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EDITORIAL

Regional elections: Step forward, mind the graft

Despite appearances - low turnout, heavy gains by the opposition HZDS party of Vladimír Mečiar - December 1 regional elections were a step forward for Slovakia, and offer little basis for pessimism about the results of September 2002 parliamentary elections.
When the new regional parliaments assemble in January 2002, they can look forward during the year to taking over powers now held by the national government in fields such as education, health care, welfare, culture and transportation. As columnist Peter Schutz aptly noted in the weekly journal Domino fórum, this means that never again will a Culture Minister be able to impose government-controlled "regional culture centres" on an unwilling nation, as Ivan Hudec did in 1996. No matter who wins in 2002, Slovak democracy is one firewall safer.

Despite appearances - low turnout, heavy gains by the opposition HZDS party of Vladimír Mečiar - December 1 regional elections were a step forward for Slovakia, and offer little basis for pessimism about the results of September 2002 parliamentary elections.

When the new regional parliaments assemble in January 2002, they can look forward during the year to taking over powers now held by the national government in fields such as education, health care, welfare, culture and transportation. As columnist Peter Schutz aptly noted in the weekly journal Domino fórum, this means that never again will a Culture Minister be able to impose government-controlled "regional culture centres" on an unwilling nation, as Ivan Hudec did in 1996. No matter who wins in 2002, Slovak democracy is one firewall safer.

And although the new parliaments will still be dependent on state budget handouts until 2004, when they are to receive taxation powers, the December 1 elections were another step towards cutting the fiscal might the central state now wields. Abuses of public funds, such as the cabinet's decision to spend over Sk330 million on a tennis centre in Bratislava at the expense of the entire nation's school sports facilities, may henceforth have only regional rather than national consequences.

While the ballot's 26% turnout may argue that few voters see regional elections as having any impact on their lives, it also may reflect massive confusion about what the vote actually meant. Candidates in each region, for example, promised to cut unemployment, draw foreign investment and support economic development, despite the fact they will have no power to achieve any of these goals. Robert Fico, the leader of the non-parliamentary Smer party who never lets facts get in the way of a political bon mot, even warned voters in the south of the country not to vote for ethnic Hungarian candidates because they might jeopardise the country's fresh water sources, its wheat fields and newest nuclear plant.

Confusion has also reigned in interpretations of the vote's outcome. True, the HZDS did win five of eight regions, and took every single parliamentary seat in Trenčín region, but this is more a reflection of the weakness of the majority voting system than an indication of the party's real popularity. The HZDS actually only took 38% of votes cast in Trenčín, always been a hotbed of support for Vladimír Mečiar. Similarly, the government party coalition that backed Ľubo Roman, the victorious Bratislava parliamentary chairman, gained only 55% of the votes but took almost 90% of assembly seats.

Until polling agencies and sociologists find out which party's voters turned out in greatest force, absolutely nothing can be guessed about real electoral support for national parties. More interesting perhaps is the fact that the Christian Democrats (KDH) took a larger share (9%) of the 401 regional mandates on offer nationwide than did the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) of Prime Minister Dzurinda (7.2%). With unrest growing in the SDKÚ regarding Dzurinda's chances of leading the party to victory in 2002, the recent elections may increase pressure for a rethink of the SDKÚ's leadership.

It was also significant that the ruling coalition Democratic Left Party (SDĽ) and Civic Understanding Party (SOP) finally dropped all pretences and cooperated with the HZDS in four regions. No one worked harder than these two parties to derail the power devolution plan, or in fact to stall Dzurinda government reforms these past three years, so it's good to see them finally dropping their counterfeit commitment to democratic change.

If December 1 elections contain any hidden danger it is that regional parliaments may be even more corrupt than the national legislature. Think of it - Bratislava's castle hill has since 1998 been home to an international fugitive, a public drunk, a police-assaulting drinking driver, an arms dealer and several people who know more about a certain kidnapping than they are letting on. In other words, a group comparable to the elected representatives of any country in the world. But if these are the nation's best and brightest, what kind of human material will be filling regional parliaments come January? If corruption and graft in national politics has disgusted the electorate, what can we expect to see once the novozvoleni take control of public funds next year?

Regional elections may have improved Slovak democracy, but whether they'll improve people's lives remains to be seen.

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