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EDITORIAL

Election law follies: Opposition bloc hoplessly lost

Four months almost to the day before national elections, Slovaks woke up to the news that the country had a new election law. The passage of the measure surprised no one, it having been long since clear that an amended election law was to be the centerpiece of the Slovak government's strategy to get itself re-elected. But Slovakia's largest opposition grouping, the SDK, still seems to be blissfully unaware of just how much trouble it is now in, and incapable of seizing the initiative from the government. What is behind such incompetence?
On one level, the new election law is a shrewd if somewhat Machiavellian exploitation of the political weaknesses of the SDK. The provision requiring that each member of a coalition score 5% of the vote to get in to Parliament has led to feuding within the SDK and Hungarian coalitions over policy and leadership.

Four months almost to the day before national elections, Slovaks woke up to the news that the country had a new election law. The passage of the measure surprised no one, it having been long since clear that an amended election law was to be the centerpiece of the Slovak government's strategy to get itself re-elected. But Slovakia's largest opposition grouping, the SDK, still seems to be blissfully unaware of just how much trouble it is now in, and incapable of seizing the initiative from the government. What is behind such incompetence?

On one level, the new election law is a shrewd if somewhat Machiavellian exploitation of the political weaknesses of the SDK. The provision requiring that each member of a coalition score 5% of the vote to get in to Parliament has led to feuding within the SDK and Hungarian coalitions over policy and leadership. But this measure is not as unfair as the opposition would have the public believe, and no amount of squawking and Holy Joe zeal can change the fact that if the egos of opposition leaders had been smaller, they would not have presented such an appetizing target.

The new law's most dangerous and anti-constitutional provision is one restricting political campaigning and the "propagation" of political information that could benefit any one party to state-run media - Slovak Television (STV) and Slovak Radio (SRo). Curiously, it is this aspect of the law that seems to have been taken least seriously by the opposition, perhaps because it doesn't threaten the fiefdoms of SDK's many party leaders.

Premier Vladimír Mečiar and the HZDS know that whoever controls Slovakia's electronic media stands a solid chance of winning September's elections. With this fact in mind, they have since 1996 managed virtually to push the opposition off the air at STV, with the exception of the odd 'commentary' or satirical program taking the mickey out of the government's opponents. STV recently broke public media guidelines by broadcasting long live segments from the national congress of the HZDS, and ran an hour long speech by Mečiar during prime time on the same day. STV has also been criticized by Slovakia's Radio and TV Council for blurring the line between commentary and fact on its newscasts.

It is this television station which will be charged with the responsibility of covering the election campaign in an even-handed way, and with making sure that all Slovak parties get equal access to advertising space. During the previous elections, in 1994, STV violated the moratorium on broadcasting political information within 48 hours of the election when it covered a story in which Mečiar had mysteriously been left off the voter list, and therefore was unable to cast his vote. STV also broadcast a Miss Slovakia program the night before the vote, in which cameras lingered suggestively on Mečiar and his entire HZDS entourage, who were sitting innocently in the front row.

Given STV's recent and past history, it is at least strange that four opposition deputies failed to show up at a May 18 session of the Parliamentary Culture, Education and Sports Committee, which oversees the media. The meeting was to be attended by STV chief Igor Kubiš, who was on the carpet to answer questions about the activities of his television station during the first three months of 1998. Without the opposition deputies, the Committee lacked a quorum, and Kubiš gleefully locked out the opposition media, saying that the meeting was an informal discussion instead of an official session.

But perhaps the SDK is fully aware of the dangers implicit in the media provisions of the election law, and is simply too convulsed with its own internal growing pains to show much in the way of fight. The SDK's voter preference is down about 10% since November 1997. No one really seems to know whether they are a coalition, a party or a 'bloc,' a confusion that the SDK itself seems coyly unwilling to dispel: even as the election law was being passed, the leader of one of the SDK's main member parties was blustering about going to the polls as a two-party coalition.

Another (and exceedingly generous) interpretation might have the SDK feigning confusion as a ploy to catch the HZDS unawares come campaign time, much as Rocky seems cleverly to allow himself to be pummelled for 9 rounds before climbing from the canvas and giving his suddenly docile opponent a vigorous drubbing. If this is indeed the plan, then SDK strategists may be, in Shakespeare's words, "too clever to be understood." For the new election law has taken the country in the wink of an eye from round 2 to round 8 in an election fight in which the SDK has yet to land a punch.

The final possibility is that both the opposition and the ruling coalition are doing their best to lose the election - the HZDS by acting like scofflaw autocrats, the SDK by feigning concerted political talentlessness. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds: the next government of Slovakia will have to find almost 100 billion Sk to cover maturing bond paper that the Finance Ministry has either issued or revolved this year.

The 1998 state budget says that the 75 billion Sk that matures this year in old government bond and Treasury Bill issues will be recycled, while a further 12 billion Sk will be issued in new paper. But the Finance Ministry has already issued over 25 billion Sk in new bonds, 85% of which amount has a one year maturity. Some of these one-year bond issues, especially the May offers, bear an annual interest rate of 27 to 28%. In other words, the government elected in September may have to find a sum of money equal to 60% of the entire 1998 projected state budget income to pay back loans incurred and then postponed by the current government. And that's a prospect to make even the most competent party think twice about winning.

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