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INCREASE IN BUDGETS AND RESPONSIBILITIES RAISE STAKES IN MUNICIPAL BALLOTS

Local elections only days away

ON DECEMBER 6 and 7 Slovak voters will elect the mayors and council members of their cities and villages in an election where more is at stake than in previous years.
In recent months, local authorities have been taking over many of the state's responsibilities - for example in the areas of health care and education - which has increased their importance to the communities they serve and to political parties fighting for power. In these elections, parties can back any candidate, no matter what party that candidate belongs to.
Despite the increased power of municipal governments, observers are not expecting a huge voter turnout because most of the electorate is still more focused on national-level politics. A recent survey carried out by the Public Opinion Research Institute shows that only 54 per cent of voters are sure they will cast ballots in the municipal elections.

ON DECEMBER 6 and 7 Slovak voters will elect the mayors and council members of their cities and villages in an election where more is at stake than in previous years.

In recent months, local authorities have been taking over many of the state's responsibilities - for example in the areas of health care and education - which has increased their importance to the communities they serve and to political parties fighting for power. In these elections, parties can back any candidate, no matter what party that candidate belongs to.

Despite the increased power of municipal governments, observers are not expecting a huge voter turnout because most of the electorate is still more focused on national-level politics. A recent survey carried out by the Public Opinion Research Institute shows that only 54 per cent of voters are sure they will cast ballots in the municipal elections.

Each of the country's regions have their own peculiarities, ranging from deeply entrenched incumbents to unexpected political alliances. The following are some of the key features of the municipal elections in central and western Slovakia.

Trenčín

In last year's regional elections, which are held separately from municipal elections, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) took all the seats in Trenčín's regional parliament, a traditional stronghold of the HZDS. However, the party's position in the city of Trenčín itself is not so strong.

If the HZDS fails to attract much support in Trenčín, the result may influence the political fate of party boss and authoritarian former prime minister Vladimír Mečiar. He faced severe criticism from within his party after September's national parliamentary elections, when the HZDS, despite netting the most votes of any party, was unable to form a ruling coalition for the second time.

"[A bad showing for the HZDS] will not have a decisive impact, because [Mečiar's] position is influenced more by the result of the parliamentary elections. But naturally, if the result of the HZDS is bad, it will strengthen opposition against him," said head of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) think-tank Grigorij Mesežnikov.

Although support for the HZDS is usually not strong in large cities, political infighting has started among HZDS members in the Trenčín region.

In Trenčianske Teplice two HZDS members, regional parliament deputy Monika Pšenčíková and former regional office director Ján Šandora, decided to run as independent candidates for mayor. They said their main motivation was their opposition to the nomination of Juraj Trokan, the attorney for former secret service director Ivan Lexa, as the party's candidate for mayor.

A similar situation can be seen in the city of Trenčín, where Jozef Reu, former HZDS MP and former mayor of Nemšová - where Mečiar used to live - is challenged for mayor by two independent candidates who used to belong to the HZDS: former district office head Marta Šajbidorová and current vice-mayor Miloš Mažár.

These and other former HZDS candidates running in these elections were expelled from the party for rebellious behaviour.

Current mayor of Trenčín Jozef Žiška, previously supported by the Civic Understanding Party (SOP), failed to gain party support and observers say the victory will most likely go to Juraj Liška, current MP for the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), who is also backed by the Christian Democrats (KDH), the Democratic Party (DS) and the New Citizen's Alliance (ANO).

Žilina

For the last 12 years, Žilina has been controlled by Mayor Ján Slota, former head of the Slovak National Party (SNS) and current boss of the Real National Party (PSNS). The colourful Slota is one of the many established politicians fighting for political survival in this year's local elections.

Even though his party did not receive the 5 per cent of the vote required to be represented in parliament, and despite the fact that Slota announced he would resign as party boss, he may have further political ambitions, which will be helped by an election win.

"If [Slota] doesn't win elections in Žilina, he will have a weaker position in an eventual effort to reunite the so-called 'national forces' [the SNS and PSNS]. If he remains mayor, the process of integration could be started by the group around Slota," explained analyst Mesežnikov.

In an effort to defeat the controversial mayor, known for his animosity towards the Roma and Hungarian ethnic minorities and his opposition to the country's Nato entry, the Ano party decided to join forces with the opposition Smer to support HZDS candidate Ján Mikolaj.

Yet Mikolaj, a professor at Žilina University and former director of the Slovak Roads Administration, is not just a regular HZDS member. Since 2000 he has been the party's shadow transportation minister and was its number-six candidate in this year's parliamentary elections.

Banská Bystrica

Former mayor Igor Presperín and current mayor Ján Králik are two of 11 candidates for the mayoral seat in the city of Banská Bystrica.

