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EDITORIAL

Referendum 2000: The goose and the gander

It looks increasingly likely that the referendum on early elections set this past week by President Rudolf Schuster for November 11 is going to end the way of all referendums in this country - in the dustbin.
This prediction rests on three responses the government has made so far to the referendum question. First, it has appealed to voters who support government parties not to turn out, hoping that the plebiscite will not reach the 50% participation quorum of eligible voters needed for its results to be valid. Secondly, while no one is actually stating it baldly, it is quite clear that if the referendum returns a valid 'yes' vote, the two largest government parties will block parliamentary approval of its results. And finally, some government officials have said they will ask the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of the referendum question, in the hopes that the court will find it illegal.
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It looks increasingly likely that the referendum on early elections set this past week by President Rudolf Schuster for November 11 is going to end the way of all referendums in this country - in the dustbin.

This prediction rests on three responses the government has made so far to the referendum question. First, it has appealed to voters who support government parties not to turn out, hoping that the plebiscite will not reach the 50% participation quorum of eligible voters needed for its results to be valid. Secondly, while no one is actually stating it baldly, it is quite clear that if the referendum returns a valid 'yes' vote, the two largest government parties will block parliamentary approval of its results. And finally, some government officials have said they will ask the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of the referendum question, in the hopes that the court will find it illegal.

It must be quite easy for Dzurinda and his people to rationalise such behaviour to themselves. After all, their victory over Mečiar in 1998 paved the way for Slovakia's return to the ranks of EU and NATO hopefuls, and began an era of sensible economic policy after the arrant irresponsibility of the Mečiar years. Keeping Mečiar out of power until at least 2002 can quite reasonably be made a matter of the national interest, and it would be an unarguable catastrophe for the country if the government wasn't allowed to see its most important reforms through.

But on the other hand, we're talking about a referendum here - the ultimate expression of voters' will in any democratic state. It was organised and brought to fruition by opposition parties in accordance with the law. It is supported by at least 30% of voters, no matter which poll you read. It should be allowed to go ahead free of interference from politicians who feel their livelihoods threatened by it.

The fact that the government is doing its best to meddle is thus understandable, but entirely hypocritical given this same government's declared respect for the rule of law, and its condemnation of the previous government's thwarting of a 1997 referendum on direct presidential elections.

Has anyone forgotten the hornet's nest disturbed when then-Interior Minister Krajči left a key question off ballots, ostensibly on the basis of an ambiguous Constitutional Court verdict? Is the current government's reaction to the latest referendum not similar, at least in spirit?

Sadly, the Dzurinda government is still doing its famed ostrich act on a number of issues - on its own record, on its failure to explain and sell reforms, and on Mečiar, the man who won't go away, no matter how much we all wish he would.

The Prime Minister's advice on the referendum to this paper in early August was to ignore it - voters could mete out no greater defeat to Mečiar, he said, than to simply go on as if nothing were happening.

But if you ignore Mečiar and his referendum now, what do you do in September 2002, the next round of regularly scheduled national elections? If you ignore popular discontent with economic reforms now, how do you begin to address it as elections approach (unless you buy voters off with a public spending binge as Mečiar did in 1998)?

Even more to the point, if you neglect the task of explaining to voters why real wages have fallen so far in the last 18 months, you can't make this the basis of your advice that they stay at home on November 11. If you have made a balls of many of the promises you made to voters two years ago, make a clean breast of it - and if you still believe in democratic principles, you should urge them to turn out and express their will.

Telling people to stay home on November 11 is a counsel of despair offered by a government that is still desperately unsure that the popular uprising it sparked in September 1998 has really taken hold. It is a counsel that betrays the cabinet's misgivings about the 2002 elections, and whether voters still believe that even Dzurinda is better than Mečiar.

But it is a counsel that is likely to prevail, because the government knows full well that even if it championed the referendum, it would not likely attract enough supporters to outweigh the disaffected. Meanwhile, if it convinces enough people to stay home and Mečiar falls flat on his face, the plebiscite will no longer be an issue in 2002. Sound strategy - but one that bodes ill for the next time the government is dragged to the polls.

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