PRESIDENT Rudolf Schuster.
photo: Spectator archives
On a trip to the US and Canada in early June, Schuster gave western diplomats and government leaders a promise he has often repeated - that in the country's upcoming September elections he will use his constitutional powers to help create a cabinet that will not jeopardise Slovakia's western integration aims.
Western diplomats have repeatedly said that the return to power of Vladimír Mečiar, the authoritarian leader of the country's most popular opposition party Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), would put a halt to Slovakia's Nato entry bid. Schuster's promise, thus, implies that he could somehow prevent Mečiar from returning to government.
Constitutional lawyers, however, say that the president's constitutional powers are far weaker than he has given Western audiences to believe.
Under Article 102, paragraph 1 g) of the revised constitution, the president simply "names and recalls the head and other members of the Slovak government."
This, say experts, means that the president has no option but to confirm whichever government constellation arises from September elections, regardless of what he - or the West - thinks of the people involved.
"All he can do is try to influence parties unofficially, as he holds a certain authority to persuade the actors to behave reasonably and responsibly," said Ján Drgonec, a former constitutional court judge.
The ex-judge added that far from being able to decide who got a mandate to begin negotiations on forming a government, the president held little more than a certain "back-room influence" with politicians. "It's definitely not a matter of his constitutional powers, but rather of his practical authority, if indeed he has any," Drgonec said June 18.
But the president appears to have a different understanding of the matter. In a speech he delivered June 6 at Ottawa University, Schuster said: "From this post and with full responsibility I announce that along with my constitutional powers I will apply my responsibility in the process of forming a new government so that my personal pro-integration conviction is reflected in it, and so the new government doesn't raise any doubts about Slovakia's orientation."
Daniel Lipšic, deputy chair with the Christian Democrats (KDH) party and former head of office with the Justice Ministry, said "Schuster probably just doesn't know what the constitution says. The role of the president in forming the government is very limited."
When asked what powers the president had in mind, Schuster's spokesman Ján Füle told The Slovak Spectator that the head of state did not have to appoint the cabinet as proposed by the parties involved. "The president has certain powers under the constitution, for example with regard to individual ministers. He is not obliged to name every [proposed candidate] automatically, he can consult with political parties and so on. He is a part of the Slovak political system and he can influence the situation."
"That's not true," responded Lipšic. "Originally the Slovak constitution did include a part which enabled the president not to accept a proposed candidate for a ministerial post, but a 1999 amendment, for which President Schuster himself voted [then as a member of parliament], eliminated this possibility. The president today has no power to refuse the prime minister's proposals."
Lipšic and Drgonec agreed that the president, rather than promising to wield his constitutional powers, should be stressing political responsibility, particularly among those few parties which still say they might work with the HZDS. Because if Mečiar found a political ally powerful enough to put him in government after elections, the experts said, not even the president could stand in his way.
"Everything depends on the actual outcome of the elections in the first place. Then it's a matter of negotiations between political parties, rather than a matter of the president's powers," said Drgonec.
Robert Fico, head of the non-parliamentary Smer party, the country's second most popular, has consistently ruled out working with Mečiar, but has said he could see a coalition with a Mečiar-less HZDS.
Drgonec said that he understood Schuster's words as the "political statements of a head of state whose purpose is to calm foreign countries down and help eliminate the nervousness of the West about the nearing elections."
Lipšic also dismissed claims by some Slovak press that the constitution empowered the president to appoint someone - usually the election winner - to try and set up a government. The media had speculated that Schuster might simply refuse to give a mandate to Mečiar even if the HZDS won in a landslide.
"This is merely a custom which has no support in the constitution. It's an informal initiative of the president, not a constitutional power," said Lipšic.
Füle, while insisting that the president's constitutional powers allowed him to influence the outcome of party negotiations, admitted that "it's also naturally a question of whether the parties agree to this."
In answer to Lipšic's statement that "if, theoretically, the HZDS and Smer agreed to form a government, the president would have no power to reject it," Füle said it was Schuster's knowledge of the intentions of Slovak political parties that entitled him to issue categoric statements that the next cabinet would not include Mečiar.
"Take it this way, that Mr. President has maybe talked to political parties and knows how they plan to behave," said the spokesman.
24. Jun 2002 at 0:00 | Martina Pisárová