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Half a million support presidential direct election vote

Over half a million Slovaks have signed a petition calling for a direct election of the country's next president, representatives from the seven opposition parties that engineered the drive announced on March 3.
Petition committee representatives said the nationwide referendum drive, which began on January 9 and spanned six weeks, collected 521,580 signatures, a turnout amounting to 13 percent of the country's electorate and comfortably exceeding the 350,000 required by the constitution to force a public vote. The next day the petition sheets were delivered to President Michal Kováč. The referendum must take place within 120 days.
It's still possible that parliament will pass a law on a direct presidential election, meaning that the referendum won't have to be held to force the issue but only to ratify it, said Ján Budaj, a petition committee member.

Over half a million Slovaks have signed a petition calling for a direct election of the country's next president, representatives from the seven opposition parties that engineered the drive announced on March 3.

Petition committee representatives said the nationwide referendum drive, which began on January 9 and spanned six weeks, collected 521,580 signatures, a turnout amounting to 13 percent of the country's electorate and comfortably exceeding the 350,000 required by the constitution to force a public vote. The next day the petition sheets were delivered to President Michal Kováč. The referendum must take place within 120 days.

It's still possible that parliament will pass a law on a direct presidential election, meaning that the referendum won't have to be held to force the issue but only to ratify it, said Ján Budaj, a petition committee member. The law would require deputies to amass 90 votes in the 150-seat assembly, since the constitutional act requires a three-fifths majority.

The opposition held out that possibility to the ruling coalition parties prior to handing the sheets over to the president, but coalition deputies failed to act by the March 3 date opposition representatves had set.

"They were ready to begin discussing the law only in several weeks, which was totally unacceptable to us,'' Budaj said.

The same afternoon that the opposition delivered the petition signatures to Kováč, Speaker of Parliament Ivan Gašparovič summoned deputies to continue the interrupted December session on March 11, adding that he called it specifically to discuss the law for the president's direct election. But opposition deputies declared Gasparovic's gesture meaningless, saying that since the sheets had been delivered to the president's office, Kováč is bound to call for a public vote.

Vladimír Štefko, the president's spokesman, said that Kováč decided to tie this referendum to one on NATO accession he was bound to call by the parliament last month. şşThe main reason for that is to prevent voters from having to walk to the ballot boxes twice," Stefko said. şşIt will also be easier and cheaper for state administrative bodies to handle.''

The only referendum in the country's history, held in autumn 1994, cost 60 million crowns ($2 million) and did not count because only 20 percent of Slovakia's electorate voted.

That should not happen this time, political analysts said. An opinion poll conducted in January and released on March 4 by the Slovak Statistical Bureau showed that exactly 50 percent of voters would participate, while another 22 percent were undecided. For a referendum to be valid, over 50 percent of the electorate must take part. Out of the half that would take part, 88 percent would favor voting for the president themselves, the survey found.

Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar has vascillated on the question in the course of the drive. At his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia's (HZDS) public rally in January, he said his party may support a public vote if it is şşan improvement to the constitutional system." One month later he wasn't so sure. şşThere's no reason to believe that [the petition organizers] have collected enough valid signatures,'' he told his voters.

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