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New election law allows for manipulation of election results

Although Premier Vladimír Mečiar claims his HZDS party will be a clear winner in the September national elections, independent analysts and opposition deputies argue that he cannot pull off such a victory by relying on purely legitimate tactics. For that reason, they say, the new election law which the governing coalition forced through during the May Parliamentary session must be seen as a document that rewrites the rules of the game in the government's favor.
Political analysts say that the law contains several troubling provisions, which in combination create significant room for manipulation of the elections. The most controversial measures concern the transfer of most of the powers of the independent Central Election Commission and local commissions to state administration bodies, and the secrecy surrounding voter lists.

Although Premier Vladimír Mečiar claims his HZDS party will be a clear winner in the September national elections, independent analysts and opposition deputies argue that he cannot pull off such a victory by relying on purely legitimate tactics. For that reason, they say, the new election law which the governing coalition forced through during the May Parliamentary session must be seen as a document that rewrites the rules of the game in the government's favor.

NEWS ANALYSIS

Political analysts say that the law contains several troubling provisions, which in combination create significant room for manipulation of the elections. The most controversial measures concern the transfer of most of the powers of the independent Central Election Commission and local commissions to state administration bodies, and the secrecy surrounding voter lists.

"The government's arguments are phony," said political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov, program director at the Institute for Public Affairs. Mesežnikov argued that the election law amendment was "confirmation that the ruling coalition, and mainly [Premier Vladimír Mečiar's] HZDS, will attempt to annul the results of the elections if they deprive [the ruling parties] of their political power."

Potential abuses

One of the most troublesome provisions of the new law, Mesežnikov continued, was one turning the previously independent Central Election Commission into a powerless observer controlled by the Interior Ministry. One of the duties of the Central Commission had been to supervise local election commissions, but these would now come under the authority of the Ministry as well.

The new also empowers the heads of local state administration bodies to appoint additional members to local election commissions in case political parties fail to nominate their own representatives. Under the previous law, the local commission members had been appointed by town and village mayors who, according to Mesežnikov, represented a wider political spectrum than state employees.

According to the amendment, new election commission members would be chosen from among state administration officials, who were all replaced between 1995 and 1996 by members of the current ruling parties and their cronies. "The state administration will serve the government," said Mesežnikov.

Independent analysts argue that opposition parties may have problems finding the required number of representatives for the roughly 6,000 electoral commissions around the country, thus opening the door to state officials. Peter Brňák, chairman the Parliamentary Constitutional Committee and a HZDS deputy, admitted that the system allowed for injustices in proportional representation at the local level. "On the other hand, careful preparation by the opposition for their representation on [local] commissions would put [the injustices] on a purely theoretical level," he noted.

The living dead

Eduard Bárány, Director of State and Law at the Slovak Academy of Science, said that considered individually, the provisions of the new law did not create the immediate impression that the elections could be manipulated. "The problem occurs when we look at how they work together," he said.

Bárány said that the election commission legislation was particularly ominous in the context of another provision in the law allowed 'dead souls to come alive', a euphemism for the practice of casting ballots in the name of people long since dead.

Under the previous election law, the voters' list was available for inspection by the public. "If someone saw that his neighbor's name still appeared on the voters' list, even though he had moved away or had been dead for several months or even years, he could call the state administration office and tell them about the mistake," Barány said, adding that such cases had occurred during the previous two elections.

The new version of the law prevents voters from seeing any personal data on the voters' list save their own. Barány claimed that without public inspection of the voters' list, no one would know how many dead, missing or absent people had been enumerated. Electoral commission members would thus be able to cast ballots for voters who appeared on the list, but who for obvious reasons could not show up to vote.

Brňák, for his part, argued that the decision to keep voters' lists confidential was made in accordance with the law on the privacy of personal information.

Michal Benčík, a Parliamentary Constitutional Committee member and a deputy for the opposition SDĽ party of reformed communists, suggested that even election identification cards could become a problem "in the current [political] atmosphere." Benčík warned that, in a chaotic election environment, one voter could be handed ten unregistered identification cards and vote in ten different districts. "The law is designed to fit the needs of the governing coalition, mainly the HZDS," said Michal Benčík

But Brňák maintained that despite its admitted weaknesses, the law should be viewed from the perspective of the longer-term benefits that would accrue. "To make a greater change in the electoral system is not a walk in the park," said Brňák, adding that "whether it's [under] Mečiar's government or anyone else's," Slovakia needed an electoral system that would provide enough political stability for effective governance.

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