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EDITORIAL

Public administration reform: Time, gentlemen

It's sometimes easy, when listening to the Babel of opinions volunteered by coalition MPs on the best way to reform regional governments, to forget how many thorny problems the government has had to tackle since taking office in 1998.
"It's the economy, stupid" is a mantra that would not have been out of place on Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's desk these past 24 months. The twin deficits, foreign investment, interest rates, unemployment, foreign debt, real wages and inflation - not to mention the pressing need to restructure banks and industry and press ahead with energy sector privatisation - have all clamoured for attention, and in most cases the government has done a commendable job of halting the country's slide into an economic quagmire.
Now that the economy is back on track, it's the turn of political, legal and social reform to occupy the minds of the country's leaders. Unfortunately, the government isn't showing the same courage and unity it displayed in the first half of its term.

It's sometimes easy, when listening to the Babel of opinions volunteered by coalition MPs on the best way to reform regional governments, to forget how many thorny problems the government has had to tackle since taking office in 1998.

"It's the economy, stupid" is a mantra that would not have been out of place on Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's desk these past 24 months. The twin deficits, foreign investment, interest rates, unemployment, foreign debt, real wages and inflation - not to mention the pressing need to restructure banks and industry and press ahead with energy sector privatisation - have all clamoured for attention, and in most cases the government has done a commendable job of halting the country's slide into an economic quagmire.

Now that the economy is back on track, it's the turn of political, legal and social reform to occupy the minds of the country's leaders. Unfortunately, the government isn't showing the same courage and unity it displayed in the first half of its term.

One of the clearest signals that the coalition is losing its way is the proposed reform of 'public administration', or the structure of regional government and the division of powers across the country. According to many observers, this reform is among the top three most important changes the government promised to introduce during its term. It would not only harmonise Slovakia's power structures with those in western countries, it would also permit further reform of education and health care, and empower people to make decisions about their own lives rather than have these choices made from Bratislava. It's a crucial step - but one that appears in danger of not being taken because of growing irresolution within the coalition.

Despite the fact that the reforms were ready this spring, various government parties have begun to question basic agreements they forged before, throwing the project into chaos. The fundamental idea of the reform is to divide the country into twelve rather than the current eight regions, to create a new level of government in these regions and hold local elections to these offices, and to give the newly formed regional governments significant power to make decisions affecting their voters.

But it's all starting to unravel. The Hungarian party wants a 13th region created, in which Hungarian Slovaks would be a majority of inhabitants. The former communist SDĽ wants to preserve as much of the existing state apparatus as possible, and little is yet clear on whether existing regional offices, to which state bureaucrats are appointed, would continue to exist alongside the newly elected regional governments. The SDĽ also favours the option of proportional representation (in which you vote for a party) while other parties prefer the first-past-the-post system (in which you vote for individual politicians). Government ministries, who were supposed to come up with lists of competencies they could devolve to the regions, have reacted jealously and are sitting on their powers like broody hens.

As ever new barriers to agreement are erected, the outcome appears increasingly in jeopardy. The government has put off the deadline for getting the most important draft laws to parliament from this month to the spring of next year, while coalition MP František Mikloško has been heard to say that it wouldn't be such a tragedy if the reform didn't take place during this government's term at all. On the other hand, Dzurinda has been accused by members of his own party of being passive as reforms bog down, while the Interior Ministry is frantically trying to get the drafts to parliament by the end of this month.

The Interior Ministry is right and Mikloško is wrong. If public administration reform doesn't occur, the government will look exceedingly foolish after having made it a programme priority. It will also leave space for the return of authoritarian influences in Slovakia after the next parliamentary elections in 2002, by failing to invest significant powers in the regions. It will prevent Slovakia from making use of much EU aid money, which is earmarked for regional governments of the sort that don't yet exist in Slovakia. It will stall the vital school and hospital reforms that would have a concrete impact on the lives of ordinary people, and put off much-needed cuts to the ranks and budget of the country's 370,000 strong civil service.

Clearly, there are many pressing reasons for the reform to occur. But as the next round of national elections approaches, we are bound to see this happening more often - political parties taking important reforms hostage to elicit concessions from their partners, and playing to the public rather than finishing the job at hand. Dzurinda, a runner and a veteran of 16 marathons, knows full well that the real race only starts in the second half. It's time he impressed this truth on his faint-hearted colleagues.

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