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How should Slovakia elect its president in 1998?

After the New Year festivities, Slovakia awoke to a new political atmosphere. The opposition (minus the Party of the Democratic Left - SDĽ) has moved from passive reaction to government policy towards counter-attack. The theme of the offensive is the direct election of the president. To make this change clearer to the foreign reader, I will pose some rhetorical questions. I think they will cover the questions someone who wants to understand this current political battle would ask. Why has the opposition chosen the direct election of the president as the thrust of its offensive?
The Slovak Constitution has several flaws. One of them is that it does not adequately deal with the situation that would arise if the parliamentary parties failed to reach agreement about a successor when the term of office of the current president expires, leaving this constitutional office unoccupied.

The people should elect directly
By Ján Budaj

After the New Year festivities, Slovakia awoke to a new political atmosphere. The opposition (minus the Party of the Democratic Left - SDĽ) has moved from passive reaction to government policy towards counter-attack. The theme of the offensive is the direct election of the president. To make this change clearer to the foreign reader, I will pose some rhetorical questions. I think they will cover the questions someone who wants to understand this current political battle would ask.

Why has the opposition chosen the direct election of the president as the thrust of its offensive?

The Slovak Constitution has several flaws. One of them is that it does not adequately deal with the situation that would arise if the parliamentary parties failed to reach agreement about a successor when the term of office of the current president expires, leaving this constitutional office unoccupied. This scenario is very likely to occur in February 1998. The Grassalkovitch Palace will be tenantless for at least six months. During this time it is debatable as to whether laws passed in Parliament will be able to reach the statute book, since the Constitution prescribes that they must be signed by the president. The government, which according to the Constitution must resign in autumn 1998, will not relinquish office as there will be no president to accept its resignation and name a new government. If the current opposition defeats the parties of the current ruling coalition in the parliamentary elections of autumn 1998, the new parliament will face the fact that the old government is still holding the reins of power.

This old government, moreover, will be led by a prime minister who during the period of a presidential vacuum, will carry such titles as commander-in-chief of the armed force.

Why are we preparing for a referendum?

The opposition parties put forward a constitutional bill at the last plenary session of parliament's to forestall the crisis period that would be heralded by the absence of a president. But the proposal was tabled. The Democratic Union (DÚ), Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), Democratic Party (DS), Social Democratic Party (SDSS) and the Hungarian coalition parties (MOS, MKDH and Coexistence) decided to change tactics and organize a petition calling for a referendum on the issue. The new parliamentary regulations would create a long period of uncertainty in the wait to see whether or the not direct election of a new president could be effected via parliament. And that could be fatal for the opposition.

The SDĽ has taken up a different stance-its priority is still to achieve the election of a new president by parliamentary means. How? On this they have not elaborated. Even the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) on its own is capable of blocking the passage of any constitutional law. Does the SDĽ believe, after all its bad experiences with Vladimír Mečiar, that they will be able to make an agreement with him that will last more than 24 hours?

The HZDS and its 'satellites' have, of course, been irritated by the petition campaign. Up to now they have passed themselves off as the political representatives of the masses, and suddenly masses of people are signing a petition that they have roundly condemned.

The swiftness with which the campaign has gathered pace and the signatures have flowed has shown them that even the scare campaign they launched in 1994 with the police investigation of the DÚ's electoral petitions has not diminished Slovakia's desire for democracy. The opposition currently has a third of the requisite 350,000 signatures.

Ján Budaj is vice-chairman of the DÚ and a member of the Petition committee for the direct election of the president.

Up to now [the HZDS] have passed themselves off as representatives of the masses, and suddenly masses are signing a petition that they have roundly condemned.


Parliament should select
By Milan Ftáčník

In our currently polarized society, it seems improbable that the president will be elected according to the current Constitution. If no president is elected, then some of his powers are transferred to the government and its prime minister. Some of his responsibilities, however, are not transferred to any other body. It may happen that after the parliamentary elections, the current government will have no one to whom to offer its resignation, and that nobody would be there to officially swear in a new government. Insoluble constitutional problems could arise.

I understand why the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and its allies came up with the idea of the direct election of the president. Compared to election by Parliament, this method has the advantage that a president is guaranteed to be elected. And even if there were 20 candidates in the first round, as in neighboring Poland, the people would choose between the two most successful in a second round. However, the KDH is proposing a change in those articles of the Constitution dealing with the election of the president in a way that upsets the stability of the constitutional system. They have introduced a bill that would change the Constitution overnight. If the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) had offered such a proposal, the KDH would have decried it as undemocratic. If now the KDH feels that it can make such a proposal, then one gets the impression that there are no longer any principles operating in politics.

Then the KDH threw itself into the campaign for a referendum, which, according to the Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ) lawyers, could not change the Constitution, because this document clearly states that the sole Constitution-amending and legislative body is the Slovak Parliament. If the lawyers of the Blue Coalition (DU, KDH, and DS) claim that the Constitution can be changed, the dispute can only be settled by one body-the Constitutional Court. If it finds that the Constitution can be amended by a plebiscite, the possibility of changing the political regime would be opened up, something that the HZDS has been seeking for a long time. Its leader's dream is a presidential regime in which the president is also the prime minister, and therefore can't be removed from office.

The HZDS has already indicated that it has prepared a minor (in its words) amendment to the Constitution that it would immediately implement via a referendum. Who can guarantee that these changes wouldn't be approved? We have seen the results of the referendum in Belarus, and we know a similar danger exists here. Mečiar is currently being held back by the fact that he doesn't have 90 parliamentary votes. If he could change the Constitution via a referendum, he would no longer need the extra votes. This is the escape route that is being handed to him on a platter by the KDH. Because of these political risks, and because we believe that the Constitution cannot be changed by popular suffrage, the SDĽ does not support the campaign. However, we are not against the idea of the president being elected directly, and many of our people like the notion.

If the Constitutional Court decided that the Constitution cannot be amended by referendum, the only remaining option is to decide in Parliament. This is the line the SDĽ prefers. If the opposition can agree with the governing coalition on a change in the Constitution and the passing of a constitutional law on the direct election of the president (where, for instance, Mečiar could demand the curtailing of the current president's term of office in return for his allies' votes), then the president would be directly elected by the people. This outcome is possible without a Constitutional Court ruling or a referendum.

If the Constitution remains unchanged, then the last available option is for a specific individual to be chosen by Parliament. Because the prospective candidate will require 90 votes, only a person acceptable to the HZDS can be elected. On the other hand, the candidate must also be acceptable to at least part of the opposition. This could lead to tough negotiations, because the solution must then come through political agreement. If Mečiar looks for a yes-man, no one will be elected and he himself will take on some presidential responsibilities. We believe that there are several possible contenders who have the respect of the public and the ambition to carry out an impartial presidency.

Remember Michal Kováč in 1993. He was clearly a Mečiar lackey, and perhaps at that time you would have said that he would make the perfect yes-man. He didn't.

Milan Ftáčnik is a MP for the Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ)

Paul Kaye translated both pieces from Slovak

We have seen the results of the referendum in Belarus, and we know a similar danger exists here. Mečiar is currently being held back by the fact that he doesn't have 90 parliamentary votes.

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