President Rudolf Schuster promised to help HZDS referendum by seeking legal advice on poll question.
The president's promise to help the referendum initiative by discussing it with Constitutional Court Chief Justice Ján Mazák puzzled some government politicians, who said court justices were forbidden by law from giving judgement on such matters. Schuster's behaviour also troubled at least one political scientist, who said the president had no business using his position to legitimise Mečiar's call for early elections.
"The road Schuster is taking may lead to Mečiar's return. It's the road to hell," said Ľuboš Kubín, a political specialist with the Slovak Academy of Sciences. "In giving Mečiar an audience, Schuster allowed him to masquerade as a democrat and rehabilitate his public image. And in promising to seek legal advice on the referendum question, the president has taken responsibility for the plebiscite on himself."
Kubin added that according to protocol, the presidential office should have been the one to receive the referendum question, not Schuster himself. "No other president would have given Mečiar an audience," he said.
But according to Mečiar's HZDS party, which has announced it will soon begin collecting signatures on a petition to force the referendum, the meeting with Schuster was perfectly natural. "The head of state plays a key role in any referendum," said Mečiar in a February 1 interview with the daily paper Slovenská Republika. "He calls the referendum and puts in motion the whole apparatus. After our past experiences, we wanted to take the preventive step of making sure the referendum question was in accord with the constitution."
Last August, Schuster refused to call a referendum demanded by the HZDS on a minority language law passed by parliament in June, saying that the referendum question was against the constitution.
The HZDS has been agitating for early elections since last year, claiming that instability within the current government and Slovakia's economic woes had made political change inevitable. The Dzurinda coalition's term in office officially ends in September, 2002.
According to the Slovak constitution, the president is obliged to call a referendum if 350,000 signatures are collected on a petition. The HZDS says a petition drive is ready to be launched, while Mečiar promised on February 1 to accept "personal consequences" if the required number of signatures was not reached.
Schuster declared after his meeting with Mečiar that "I personally don't support early elections, but I don't have the right to prevent them." According to legal experts in the governing coalition, however, the president has no right to assist the referendum in the way he has proposed - discussing the question to be put to voters with Constitutional Court boss Mazák.
Peter Kresák, a constitutional expert from Schuster's former SOP party, said that the court could only rule on cases which had been referred to it on the basis of a dispute or complaint - not on the basis of a friendly request for advice. And once the court issued a ruling, he said, it could not rule on the same case again, meaning that the government would not be able to challenge the legality of the referendum question once the president had approved it.
"If Schuster asked court justices for advice as from private individuals, I could imagine it happening," Kresák said, "but in their place I wouldn't issue advice even as a private person."
Mazák, for his part, told the SITA news agency on February 1 that he would refuse to give a statement on the legality of the referendum question.
A question thus remains as to why Schuster would volunteer to consult the plebiscite with Mazák if the law forbade him to do so officially, and if he personally opposed early elections.
"There's no secret deal here between Schuster and Mečiar," said Kubin. "This is just a naive attempt by President Schuster to improve his own popularity, to round out his curriculum vitae."
Although Schuster meant well, Kubín continued, he was putting the ruling coalition in a difficult position by appearing to legitimise early elections. "Once again Mečiar has been allowed to come and dictate terms to the government," he said. "It's odd to see a government with a constitutional [two-thirds] majority in parliament acting like a minority government, but this just shows how little will exists in the coalition to deal with the country's major problems. This early election issue is causing them psychological harm."
Political analysts have said they don't expect a referendum on early elections to be successful, since according to a January poll by the IVO think tank, over 57% of citizens to not support the initiative. According to law, over 50% of registered voters must participate in a referendum for its results to be considered valid.
Even if voters did support early elections, parliament would still have to amend the constitution to allow parliament's term in office to be shortened - unlikely when the current government controls 92 votes in the 150-seat chamber.
But Kubín said Mečiar stood to gain even if the petition ultimately failed. "He is keeping his electorate mobilised, he is winning verbal battles in the media, and he is making parliament look undemocratic by forcing them to say they would not implement the results of a referendum," he said.