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YEAR MAY SEE EARLY NATIONAL ELECTIONS, BUT ANALYSTS NOT SO SURE

2004 promises a wild political ride

THE YEAR 2004 promises to be rich in political events. Even without the possible early national elections that the trade unions and the opposition are campaigning for, it is packed with big events, several of which will mark a new era for the central European post-communist nation.
Presidential elections, observers agree, are among the top political events this year, as well as the planned May 1 entries to the EU and NATO.

THE YEAR 2004 promises to be rich in political events. Even without the possible early national elections that the trade unions and the opposition are campaigning for, it is packed with big events, several of which will mark a new era for the central European post-communist nation.

Presidential elections, observers agree, are among the top political events this year, as well as the planned May 1 entries to the EU and NATO.

A question mark is still hanging over whether the current right wing cabinet, composed of four parties, can stand the test and remain in power against the opposition's efforts to bring it down.

Observers agree that the referendum, in which people will be asked whether they want early elections, will take place.

President Rudolf Schuster, however, has yet to officially call the popular vote, as he is still waiting for the trade unions to deliver him their petition lists of signatures calling for the referendum.

More than 565,000 signatures were collected, while the legal minimum the president must require to call a referendum is 350,000. While it is expected that the president will eventually call the referendum, analysts have been sceptical about whether sufficient people will turn out for the vote.

"The only [political] power that is really pushing for early elections is the Smer opposition party. That is not much," said Michal Vašečka, a political analyst with the Institute for Public Affairs.

A Slovak referendum is valid when more than 50 percent of voters participate. In the whole history of independent Slovakia there has only been one such referendum - on the country's entry to the EU. All other referenda failed due to low turnout.

"I think the referendum will not be valid, although perhaps about 30 or 35 percent of the people may participate," Vašečka said.

Recently, the president angered the ruling coalition by considering merging the referendum vote with the presidential elections, planned for April, or with the elections for Slovak MPs who will represent the country in the European parliament. Specifically merging the referendum with the presidential elections would considerably increase the chance the referendum would reach a valid number of participants.

Béla Bugár, chairman of the Hungarian Coalition Party, said the president's plan proves that Schuster wishes to have the Mikuláš Dzurinda cabinet removed.

In the face of the criticism, presidential spokesman Ján Füle said that merging the two votes was just one of the possibilities the president was weighing and that he has not yet decided for sure what he will do.

The first round of presidential elections is planned for April 3. Schuster has not yet decided whether he will run for the post again, but critics maintain that the official's public appearances and his criticisms of cabinet reforms that are unpopular with a large part of the population show that he is testing his ground to run for the top post once again.

Ex-PM Vladimír Mečiar has so far not confirmed his candidacy either but all candidates will be known by the end of January, as Speaker of Parliament Pavol Hrušovský set this date as the deadline for the submission of candidacy declarations.

If none of the contestants win more than 50 percent of the vote in the April 3 round, the two best- scoring candidates will meet in a second round. Here the candidate with more votes wins the presidential seat.

"These presidential elections, at least in the first round, have a chance of being a true people's vote for their favourites," said Ľuboš Kubín, political analyst with the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

"In the presidential elections it will show whether the people choose a candidate that represents the modern Slovakia, the country at its best, or whether it will again be a choice of the lesser evil, producing a president of the old Slovakia, the Slovakia of compromises," said Vašečka.

Apart from candidates who are supported by political parties, such as Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, or Christian Democrat Fratišek Mikloško, several civic candidates have already announced their plans to run for the post without the official support of political parties, such as the former Slovak ambassador to Washington Martin Bútora.


EU affairs

Before Slovakia enters the Western structures of the EU, much remains to be done in terms of legislation that is still unfinished for the elections of Slovak MPs to the European Parliament (EP). Early in the year, parliament must agree on changes to the Slovak constitution to enable the elections of 14 Slovak EP legislators.

Hrušovský, who proposed draft changes to the constitution, wants to have them passed by the end of April. Elections to the EP will take place in June 2004.

Slovakia's first European commissioner also has to be picked. The ruling coalition currently has two candidates - the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) supported Coca Cola manager Ivan Štefanec, and KDH's Ján Figeľ, who for years was head of the Slovak EU entry negotiations team.

Political instability rose at the end of last year, when Ivan Šimko and a group of six other SDKÚ MPs left the party to start their own political group, the Free Forum. The ruling coalition, which has effectively lost its majority in parliament, must at the start of the year address the situation to make sure it can rely on Free Forum support when discussing laws in parliament.

Vašečka is optimistic that the right wing ruling coalition will agree with Šimko and keep the cabinet going throughout the year. But Kubín notes that politicians will be forced to change their style of policymaking and work with a greater sense of ethics and democracy in decision-making if they want to survive the year.

"I think the cabinet will persevere. Many of the ruling politicians realized that they have a great opportunity to make their reforms go smoothly because they all have a similar right-wing understanding of them. Šimko, on the other hand, can act as a balance for the four partners," said Vašečka.

"If negative tendencies prevail in the ruling coalition, such as a war of individual interest groups, it could gnaw away the coalition. Therefore, the most important phenomenon politically in 2004 will be the issue of re-establishing ethical values and morals in political life," Kubín said.

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