Vladimír Mečiar and the HZDS must be delighted with their election law proposal. The law has only just been submitted to Parliament, but already the opposition SDK coalition is in disarray, its various factions squabbling furiously over whether to dissolve party memberships or split up the coalition. And as opposition political structures go up in flames, the leader of Slovakia's government and most popular party surveys the scene with massive, Olympian calm, offering the bewildered public a choice between stability and chaos.
No-one may ever know whether the authors of the election law proposal foresaw such a scenario. Some opposition politicians are calling the measure a hastily-produced political travesty, but constitutional law experts have said the bill was written with such subtlety that the extent of its conformity with the law is difficult to assess. In other words, it is a work of supreme political craftsmanship, as the following points illustrate.
There is nothing particularly wrong, for example, with a proposal that disadvantages political unions. Germany, for instance, forbids coalitions, while many western countries restrict smaller parties from entering Parliament. On the other hand, in requiring that each member party in a Slovak political coalition gain five percent of the national vote, the shadowy figures behind the election measure took deadly aim at the SDK's Achilles heel - the fact that this five-party coalition has never had much to unite it beyond hatred of Mečiar.
In a similar way, it is difficult to show that the clause in the proposal that seems to prevent independent candidates from running for election is unequivocally against the Constitution. Dr. Eduard Bárány, the Director of the Institute of State and Law at the Slovak Academy of Science, says that the clause could be interpreted to mean that candidates who are members of political parties must show their party memberships to be allowed to stand for office, not that all candidates must have a party card to run for election.
Much of the confusion surrounding the law may soon be cleared up by Constitutional Court decisions, but until then the election law proposal cannot be reliably faulted on the basis of its constitutionality.
It is, nevertheless, a bad proposal in the wider sense. Slovakia has only a short electoral tradition, but even eight years have given citizens, political parties, courts and electoral commission representatives a tolerable sense of how the game is played. This sense is now threatened by a bill that proposes completely to change the rules of the election game. The outcome, if the law is passed by Parliament, will almost certainly be mass public confusion at election time, and a court system with no legal precedent to help it sort out the mess. Such a situation would only benefit a government that was determined to hold on to power even at the cost of defying the will of its people.
Meanwhile, the fragile unity of opposition parties continues to go up in smoke. As long as the fire is restricted to this political consensus, Mečiar can claim that it was caused by the spontaneous combustion of unstable elements in the SDK. But if Slovakia's young election tradition, an important firebreak to anti-democratic blazes, is erased by this new bill, the flames may spread to the countryside in late September. Mečiar must stop playing with matches now if he wishes to avoid charges of arson.