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DIRECT ELECTION OF PRESIDENT IN 1998 IS GOAL

Opposition revs up for referendum

Hoping to avert a crisis when President Michal Kováč's term ends in spring 1998, Slovakia's opposition parties launched a petition drive on January 9 to stage a referendum that would establish a direct election for the country's Presidency.
The President currently is elected by a three-fifths majority in Parliament - meaning 90 votes in the 15O seat chamber. However, the hostility between the ruling coalition, which holds 82 seats, and the opposition, is too intense for them to agree on a candidate for the nation's highest post.
That means two scenarios: One is that Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar convinces enough deputies to support a candidate that does not stand up to him as much as Kováč. şşA weaker character in his [Kováč's] place would simply become Mečiar's yes-man, and that could be very dangerous for Slovakia's democratic development,'' said Eduard Kukan from the opposition Democratic Union.


People power. Thousands of citizens came out to SNP square in Bratislava on January 8 to sign petitions that calls for a referendum on the direct election of the President.
Vladimír Hák

Hoping to avert a crisis when President Michal Kováč's term ends in spring 1998, Slovakia's opposition parties launched a petition drive on January 9 to stage a referendum that would establish a direct election for the country's Presidency.

The President currently is elected by a three-fifths majority in Parliament - meaning 90 votes in the 15O seat chamber. However, the hostility between the ruling coalition, which holds 82 seats, and the opposition, is too intense for them to agree on a candidate for the nation's highest post.

That means two scenarios: One is that Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar convinces enough deputies to support a candidate that does not stand up to him as much as Kováč. şşA weaker character in his [Kováč's] place would simply become Mečiar's yes-man, and that could be very dangerous for Slovakia's democratic development,'' said Eduard Kukan from the opposition Democratic Union.

The second possibility is that if Parliament fails to elect a President, most of the powers pass on to the government which can decide to give those to the Prime Minister.

At a rally with his supporters on January 8, Mečiar said his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) does not rule out its support for the idea, but only if it is şşan improvement to the constitutional system,'' and not a şşmove to protect the interests of one person, or a group of losing political parties.''

Presidential powers in Slovakia are not extensive. The President is the commander-in-chief of the army, can grant amnesty, and names new professors and state officials. In the legislative arena, the President can sign bills into law or wield a limited veto.

Kováč's term as President expires in March 1998, while Parliamentary elections are scheduled six months after that. That means that for half-a-year, the upper levels of government could be deadlocked. şşIf there's no President, there will be no one to accept a Cabinet member's resignation or to swear in new ministers,'' said a spokeswoman for the Constitutional Court.

Driving for signatures

Estimates ranging from two to four thousand Slovaks flocked to Bratislava's SNP square to mark the beginning of the petition committee's campaign. Similar gatherings took place in other cities around Slovakia. A total of 350,000 signatures are needed to force a public referendum.

The opposition wants to make sure the President is şşimpartial and respected,'' Ivan Šimko, vice chairman of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), told the gathering.

After the rally, groups of people stood by tables with the petition sheets discussing the issue. "What is this thing here again?,'' an old man said as he stopped by. Everyone began explaining, but the man became confused. A woman collecting signatures put it simply: şşDo you want to vote for the President yourself or do you want to leave it up to Parliament?''

"Myself,'' the man said without hesitation. "Then sign this,'' she said and gave him a petition sheet. "I think it's a great idea to have the people elect the president,'' said Ružena Smreková, 74, a pensioner. "Such a President would have to be respected by the government.''

SDĽ stays out

One party against the referendum is the Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ). Ľubomír Fogaš, SDĽ's legal expert, said a public vote would set "a dangerous precedent'' because the Constitution şşcannot be changed by a referendum.''

Yet, according to a law governing referendums, referendum outcomes are published in the book of laws, though there is no time limit for that to happen, constitutional lawyers warn. Šimko and others supporting a public vote believe the SDĽ does not want a directly-elected President because it hopes the coalition would support their Presidential candidate.

HZDS deputy Ján Cuper said he appreciated şşSDĽ's cultivated opposition policy'' and that its leaders şşsaw through the intentions of those adventurous elements of the opposition that want nothing else but to grasp the reins of power.''

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