Michal Sýkora, chairman of the Association of Slovak Towns and Villages, meets with PM Mikuláš Dzurinda.
The draft was returned on August 10 to its author, the Interior Ministry, for a substantial overhaul. The reversal has cast doubt on the government's entire power decentralisation strategy, known as public administration reform.
The reform was one of the pillars of the cabinet's programme declaration in 1998. It follows the European Union principle that municipal and regional elected governments be given greater control over matters directly affecting them, such as schools, hospitals and policing.
So far, parliament approved on July 4 the creation of eight new self-governing regions, as well as elections to regional parliaments. Jozef Migaš, speaker of the national parliament, has indicated these elections could be held on November 24 this year.
But now, with the Interior Ministry's draft 'Competence Law' in disarray, some politicians, non-governmental bodies and local government advocates fear regional elections will be an empty exercise - that they will be held before anyone knows what powers regional parliaments will wield.
"We're going blind into the unknown," said Pavol Minárik, vice-chairman of the ruling coalition Christian Democratic Movement (KDH).
Michal Sýkora, chairman of the Association of Slovak Towns and Villages, demanded that a special session of parliament be called for September to discuss the Competence Law, which the Interior Ministry has promised to rework by the end of August.
"People running as candidates for posts as members and chairmen of regional parliaments should have access to the final version of the Competence Law in good time, so they know what they're getting into," he said.
The rebuff given to the Competence Law by the government Council for Public Administration Reform August 10 marked the second time in two months the Interior Ministry draft had been panned by a senior cabinet body. The Legislative Council had rejected it in July.
The problem, say critics, is that when the cabinet tasked the Interior Ministry in April 2000 with preparing the all-important Competence Law, it also gave individual ministries the responsibility of deciding which power they would give up to lower governments, and thus how thorough the decentralisation process would be.
The ministries have since proven reluctant to yield significant powers. In the latest Competence Law draft, five ministries - Economy, Interior, Health Care, Agriculture and Regional Development - did not name any exclusive rights they were willing to forego.
By comparison, the draft policy on public administration reform approved by the government on April 11, 2000 called for the devolution of financial and managerial powers in education, health care, culture, social affairs, transportation, water management, regional development, tourism and territorial planning.
"If this [Competence Law] draft is to go any further, it needs to be fundamentally reworked," adjudged Sýkora.
Public administration reform, even before the Competence Law rebuff, had already led to the government's most serious crisis in its three years in office.
The Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), hitherto the ruling coalition's most stable member, has threatened to leave the government after August 25 if the July 4 public administration laws are not altered to its satisfaction.
However, despite the reform's bleak outlook, political parties are already gearing up for a possible November 24 regional contest.
The opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), according to a representative poll conducted by the MVK agency from May 9 to July 17, tops voter popularity in six of Slovakia's eight regions. A senior party figure has said that HZDS regional candidates may seek election coalitions with leftist parties such as the ruling coalition Democratic Left (SDĽ).
Indeed, many politicians see the regional ballot as a trial run for national elections planned in September 2000. "This is basically preparation for parliamentary elections," said SMK Vice-Chairman Jószef Kvarda.
According to sociologist Oĺga Gyarfášová of the Institute for Public Affairs think tank, of particular significance for 2002 will be the showing of non-parliamentary parties Smer and ANO, which were formed since 1998 and thus have no election pedigree at any level. Smer, led by the popular Robert Fico, has consistently placed second in voter-support polls since its launch in 2000, and is expected to be a major player in the 2002 national vote.
Given the significance of regional elections as a trial of political strength, added Gyarfášová, parties would likely treat them seriously regardless of whether regional parliaments ultimately received significant powers.
"If you look at [the public administration] laws passed so far, [the post of chairman of a regional parliament] may be a rather weak position," she said. "But victory is important for [political] image, and image will be important in the coming battle for votes in parliamentary elections."