the European Union. The Union favours bringing government as close to the people as possible; EU officials had warned this year that Slovakia's entry chances could be hurt if the reform was not passed.
However, the law did not please all sides, and was particularly criticised by those government parties which had lobbied for the creation of 12 regions rather than 8. The reasoning behind the greater number had been that the 12 units obeyed the historical integrity of different parts of the country, and that they would give people greater power over decisions affecting them.
Although the cabinet draft of the law had provided for 12 regions, an amendment reducing the number to eight was approved at the last minute when MPs with the Democratic Left Party (SDĽ) and the Civic Understanding Party (SOP) voted with the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) to overrule the government proposal.
The decision of the two government parties to side with the opposition against their own coalition partners drew protest from angry coalition leaders. Béla Bugár, head of the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), called on Dzurinda to resign and said his SMK party would now have to decide whether or not to leave the coalition.
Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš, meanwhile, resigned as the coordinator of the government's public administration reform programme, calling the pact between the SDĽ and HZDS "a very bad sign". Viktor Nižňanský, the architect of the reform project as a government plenipotentiary, also resigned his post.
But again, Dzurinda smoothed the waters, calling the battle over the number or regions "a normal competition between political interests", and the decision of Mikloš and Nižňanský to resign "a legitimate and honourable step, given that the SDĽ managed to achieve its aims in parliament.
"Naturally, I would have been much happier if this reform had had the support of all government parties, but it's far better to have this law than nothing at all," the PM said.
It was a view echoed by Deputy Prime Minister Mária Kadlečíková, who while acknowledging the possible "political disappointment" caused by the eight regions model, said that for the EU, reform was reform.
"The European Union has no problem with either eight or twelve regions," she told The Slovak Spectator July 4. "They have told us that the most important thing is that some reform of local government is carried out.
"This is a key element in harmonizing Slovak law and public administration with that in the European Union."
6. Jul 2001 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson