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New election law in the works

NATIONAL elections in Slovakia may take place under new rules if the cabinet and parliament approve changes to the law on elections as proposed by the Interior Ministry.
The cabinet's legislative council recently approved a draft of the country's election law that introduces novelties such as the participation of private media in political campaigns ahead of elections, by allowing them to run political ads.
It also foresees cutting the current two days of voting to one and bans the pre-election media moratorium that can currently be as far in advance of elections as 48 hours.

NATIONAL elections in Slovakia may take place under new rules if the cabinet and parliament approve changes to the law on elections as proposed by the Interior Ministry.

The cabinet's legislative council recently approved a draft of the country's election law that introduces novelties such as the participation of private media in political campaigns ahead of elections, by allowing them to run political ads.

It also foresees cutting the current two days of voting to one and bans the pre-election media moratorium that can currently be as far in advance of elections as 48 hours.

Under the new election law, Slovakia would be divided into four constituencies, unlike the current single constituency, and political parties would be able to run a maximum of 50 candidates in each constituency.

Parties that want to participate in the elections would have to pay a deposit of Sk500,000 (€12,000) for each constituency in which they run their candidates. The deposit will be returned to parties that gain more than 3 percent of voter support in the elections.

Another novelty that was welcomed by observers and NGOs is that Slovaks who are abroad during the elections will be able to send their votes via regular post. However, they will have to report their foreign address to authorities at least 50 days ahead of the elections.

The proposed law is part of the cabinet's program, and although NGOs welcome the changes, they want to initiate a wide public discussion before lawmakers deal with the bill. NGOs noted that some of the planned changes could be reconsidered.

Peter Novotný from the Občianske Oko (Public Eye) NGO said that, for example, MPs should think about harmonizing the various existing Slovak election laws so that all operate under the same principle.

Slovakia has several laws that deal with elections, such as presidential, and municipal ballots, and a law on elections into the European Parliament. Each of these laws sets slightly different rules for individual election aspects, including the issue of the moratorium. Novotný thinks that it would be good to introduce a unified moratorium principle into all these laws.

Ivan Godársky, from the Memo98 media watchdog, said that although his organisation was not against the full elimination of the moratorium, keeping it to at most 24 hours before elections could be considered.

Last minute scandals or possible discreditation efforts could be misused to influence the voters to vote for a certain political party.

According to Godársky, Slovakia's past experience with such news is a reason why some moratorium should be considered.

"In 1994, some media reported on election day that [ex-PM] Vladimír Mečiar was prevented from voting. That sort of news can have a last-minute emotional impact on some voters."

"The moratorium is meant to make sure that people make informed decisions when choosing their political parties, rather than voting on the basis of an immediate emotional experience," he said to The Slovak Spectator.

Monika Kuhajdová, spokesperson with the Interior Ministry, said that the moratorium was eliminated "on the basis of a principal suggestion by the Culture Ministry".

"The ministry said that in the era of the Internet, an election moratorium is unfounded and discriminates against other media.

"Practical experience also showed, for example, that it was impossible to sanction periodicals that have an official publication date of Monday yet are distributed on [the preceding] Friday," Kuhajdová said.

NGOs, however, also warned that before the new rules are put into practice, checks and balances must be put in place in the area of political party financing control.

These should allow greater transparency in overseeing political parties' incomes.

"In general, the current system of [control] of political party financing and economic performance is rather formal and ineffective," said Godársky.

These statements were supported by a recent report issued by the watchdog organization, Fair Play Alliance (AFP).

The AFP report showed, for example, that the ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) did not pay taxes properly last year and owes the state Sk2.5 million (€60,000) in taxes.

According to AFP, SDKÚ incorrectly accounted for Sk22 million (€524,000) that it received when the previous ruling Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) party split into several political parties.

SDKÚ, however, argued that neither the auditor nor the parliamentary committee that verified the report voiced any doubts on the accounting of this entry.

AFP said that SDKÚ had a debt of Sk68 million (€1.6 million) but that from its financial report it was not clear who the creditor was. AFP also said that another ruling party, the New Citizen's Alliance (ANO), was heavily dependent on membership fees for its finances and that ANO boss Pavol Rusko paid most of the fees.

Other parties may be in a similar situation.

Kuhajdová said that the Finance Ministry should prepare a new law on the financing of political parties. She said, however, that to address the issue of membership fees, her ministry has prepared a draft amendment to the law on political parties that, among other issues, would limit individual membership fees to Sk80,000 per year (€1,900).

According to NGOs, greater public transparency would be welcome. "It would be good, for example, if parties would present their reports ahead of elections so that it is clear to voters what sources of income parties have," Godársky said.

NGOs also want to make sure that the system of preferential votes in the election law carries true weight when political parties that received more than 5 percent support in the elections nominate their MPs to the chamber.

The system of preferential votes, often ignored by parties so far, enables eligible Slovaks to not only to cast a ballot with the name of their favourite party but also with their favourite politicians from that party.

Politicians who score a high number of preferential votes could become MPs despite their placement by their party on the lower ranks of its candidate list.

Respect for preferential votes is seen as a sign that a party values public opinion and that, rather than following a directive partisan policy, it takes the opinion of its voters into consideration when deciding which officials it nominates to posts of power and influence.

The Interior Ministry incorporated this change into its draft.

It is not known when the bill would take effect, if it is passed, but the ministry is hoping to have the proposal approved soon enough that the next parliamentary elections are organised according to its rules.

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