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HZDS wants referendum on language bill, critics allege populist ploy

Slovakia's largest opposition party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, has announced it will try to call a referendum on two issues crucial to the nation's image in the West - a minority language law and the proposed sale of state-owned monopolies.
The HZDS said on June 17 it wanted within a fortnight to collect the 350,000 signatures needed to have a referendum called on the two issues. The petition takes direct aim at two bills - a new language law and an amendment to the privatisation act - which the government has passed on to parliament for discussion before July 9.
Ruling coalition politicians say that the petition drive is meant to embarrass the government in front of the EU, which has made a minority language law one of the preconditions for membership in western structures.

Slovakia's largest opposition party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, has announced it will try to call a referendum on two issues crucial to the nation's image in the West - a minority language law and the proposed sale of state-owned monopolies.

The HZDS said on June 17 it wanted within a fortnight to collect the 350,000 signatures needed to have a referendum called on the two issues. The petition takes direct aim at two bills - a new language law and an amendment to the privatisation act - which the government has passed on to parliament for discussion before July 9.

Ruling coalition politicians say that the petition drive is meant to embarrass the government in front of the EU, which has made a minority language law one of the preconditions for membership in western structures.

"It's a hypocritical gesture from the HZDS's side," said ruling SDK party deputy Ivan Šimko for the The Slovak Spectator. "If they wanted to hold a referendum on a minority language law they should have done so before they approved the constitution [in 1992], or when Mečiar as Prime Minister promised to approve such a law to fulfill the EU entry criteria."

Šimko said that the HZDS was also trying to ignite nationalist passions to destabilise the government and shake its international credibility. "They themselves don't expect any result to come out of it," he said, "It's just a game they are playing with nationalism... which can be very dangerous for the whole country."

However, HZDS party vice-chairman Rudolf Žiak refuted suggestions that his party was not acting constructively. "As long as the opposition is being squeezed out, without space to present its opinions in parliament or in public media, it is difficult to say whether the opposition is acting constructively or not."

Political analyst Ľuboš Kubín said that the HZDS' brand of politics was aimed at "embarrassing the current government" in an attempt to regain the influence they enjoyed before losing heavily in the September, 1998 elections.

According to Kubín, the HZDS was doing whatever it could to remain in the public spotlight. "From their [HZDS] standpoint, it's a typical tool of electoral mobilisation. They have to clash, because that's what the HZDS supporters want. The more pathetic way they put the [referendum] questions, the more sure they can be of people's support," he said.

The party received 27.1% of the popular vote last September, but support for Mečiar as a Presidential candudate rose to 36% in May this year.

Legality in doubt

While political analysts warned that the HZDS referendum might whip up public opposition to the coalition government's policies, consitutional experts doubted that the HZDS initiative had any legal basis. "Calling a referendum on minority language use would violate the constitution," said Eduard Barány, director of the Institute of State and Law at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

He explained that the constitution banned any referendum from being called on questions that deal with human rights and civic freedoms, and "the use of a mother tongue for minority representatives belongs to these basic rights and freedoms."

But Peter Brňák, a HZDS deputy and party's expert on constitutional law, refuted Barany's charges and said that the referendum questions would be so worded as to skirt the constitution. "The petition [the HZDS has initiated] does not directly address the proposed laws. It doesn't deal with whether or not the law on minority language use would be approved soon, or whether the privatization of strategic companies will be launched."

The SDK's Šimko agreed that "it all depends on the wording of the question. But if it's about the possibility or impossibility of language use, it's anti-constitutional."

Regardless of the legal niceties of the referendum, the HZDS drive is likely to attract significant public support. On June 23, up to 1,000 supporters of the HZDS and the far-right SNS party gathered in front of the Government Office building to protest the minority language law the cabinet had approved on that day.

The law will enter parliament on June 28 and should be passed in a shortened legislative procedure.

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