Last-ditch effort staged to change election law

EFFORTS to amend an election law to allow greater political coverage by private media may fail due to shortage of time, say media experts, resulting in lower turnout in a critical fall national vote.
Western governments regard the upcoming September elections as determining Slovakia's future, and have encouraged voters to go to the polls in the hope that a heavy turnout will reduce the share of ballots cast for the controversial opposition HZDS party.
Media observers say, however, that the current election law, in restricting access to information on political parties during the election campaign, may result in fewer people turning out to the polls.

EFFORTS to amend an election law to allow greater political coverage by private media may fail due to shortage of time, say media experts, resulting in lower turnout in a critical fall national vote.

Western governments regard the upcoming September elections as determining Slovakia's future, and have encouraged voters to go to the polls in the hope that a heavy turnout will reduce the share of ballots cast for the controversial opposition HZDS party.

Media observers say, however, that the current election law, in restricting access to information on political parties during the election campaign, may result in fewer people turning out to the polls.

A survey published on April 4 by the Dicio agency suggested that "the lower the turnout, the bigger the proportion of votes taken by the HZDS" because of the relatively high discipline of the party's core voters.

Foreign diplomats have said that the record of the HZDS while in government from 1994-1998 has raised doubts about its commitment to democratic principles, and that if the party forms part of the post-September government, Slovakia may not be invited to join Nato and the European Union.

The HZDS is running at about 30 per cent in the polls, almost double its nearest rival.

Under the current law, only public electronic media such as the STV television channel and the SRo radio station can carry political advertising during the election campaign, which stretches for 30 days before the fall vote.

While private electronic media like the Markíza TV station have far higher viewer audiences than public media, they are banned from carrying political ads. The broadcasters worry that, given the vagueness of the law, even political news presented in their regular news and discussion programmes could be considered political advertising, for which they could face stiff fines from a state media council.

The backers of the amendment, which is to be discussed by parliament in mid-May, say the threat to voter turnout and the confused wording of the current law make change vital.

"We just want to prevent the unclear role of private electronic media [in the election campaign] from resulting in a lack of information for the electorate and threatening voter turnout," said Ľudovít Kaník, head of the tiny right-wing Democratic Party, on April 29.

But most ruling coalition and opposition parties reject amending the election law, arguing that parties would be forced to change their election strategies shortly before the vote.

Political opponents of the changes have also maintained that amending the election law, and related media laws, so close to the elections would be repeating a much-criticised move by the former HZDS government in 1998.

In May 1998, four months before scheduled parliamentary elections, the Vladimír Mečiar government pushed through deep changes to the election law aimed at disadvantaging its political opposition. Some of the changes were later rejected by the Constitutional Court as unconstitutional.

Daniel Lipšic, deputy chair of the ruling coalition Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), said: "I think it would be bad if a tradition were created in Slovakia of changing the rules of the election game at the last session of each parliament."

A similar stance was presented by the HZDS and the Hungarian Coalition Party's (SMK) chair Béla Bugár, who on April 22 said that "at this point it makes no sense at all to change the election law".

After coming to power in late 1998 the current coalition changed some parts of the Mečiar election law but failed to improve the status of private media in the pre-election campaign despite a 1999 Constitutional Court finding that preventing private media from broadcasting political campaign information was in conflict with the constitution.

The proposers of the changes say that if they do not secure the necessary support in parliament, their only recourse is to apply public pressure on politicians who oppose the amendments.

"One thing that all politicians fear is public opinion, so I hope private media manage to create enough pressure that particularly the coalition KDH and SMK change their minds and support the amendment," Kaník said.

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