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Coalition again calm as powers bill passed

In a classic example of killing two birds with one stone, parliament on September 20 approved a bill ceding over 300 central state powers to local authorities. The 'competence bill', as the draft was known, represented a major step towards decentralising state authority in Slovakia, a goal urged by the European Union; it also satisfied the demands of the ethnic Hungarian SMK party that the ruling coalition keep its promise to bring government closer to Slovak citizens.
More than 200 changes to the bill had been proposed during a three-day debate in the legislature, leaving even regional reform experts unsure as to what exact measures had been approved. In the final vote, 80 out of the 136 members of parliament (MPs) present in the 150-seat chamber supported the competence bill, while three voted against and 53 abstained.
The bill, whose passage in turn requires the revision of more than 20 related laws, specifies which state powers are to be passed down to municipalities and eight newly created regional parliaments in Slovakia's continuing reform of public administration. It is to take effect January 1, 2002.


SMK leader Béla Bugár, left, was pleased with coalition cooperation.
photo: TASR

In a classic example of killing two birds with one stone, parliament on September 20 approved a bill ceding over 300 central state powers to local authorities. The 'competence bill', as the draft was known, represented a major step towards decentralising state authority in Slovakia, a goal urged by the European Union; it also satisfied the demands of the ethnic Hungarian SMK party that the ruling coalition keep its promise to bring government closer to Slovak citizens.

More than 200 changes to the bill had been proposed during a three-day debate in the legislature, leaving even regional reform experts unsure as to what exact measures had been approved. In the final vote, 80 out of the 136 members of parliament (MPs) present in the 150-seat chamber supported the competence bill, while three voted against and 53 abstained.

The bill, whose passage in turn requires the revision of more than 20 related laws, specifies which state powers are to be passed down to municipalities and eight newly created regional parliaments in Slovakia's continuing reform of public administration. It is to take effect January 1, 2002.

"Decentralisation of the socialist system has just become a reality," said independent MP Peter Tatár after passage of the bill.

Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda agreed that the competence bill had given "substance" to public administration reform, just as laws passed July 4 creating eight new self-governing regions and an apparatus for electing members of regional parliaments had supplied the "form".

Dzurinda travelled to Brussels September 25 to inform the EU commissioner for Integration, Gunter Verheugen, of the progress achieved on the reform.

However, much of what Dzurinda said in Belgium related to the political stability the passage of the bill afforded.

The SMK (Hungarian Coalition Party) had given the Slovak government an ultimatum August 25 to force the competence bill through parliament by the end of September or face the departure of the Hungarians from government. The threat had been made as SMK politicians worried that enthusiasm for true reform was flagging among their coalition partners; it was greeted with dismay by international diplomats, who warned the departure of the Hungarians could hurt the country's international image and its EU integration ambitions.

SMK MP József Kvárda told The Slovak Spectator September 25 that his party was "very likely to remain" a member of the ruling coalition, although its final decision on the matter would be taken next week after parliament voted on five other bills related to public administration reform - a bill on the organisation of municipalities, bills defining the property to belong to regional and municipal governments, as well as the budgets of each and the wages to be paid municipal and regional employees.

"We believe these laws will be passed next week," Kvárda added.

The depth of the competence bill has surprised even pessimists who had accused the government of stalling the reform to protect its support among state bureaucrats. Viktor Nižňanský, the architect of public administration reform who resigned in July in disappointment over last-minute changes to regional borders, said the passage of the bill "is in principle a step forward".

Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Institute of Public Affairs think tank in Bratislava, said the alacrity with which the competence bill was passed was due to the SMK's ultimatum.

"The law wouldn't have been passed so speedily without this [SMK's] deadline pressure," he said

With elections to regional parliaments set for December 1, he added, the passage of the competence bill had been crucial in giving candidates for regional government posts an idea of what powers and resources they would have. "At last they know what they're getting into," Mesežnikov said.

Transferred powers

The municipalities and regions were given power over areas as diverse as transport, water management, civil security, registry of inhabitants, social aid, regional planning and development, protection of nature, education, culture, health care and tourism.

However, rather than signing away powers wholesale, the competence bill envisages a complicated power sharing system in which each level of government has some say. In education, for example, municipalities will manage elementary schools and cultural 'free time' centres; regional parliaments will administer secondary schools, while the central government will retain control over schools at all levels for mentally and physically disabled students, as well as over psychological counselling centres.

Deadlines for the transfer of some powers were put back from the end of March, as proposed, to the end of June next year. Public administration reform is scheduled to be completed in January 2004, the date by which Slovakia hopes to be eligible for EU entry.

The head of the municipal lobby group Association of Towns and Villages (ZMOS), Michal Sýkora, agreed that the competence bill represented the first real step towards the decentralisation of state power, but added that much work remained to be done to achieve full public administration reform.

At the September 20 session, MPs also voted on the dissolution of district state offices, which the SMK and Democratic Party had hoped would be included in the bill. However, the proposal did not gain sufficient support among other MPs to make it into legislation, meaning that far from cutting back on civil service employees - one of the reform's main original goals - public administration reform had so far simply added another layer at the regional level.

But Nižňanský told Slovak daily paper Hospodárske noviny September 26 that the lack of support for dissolving the extra layer of state bureaucracy in the competence law should not be overdramatised.

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