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Referendum held despite government threats

"If not for that article, no one would have known about the referendum - neither the world, nor Slovakia, nor even half of Štúrovo."
Referendum committee member from polling station #1, who wished to remain anonymous.More than 47 percent of eligible voters in the southern Slovak town of Štúrovo turned out on April 19 to participate in a referendum on NATO membership and direct election of the President. Although the results of the vote carried no official weight, the Slovak government mounted a concerted campaign in the days leading up to the plebiscite to stop its taking place at all.
The poll asked voters to say whether they wanted Slovakia to join NATO, whether they would accept nuclear weapons and foreign troops on Slovak soil, and whether the president should be directly elected by the people.


Citizen's right. A young boy casts his father's vote in the Štúrovo referendum April 19.
TASR


"If not for that article, no one would have known about the referendum - neither the world, nor Slovakia, nor even half of Štúrovo."

Referendum committee member from polling station #1, who wished to remain anonymous.


More than 47 percent of eligible voters in the southern Slovak town of Štúrovo turned out on April 19 to participate in a referendum on NATO membership and direct election of the President. Although the results of the vote carried no official weight, the Slovak government mounted a concerted campaign in the days leading up to the plebiscite to stop its taking place at all.

The poll asked voters to say whether they wanted Slovakia to join NATO, whether they would accept nuclear weapons and foreign troops on Slovak soil, and whether the president should be directly elected by the people.

"This referendum was all about people believing that participating in public affairs is worthwhile, and not feeling there is no point in saying what they think because politicians decide things for themselves," said Štúrovo mayor Peter Oravec. "It's more than just a question of Presidents and NATO."

For the Slovak government, too, there was more at stake in the Štúrovo referendum than the poll's four questions might have implied. Having twice marred an identical but nation-wide referendum that had been called by former Slovak President Michal Kováč, Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar would not be defied by the átúrovo City Council. Holding a referendum on national issues was beyond the competence of municipal bodies, he told the nation on his regular STV program 'What next, Mr. Prime Minister?', broadcast three days before the plebiscite.

"Don't do it, don't rush into conflict with state power, because we know how to enforce the law," he warned Štúrovo citizens. The day previous, the government daily Slovenská Republika had called on the government use force, if necessary, to prevent the staging of the referendum (see transcript on page 15). And on April 17, Nový Zámky district court official Marián Hatala chipped in with a court decision forbidding átúrovo City Council from going ahead with the poll.

Mečiar hammered the final nail home the same evening on Slovak Radio (Sro), telling the rebel city that "if you don't respect the appeal of the Prime Minister and temporary President, who is the only one who can call a referendum, then you shouldn't be surprised at what happens."

Nitra district police spokesman Peter Šuník reported on the day of the poll that no disturbances connected to the vote had occured, and that "if that Slovenská Republika article had not run, [no one would have doubted that] the referendum would have gone ahead totally peacefully and without problems of any kind."

But despite Sunday's calm, the government's campaign to keep citizens away affected the turnout. Preliminary figures released by Oravec's office indicated that only 47.8 percent of eligible Štúrovo voters (4,933 people) had participated in the referendum, and that 89.4 percent had been in favor of NATO membership and 97.2 percent approving of direct Presidential elections.

"People are afraid here, yes," said Oravec. "In the Slovak Republic, people know that even if they are in the right, that isn't necessarily going to protect them. People have perhaps too much groundless respect for power. They say to themselves, 'OK, I might be doing the right thing, but what if something happens?' And that 'something' occurs too often in this country, unfortunately."

Fear of reprisals, Oravec continued, had not been limited to átúrovo citizens. "We got a lot of telephone calls of support from around the country, but people were afraid to say who they were," he reported. "You could hear some of them crying on the phone, and they were saying hold on, and fight for us also, don't be afraid, what you are doing is beautiful. You are taking risks for us also. Those telephone calls came in some of the worst moments, with the Slovenská Republika article and so on."

Adam Belák, Chairman of the Central Referendum Committee, reported that after Mečiar's television appearance, "most of the people resigned who should have been on the various committees, and who happened to be employees of state bodies." Volunteers, he added, had quickly filled the empty places.

But other Štúrovo officials reported that the now-infamous article had actually produced a backlash among voters and the Slovak media, not only by its heavy-handed appeal for state intervention, but because of inflammatory claims that the átúrovo vote was a part of a campaign by Hungarian nationalists for autonomy in south Slovakia.

"If not for that article, no one would have known about the referendum - neither the world, nor Slovakia, nor even half of Štúrovo," said a referendum committee member from polling station #1, who wished to remain anonymous. "Yes, it frightened some people, but many others said they would vote just to spite the government."

Oravec said that the article had played a vital role in attracting international media attention to the vote, and in ensuring that the peace would be kept. "I was very satisfied with the media, especially with their quick and sensible reaction to that stupid and provocative article. Maybe they stopped the growth of the nationalistic undertones which [Republika] wanted to create." Oravec said that the ferocity of the anti-referendum campaign had come as "a terrible surprise," but that it had also been responsible for bringing human rights groups and news teams to Štúrovo from as far away as Frankfurt, England and Japan.

On the day, many voters said they had taken part in the referendum simply because they had the right to do so. "The Constitution gives me the right to do this," said one man who refused to give his name. "Last year I wasn't allowed to express my opinion."

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