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Voter education programs becoming increasingly partisan

Six weeks before parliamentary elections, efforts to persuade Slovak citizens to use their right to vote have intensified. Various organizations, most of them sponsored by non-governmental groups, have produced voter education programs designed to increase voter awareness. But several of these groups have been accused of trying to shape people's political convictions as well as heighten their awareness.
One of the most high-profile non-government organizations (NGOs) running a voter education program in Slovakia is Nadácia pre občiansku spoločnosť (NOS), an international partner of The Foundation for a Civil Society.

Six weeks before parliamentary elections, efforts to persuade Slovak citizens to use their right to vote have intensified. Various organizations, most of them sponsored by non-governmental groups, have produced voter education programs designed to increase voter awareness. But several of these groups have been accused of trying to shape people's political convictions as well as heighten their awareness.

One of the most high-profile non-government organizations (NGOs) running a voter education program in Slovakia is Nadácia pre občiansku spoločnosť (NOS), an international partner of The Foundation for a Civil Society.

In March 1998, NOS kicked off a civic campaign for free and fair elections called OK '98. The signatories to the program claimed that Slovakia found itself at a critical stage of development, and openly criticized the government. "Like the majority of our fellow citizens, we feel a deep distrust in our government," read the announcement of OK '98 from March 3. However, the group has always insisted that its voter education programs were non-partisan.

OK '98 is set to launch by the end of August two major initiatives - Rock Volieb '98 and Cesta pre Slovensko - aimed at convincing voters to use their right to vote.

"Young people in Slovakia are either skeptical or not interested in taking part in politics and voting as such," said Marek Kapusta, coordinator of Rock Volieb '98, a Slovak equivalent of the US-based Rock the Vote, which is focused specifically on the younger generation. "Our goal is to break this scepticism and motivate young people, so they go to the polls and vote."

Rock Volieb plans to organize rock concerts throughout Slovakia at which various singers, actors and other well-known personalities will tell their young audiences why voting is so important. According to Kapusta, no politician will have a chance to speak at the concerts. "We have been declaring our non-partisan orientation since the beginning and we stand by the promise," he said.

Despite the organization's declaration, Kapusta added, it has been approached by some politicians, "mostly opposition parties,", but has steadfastly refused the offers.

Shadowing the Rock Volieb campaign, Cesta pre Slovensko (the Way for Slovakia) has emerged as a voter education program that is aimed at the entire spectrum of voters. Cesta was organized by Gemma '93, an NGO working under the wings of OK '98, and makes no bones about having adopted a political slant.

"If we stayed only with explaining when and why they should go and vote, we would deceive the citizens we'd like to approach," said Daniel Brezina, vice president of Gemma '93, adding that his organization is obliged to spread information on the state of society.

Brezina mentioned a 24 page booklet, bearing the Cesta pre Slovensko name, that had been written by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), another OK '98 signatory.

The booklet touches on issues like included health care, social politics, crime and European integration. "We also wanted to include political development, but we decided in the end to avoid it," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, IVO's program manager and one of the authors of the booklet. He argued that the pamphlet is completely non-partisan because the information included eschews opinion and sticks to the facts. "It may seem critical [of the current government] because it deals with reality, but you can't deny the facts," said Mesežnikov.

The booklet will be distributed to the public during a tour of the country that starts on August 19. The organizers said they will talk to people face to face about everyday problems. "Besides that, we will hold rallies with well known personalities, convincing citizens to vote," said Brezina.

Brezina also confirmed the possibility that politicians would be present at the meetings. "We will give political parties the same space and we won't allow them to present their election programs," he explained, but agreed that the probability that coalition parties would support the march and talk at the rallies was very low.

All OK '98 programs are financially supported by various domestic donors, as well as foreign ones. The American presence is particularly noticeable. "Our program is mainly supported by grants from the US Information Service [USIS] and the German Marshal Fund," said Kapusta, adding that the funds have been spent mainly on the leaflets the organization will distribute around and in new Rock Volieb offices in eastern Slovakia.

Support for Gemma '93's "the Way for Slovakia" by, however, has been a bit more problematic. USAID has not supported the project. "The process of negotiations lasted three or four weeks, but we did not enter an agreement," Brezina said. "We did not want to change some things that the American side did not agree with."

Gemma '93 has received finances from the Open Society Fund, the German Marshal Fund and other donors.

The Confederation of Slovak Trade Unions (KOZ) has been showing a marked interest in voter education since May 5, when the organization published a leaflet entitled, "Should we vote? Sure!" which tried to give voters reasons why they should.

Although the KOZ said it would remain non-partisan in its voter education, the trade union group held a recent round of discussions with the three main opposition parties: the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), the Party of Civic Understanding (SOP) and the former communist SDĽ. Jozef Kollár, KOZ vice president, said his group's meeting with the three opposition parties had not been meant as a snub towards government parties, and had occured "simply because only six out of 26 parties that we approached responded to our request to discuss their views on the future direction of Slovakia."

The KOZ voter education program was mostly supported by grants from the American Federation of Labor. "We have been cooperating with them for a long time and we are happy they have supported it," Kollár said.

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