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New president to lift political tradition

This spring, when Slovaks become the first citizens in post-communist central Europe to popularly elect their president, their challenge will be to select a candidate who will lift the country above bitter partisanship towards stronger democratic values, according to analysts and politicians.
Slovakia has been without an elected head of state since March 1998 when president Michal Kováč's five-year term in office expired and a polarised parliament was unable to agree on his successor.
On January 14, the country's parliament approved a constitutional amendment on direct presidential elections, according to which the ballot could take place by the end of April at the earliest.


Milan Čič (right) denies he may run as a HZDS candidate for president.
photo: TASR

This spring, when Slovaks become the first citizens in post-communist central Europe to popularly elect their president, their challenge will be to select a candidate who will lift the country above bitter partisanship towards stronger democratic values, according to analysts and politicians.

Slovakia has been without an elected head of state since March 1998 when president Michal Kováč's five-year term in office expired and a polarised parliament was unable to agree on his successor.

On January 14, the country's parliament approved a constitutional amendment on direct presidential elections, according to which the ballot could take place by the end of April at the earliest.

"The president will lay the foundations of a new tradition of political behaviour, and it is very important for the further development of the country who this person will be and what the tradition will be like," said Ľuboš Kubín, a political scientist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

According to Kubín, the candidate for the presidential post should be an experienced politician with strong moral authority at home, but mainly abroad. "He cannot be too green," Kubín said, adding that the president would be the country's top representative to foreign relations. "Slovakia will no longer have problems communicating at the highest international level."

Opposition politicians criticised the adopted law, saying that the post of president lost some of its powers. "A president elected by the public has to have broad powers, but this law limited his powers. For example, an amnesty has to be co-signed by the Prime Minister or a minister," said Eva Slavkovská, deputy for the far-right SNS party.

"This president will be a puppet. His position won't be adequate for the president of a sovereign state," seconded Katarína Tóthová, deputy for the HZDS party and ex-vice prime minister for legislation in the former cabinet of Vladimír Mečiar.

Coalition deputies claim that the amendment extends presidential jurisdictions. Ivan Šimko, deputy for the ruling SDK party and one of the amendment proponents, said that the president would be a powerful figure who is responsible for the development of the state. "A directly elected president won't have to bow to the aims of political parties and will be able to remain non-partisan," Šimko told the independent Twist Radio.

Šimko stressed that the head of state would become a "tribune of the people" and would strengthen the position of society in controlling state political power.

The new president will have the power to dissolve parliament if it fails to pass the cabinet's programme within six months, or if the parliament does not render a decision on cabinet-proposed laws within three months, or if it does not have the required quorum for more than three months. The President cannot, however, execute this right during the last six months of his term, but he can dissolve parliament in case the citizens vote for him to remain in office through a referendum.

According to Kubín, however, the president's powers are not crucial at the moment. "His position in the constitutional system will be newly created, based on his behaviour in the political environment in the country," Kubín said. "Eventually, filling the gap in the presidential post, Slovakia will no longer be on constitutionally shifty ground," he said.

The law stipulates that a presidential candidate can be nominated by 15 deputies or a petition signed by 15,000 citizens. A candidate who earns the majority vote of all eligible voters on the first ballot will become president. If the president is not elected in the first ballot, the majority of the participating voters in the second ballot will choose the winner.

A president must be at least 40 years old and will be sworn in by the chairman of the Constitutional Court for a five year term. The Constitutional Court is given the authority to dismiss the president based on a national referendum initiated by a two-thirds majority of parliamentary deputies.

In their agreement signed after September's national elections, the four parties of the ruling coalition declared their joint support for Rudolf Schuster, the mayor of Košice in eastern Slovakia and the chairman of the centre-leftist SOP party. The largest opposition HZDS party is considering the candidacy of Július Binder, the former general director of Vodohospodárska Výstavba construction firm. Among other potential candidates, ex-president Michal Kováč and Juraj Švec, an SDK deputy and former rector of Comenius University, will run the ballot as independent candidates.

According to a poll conducted by the independent Markant agency in December, in which respondents could select more than one candidate, Schuster registered 44.9% of votes. The second highest support was given to Milan Čič, the current Constitutional Court chairman with 29.6% of public support. In the third place, Kováč (23.4%) would beat ex-prime minister Vladimír Mečiar (22.4%), who says he will not run for the presidency, while Binder got 20.4% support.

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