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Municipal election law proposal angers Slovak town mayors

Slovakia's town and village elders say they are sure of one thing: the central government's proposal to amend the country's municipal election law is unfair, unclear and unconstitutional.
Thunder from the passage of a new national election law on May 20 continues to reverberate around the country, but organizations like the Association of Slovak Towns and Villages (ZMOS) and the Union of Towns and Villages (ÚMO) have begun to draw public attention to the municipal election proposal, which is scheduled to be submitted to a final vote during Parliament's July session.

Slovakia's town and village elders say they are sure of one thing: the central government's proposal to amend the country's municipal election law is unfair, unclear and unconstitutional.

Thunder from the passage of a new national election law on May 20 continues to reverberate around the country, but organizations like the Association of Slovak Towns and Villages (ZMOS) and the Union of Towns and Villages (ÚMO) have begun to draw public attention to the municipal election proposal, which is scheduled to be submitted to a final vote during Parliament's July session.

Strong feelings

According to an official Interior Ministry statement that accompanied the proposal, "the role of this law is to guarantee above all the participation of national minorities in municipal bodies at the basic level of self-government."

But Grigorij Mesežnikov, a renowned political scientist and program director of the Institute for Public Affairs, argued that the real aim of the law was precisely the reverse of what the government claimed. "The main purpose of this law is to reduce the strength of the Hungarian parties," he said. "It is an attempt by the HZDS [ruling party] to cast itself as the defender of Slovak interests, especially in those areas [of south Slovakia] where Slovaks are in the minority."

Among the major changes that the municipal amendment introduces to the existing law are a switch from a majority to a proportional system of voting, a division of municipal council seats along ethnic lines, and the inclusion of all electoral candidates on one massive 'multi-mandate' voting list.

"[The proposed changes] are trying to reach a final goal which the Slovak government has been pursuing through its preceding legislation - the weakening of the rights and the authority of municipal self government and their subordination to the state administration," declared Peter Kresánek, ÚMO leader and Bratislava Mayor, during a rowdy May 19 protest in the Slovak capital. Kresánek added that the government was pursuing this goal "even at the price of violating domestic and international legal norms and the Constitution of the Slovak Republic."

Milan Muška, Mayor of Vranov nad Topľou, said at the same rally that Slovak people were still largely unaware of the threat posed to independent government by the new amendment. "Our citizens, unfortunately, are still sleeping," he declared. "But while citizens sleep, so does their nationhood. And if the Slovak nation sleeps, it's all over."

Fewer independents

Mesežnikov explained that municipal voters would face a bewildering new electoral system when they visited polling stations in November.

"In the last elections, in 1994, voters in a given town district would choose, say, six names on a candidates list for their district. Candidates would be listed alphabetically by name, with their political affiliation in brackets," he said. "Now, there will be a second list - candidates will be also listed under the name of the party that is fielding them, and voters can simply tick their six choices off from the list of the party they support."

Mesežnikov claimed that the option of selecting candidates by party rather than by name was all the more significant because the new law provided that all candidates for all districts be listed on one common town or city list. He predicted that many voters, faced at the ballot box with a list containing several hundred names, would opt for the simpler method of choosing a party and then selecting candidates.

"The result of this proposal, if it is passed, will be greater preference for party lists and party candidates at the expense of independent candidates," said Mesežnikov.

In Slovakia's last municipal elections in November 1994, independent candidates as a group were more successful than any single party, winning 28.8% of mayoral posts. The closest rival to the independents, the Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ), managed only 17.9% of the municipal leadership posts up for grabs.

Mesežnikov charged that the new scheme "will also lead to great confusion at the ballot box and many more spoiled ballots."

Milan Ftáčnik, SDĽ Vice-Chairman, agreed. "The result will be terrible because they are now creating one constituency for each entire city," he said. "If you take cities like Trenčín or Nitra or Petržalka, you may have 40 to 60 members of the local council being elected on one list, and you might get 10 or 15 nominations for each council seat, so you might end up with 1,000 people on one candidates list. How will people be able to go through these names and decide, how can they really know what to do on election day?"

Ethnic quotas

Mesežnikov added that one of the most troubling changes introduced by the amendment was a proposal to divide town council seats along ethnic lines. If a town was made up of 60% Hungarian, 25% Romany and 15% Slovak inhabitants, he said, the total number of town council seats would be divided among the deputies of each nationality according to the town's ethnic breakdown.

"The problem is not only that this is unconstitutional," he said, "but that we still have no idea how this ethnic division would be reconciled with the nationality of those deputies who actually get elected."

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