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Cabinet goes to Const. Court over referendum question

A committee in charge of carrying out Slovakia's upcoming referenda on NATO entry and the direct election of the country's president has rejected Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar cabinet's attempt to avoid a public vote on how the president should be elected.
On April 22, the cabinet asked the Constitutional Court to issue a verdict on whether or not it is possible to amend the country's constitution by a referendum. While waiting for the court's decision, the cabinet bound Interior Minister, Gustáv Krajči, to stop the distribution of ballots containing the direct presidential election question.
The Central Referendum Committee, as the panel is called, stated that the cabinet's decision has no foothold in the country's legal system and therefore this issue should be included on ballots in the May 23-24 referendum.

A committee in charge of carrying out Slovakia's upcoming referenda on NATO entry and the direct election of the country's president has rejected Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar cabinet's attempt to avoid a public vote on how the president should be elected.

On April 22, the cabinet asked the Constitutional Court to issue a verdict on whether or not it is possible to amend the country's constitution by a referendum. While waiting for the court's decision, the cabinet bound Interior Minister, Gustáv Krajči, to stop the distribution of ballots containing the direct presidential election question.

The Central Referendum Committee, as the panel is called, stated that the cabinet's decision has no foothold in the country's legal system and therefore this issue should be included on ballots in the May 23-24 referendum.

At the committee's special session on April 25, Pavol Baxa, a committee member for the opposition Christian Democratic Movement, accused the government of unlawfully interfering with the panel's powers. "I have serious reason to believe that the cabinet is in the middle of committing the crime of thwarting a referendum and is inciting the interior minister to commit the same crime," Baxa said.

Krajči, who is also a committee member, however said the committee's decision was based on "the Constitutional Court's possible ruling that it is unconstitutional to decide on the president's direct election in a referendum."

President Michal Kováč called the referendum to address four questions. The first three questions concern Slovakia's accession to NATO, while the fourth one is to decide over whether the next country's president should be chosen directly by the electorate, as opposed to the current practice of parliamentary deputies electing him.

Cabinet arguments

Krajči argued that if the referendum decides on all four questions at once, and the Court later rules that the fourth question was unconstitutional, the referendum as a whole would go in vain. "The referendum would have to be repeated, and the government refuses to waste money on such a thing," Krajči said.

That's why the cabinet proposed that the ballot be divided in two, the first bearing the three NATO questions and the second containing the fourth. But the committee disagreed and bound its chairman, Pavol Mada of the Association of Slovak Workers (ZRS), to put his stamp of approval on a single ballot with all four questions.

In its appeal, the cabinet asked the Court's chairman, Milan Čič, to adjudicate swiftly, which Čič has respected. The opposition reacted by expressing serious doubts that the Court will be able to issue its verdict before May 23. It pointed out that even in cases the Court tagged as 'urgent,' the body has taken over three months to decide. Such was the case of František Gaulieder, an MP from the leading coalition party the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, who was booted out of parliament by his own party last December in a hotly-disputed event.

However, Čič said he believes that the Court will decide on the matter before May 23. But even if it doesn't, Čič added, the cabinet's request doesn't present any delaying effect on the public vote itself, which should take place on the day it was originally scheduled.

Kováč's argument

''The cabinet has every right to ask [the Constitutional Court] to give its interpretation of the Constitution, but a request to do so doesn't entitle it to thwart a referendum or part of it,'' Kováč said in reaction to the cabinet's action. He added that the only body with the authority to order the interior ministry to suspend distribution of ballots was the multi-partisan central referendum committee.

That cool statement contrasted sharply to Kováč's reaction when learning of the cabinet's decision to take the issue to the Court. Kováč accused the Mečiar administration of undermining confidence in the rule of law by illegally postponing preparations for a referendum. ''With its decision, the government has shown its disdain for the will of the people and even for the basics of our democratic and constitutional system,'' the president said.

Mečiar struck back in a television interview, saying the differences between the cabinet and Kováč lay in whether it was possible to change the constitution through a referendum. "If, according to a [new] constitution, the president could be directly elected, his political credit would change, but not his powers," Mečiar said. "[The president] would not be subject to any control, which would create a semi-imperial system."

Kováč was bound to call the NATO referendum by the ruling coalition's majority in parliament whereas he was obliged to call the presidential vote referendum after a successful petition drive engineered by seven opposition parties earlier this year. Kováč himself signed the latter petition.

The opposition-led referendum was an attempt to prevent Mečiar from assuming presidential powers when Kováč's term of office expires next March. It is widely believed that in its present tense makeup of coalition supporters and opposition deputies, parliament would be unable to muster the necessary two-thirds majority to elect a new president, which would mean presidential powers being delegated to the government, and possibly to Mečiar.

Last month, Kováč decided to tie both votes, arguing that it will be cheaper, easier for state administrative bodies to handle, and that it will ensure a turnout of more than half of the electorate, which is required for a referendum to be valid.

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