Presperín was nominated by the SOP, as well as Anna Malíková's SNS. For the last four years he has been the parliamentary vice-speaker, and since his party failed to reach parliament, Presperín may be hoping to stage a comeback by being elected mayor of Banská Bystrica. He is reportedly planning to spend around Sk400,000 ($10,000) on his campaign.

When he left the city council in 1998, the city was heavily in debt and under threat of creditors taking control.

It was Králik who saved the day by reaching an agreement with the First Communal Bank (PKB), which now supervises city finances. He enjoys the wide support of the HZDS, Movement for Democracy (HZD), the Communists and other left-wing parties.

Four years ago Presperín stepped back from the mayoral campaign and asked his supporters to vote for Králik. Now Presperín figures it is payback time.

"Králik should in these elections take similar action and return what I have given him," he said.

Králik said that he would do no such thing, calling the former mayor a criminal returning to the crime scene.

"[Presperín's] chances are very low. His motivation is still the same; it's just personal political ambitions," said analyst Mesežnikov.

As in eastern Slovakia, the right in Banská Bystrica is divided - unable to reach agreement on which candidate stands the best chance. As a result, the DS, SDKÚ and the KDH are each fielding their own candidates.

Nitra

The election in Nitra will decide the political future of SNS member and current mayor Jozef Prokeš. The SNS did not make it into parliament in this year's national elections.

In Nitra both the SDKÚ and KDH support a common candidate for mayor, Ferdinand Vítek, who is also backed by Ano.

Vítek is betting on a direct form of campaigning similar to the methods used in some Western countries. Around 40 campaign volunteers are to visit a total of 20,000 Nitra households, where they will ask inhabitants to evaluate Prokeš and define the problems that bother them most.

Chances are also strong for Jozef Dvonč, nominated by seven mostly left-wing parties - the HZDS, Smer, the SDĽ, the KSS, the SDA, the SOP and the Left Bloc (ĽB).

Smer has repeatedly refused to collaborate with the HZDS on the national level as long as Vladimír Mečiar, whose return to power could threaten Slovakia's Nato and EU ambitions, remains party boss. Nevertheless the parties have joined forces on the local level in many places.

"I think the parties are close on the national level as well, but the internal situation within the HZDS is not acceptable for [Smer boss] Robert Fico. On the regional level issues such as international acceptance don't play a role, so here the proximity between the parties is more visible," said Mesežnikov.

Trnava

Current mayor Štefan Bošnák, supported by the KDH, the SDKÚ, Ano and the DS, seems to be on his way to being elected for the third time. Under his leadership the city has become the least indebted regional centre in the country. With an eye on the future, the city council has also approved a balanced budget for next year.

"We did not take out too many loans because we are aware that the future city council, which will come out of the local elections, may have different priorities to the current one," Bošnák said.

City mayors have to cooperate with the regional parliaments and heads of the regions on many issues. The chairman of Trnava region is Peter Tomeček of the HZDS, which is currently in parliamentary opposition to the coalition made up of parties supporting Bošnák.

"The competencies of various levels [of administration] are clearly defined and there should be no room for conflict. There can be some tensions, but these should not in any way stand in the way of good administration," said Mesežnikov.

Nevertheless the two men did come to blows this July, when they could not reach an agreement on who will take over control of the Družba health care centre in Trnava, and as further competencies are transferred to local governing bodies, there will be room for similar conflicts.

One candidate who could threaten Bošnák's chances is Smer candidate Pavel Adamec, who is supported by the HZDS, HZD and SNS.

Bratislava

Bratislava is the only regional centre where the current mayor, Jozef Moravčík, is not running for reelection.

"I can only speculate, but I think he was not interested in being reelected. One further reason could be the absence of political support. In Bratislava, political support is essential," said analyst Mesežnikov.

Moravčík, who in 1994 was briefly prime minister, was nominated for mayor by the Democratic Union (DÚ) in 1998. The party merged with the SDKÚ in 2000 and although it has been resurrected by dissatisfied former members, it no longer plays a role in the country's political life.

Even though issues such as corruption trouble the city, which has always been in the hands of forces close to the current coalition parties, the capital is much better off than cities in the regions, which makes for a different kind of race.

"Bratislava is a prospering city in comparison to the rest of Slovakia. So far development here has been good. When Slovakia joins the EU and Nato, Bratislava will gain importance in Europe and in the world, so this is an issue the candidates can work with," said Mesežnikov.

There are 10 candidates running for mayor of Bratislava, with the leading candidates both right wingers: Andrej Ďurkovský and Juraj Stern (see profiles, page 2). Ján Turňa, nominated by the HZDS, is the only candidate besides Stern and Ďurkovský to be supported by a large parliamentary party. Because of the overwhelming support for right-wing parties in the capital, Turňa's chances are very low.

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