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Presidential campaign begins

As of April 30, ten presidential candidates in the first ever direct presidential election in Slovakia began campaigning for the upcoming May 15 ballot. But due to the short length of the campaign and strict spending limits, Slovaks should not necessarily expect wall-to-wall campaign posters or too much visible evidence of an election.
According to the presidential election law pushed through the parliament in January, the campaign will last for only 13 days and will be followed by a 48-hour long moratorium, during which any public presentation promoting the candidates will be prohibited.
The election law is designed in part to minimise the need for large amounts of campaign funding which can often spell political influence for major donors. But the campaign laws are so strict that some campaign managers are claiming that the election law discriminates against the independent candidates, as it bans any media presentations for candidates before the campaign starts.


Magda Vašáryová (left) waits for a candidate forum to begin with Boris Zala (centre) and Michael Kováč.
photo: Vladimír Hák-Profit

As of April 30, ten presidential candidates in the first ever direct presidential election in Slovakia began campaigning for the upcoming May 15 ballot. But due to the short length of the campaign and strict spending limits, Slovaks should not necessarily expect wall-to-wall campaign posters or too much visible evidence of an election.

According to the presidential election law pushed through the parliament in January, the campaign will last for only 13 days and will be followed by a 48-hour long moratorium, during which any public presentation promoting the candidates will be prohibited.

The election law is designed in part to minimise the need for large amounts of campaign funding which can often spell political influence for major donors. But the campaign laws are so strict that some campaign managers are claiming that the election law discriminates against the independent candidates, as it bans any media presentations for candidates before the campaign starts.

"The independent candidates are in disadvantage, because their rivals nominated by political parties enjoy attention of media as parliamentary deputies, municipal officials and political leaders," said Ľuboš Kubín, campaign manager for Michal Kováč, the former Slovak president who is running again.

Funding is one problem for the candidates. According to the election law, a candidate can spend only 4 million Slovak crowns ($95,000) maximum on the campaign, including donations from third persons. International donations are prohibited.

Kubín also criticised the time-span for the campaign, saying that it was impossible for a candidate "to visit all 2,200 Slovak towns and villages in thirteen days and present his programme."

A competition for assigning a director of a small company usually takes three months or more, Kubín said, while the citizens are obliged to pick their president within a mere thirteen days.

Ľudovít Tóth, press secretary of an independent candidate and former actress and diplomat Magda Vášáryová, agreed, saying that "it's obvious that the law has been hastily prepared."

"The 13-day campaign time is not the best idea," Tóth said, "but what else can we do than respect that."

The rules concerning the official media presentations of the candidates has already spurred a wave of discussions among non-governmental organizations and civic associations that participate in the election campaign. Agreeing with Tóth, other critics said they thought that the law had been passed without sufficient consideration to its details.

"Overwhelming euphoria around the direct vote turned into a controversial law which is not a good foundation stone for this new tradition of presidential elections," Kubín said.

Some protests of the law have already begun. The Civic Association for the Support of the Michal Kováč Candidacy, for example, started an ironic protest against the election law by posting billboards on which well-known celebrities support the former president, though his name is covered with black tape baring the word "Censored!"

Though any direct campaigning before April 30 officially violates the law, candidates such as Vašáryová have found their own way to minimise the law's impact. She has already been touring the country, gathering media attention, her campaign manager said.

Leading candidate Rudolf Schuster complained about such practices in a recent interview in The Slovak Spectator. But his and other such complaints may fall on deaf ears. The Central Election Commission (CEC), an independent watchdog agency which seeks to control the proceedings of the campaign and the elections, said that its powers to act against such law violations were rather limited.

"The Commission has no ability to control how the election campaign is led by the candidates and their election staffs," CEC chairman Peter Baxa said at an April 26 press conference.

According to Baxa, the Commission does not even have legal tools to guide the ethical aspects of the campaign. "All we can do is just appeal on the individual candidates and their election staffs to lead ethically correct campaigns," he said.

Enforcement is possible, however, when it comes to monitoring the media for the legality of official election presentations. Electronic media campaigning will be watched by the state-run Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting (RRTV), while advertising in print media will be observed by the Culture Ministry officials.

However, the candidates themselves will not be held responsible for any trespasses of the media aspect of the law. "In case of a violation of the election law, the media will be considered responsible and punished," said RRTV chairman Peter Juráš.

Kubín said that the vagueness of the election law in and the division of its enforcement between a variety among the observing authorities was a bad signal abroad, as well as towards the Slovak people.

Campaign plans

Though they cited the media as one important campaign tool, the campaign managers for the top candidates said they also hoped to focus on rallies and open discussions as methods through which they could gather support.

According to Tóth, Vášáryová's campaign will focus on discussion with citizens. "Her creed is that she's willing to shake hands with everyone who's interested."

He said that Vášáryová has already spent over eight weeks travelling around the country and met people at more than 180 places in Slovakia. Besides meetings, Tóth added, her campaign will focus on supporting various charity and aid programmes.

Schuster, joint candidate of the ruling coalition, will spend a part of the finances for his campaign on charity. "He [Schuster] will give money to organizations with need, such as schools and hospitals," said Ján Bílek, Schuster's campaign co-ordinator.

"He'll deliver the gifts and meet people at the same time," Bílek added.

Vladimír Mečiar, the former Prime Minister and candidate for the opposition HZDS party, started his tour in eastern and northern Slovak cities in late April.

Mečiar's campaign manager Marián Kardoš told The Slovak Spectator that Mečiar's staff would use all legal means of public presentation, but refused to specify them.

Campaign managers refused to reveal their sources for campaign funding but all unanimously said that the expenses would not exceed the limit stipulated by law.

After the campaign, the candidates will have to submit the expense records listing names of those donors whose contributions exceed 10,000 Sk ($240) from citizens, and 100,000 Sk ($2,400) from enterprises. The records will be checked by the Finance Ministry, which can later impose fines for breaches of the law.

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