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CHOICES ABOUND FOR SLOVAK VOTERS IN THE FIRST ROUND OF ELECTIONS FOR HEAD OF STATE ON APRIL 3

Presidential hopefuls line up

ALL THOSE who aspire to run in the April presidential elections must submit their candidacies by the end of January, as speaker of parliament Pavol Hrušovský has officially announced the date of the direct presidential vote.
Weeks before the January 31 deadline for the submission of candidacies, Slovakia had more than a dozen prospective candidates supported by either the signatures of 15 MPs or 15,000 voters.

ALL THOSE who aspire to run in the April presidential elections must submit their candidacies by the end of January, as speaker of parliament Pavol Hrušovský has officially announced the date of the direct presidential vote.

Weeks before the January 31 deadline for the submission of candidacies, Slovakia had more than a dozen prospective candidates supported by either the signatures of 15 MPs or 15,000 voters.

The list [see table page 2 for complete details] includes active politicians such as Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, the official candidate of his ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union; Christian Democrat MP František Mikloško; former diplomat and ex-ambassador to Washington Martin Bútora; and several relatively little-known or completely unknown personalities coming from various walks of life, such as linguist Alena Schopperthová.

Question marks still hang over the candidacies of ex-PM Vladimír Mečiar, the leader of the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), who was largely expected to run for president but has steadily refused to confirm his bid until an official party meeting on January 24 votes on the HZDS candidate.

Political analyst Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Institute for Public Affairs think tank in Bratislava, said that he had no doubts Mečiar would run.

The candidacy looks more than likely, as HZDS MP Milan Urbáni, who is considered one of the closest people to Mečiar, said that his party boss felt a "moral responsibility to run for president".

President Rudolf Schuster has also refused to say whether he will go for re-election.

Many observers consider Schuster's candidacy to be, as Mesežnikov said, "an almost sure matter, I would say 99 percent sure."

Schuster's spokesman, Ján Füle, insisted that "it has not been decided whether the president will run."

"At this point, the president does not have the 15 MP signatures or 15,000 signatures from the people; so everything is open," Füle said on January 12, refusing to confirm rumours that Schuster was expected to announce his candidacy within the next few days.

Observers are convinced of Schuster's intention to run for the top seat again because of his repeated and growing criticisms of the right wing ruling parties. This is believed to be the president's strategy to win over the electorate who oppose the steps of the Mikuláš Dzurinda cabinet.

Even the head of the trade unions, Ivan Saktor, recently appealed on the president to run for the post, stating that during his five year term in office Schuster "often stood on the side of the unions, of the working people," at an official meeting with Schuster in the presidential palace.

In public opinion polls, Kukan, Mečiar, Schuster, and former HZDS member turned leader of the Movement for Democracy Ivan Gašparovič have appeared as the most popular candidates.

In an open letter published by the state run TASR news agency on January 8, the World Organization of Former Czechoslovak Political Prisoners appealed to the first three not to run for the post because of their communist pasts.

Among other objections to the candidates, the former political prisoners wrote that Kukan was on the list of former communist secret service ŠtB collaborators. They accused Mečiar of manipulating ŠtB records while he was in power in the early 1990s, and they blamed Schuster for legitimising a man who they believed to be a communist criminal - a prosecutor to whom Schuster awarded a high state honour.

In general, analysts agree that the new president would not be elected in the first round, which is on April 3. For that to happen, one of the candidates would have to gain a majority of all votes cast, which is seen as highly unlikely.

The second round has been scheduled for April 17, two weeks later. The two best candidates from the first round make it to the next, where the one who scores the most votes wins.

With voters aware that it is unlikely that a winner could arise from the first round, Ľuboš Kubín, a political analyst at the Slovak Academy of Sciences said he expected the first round to be a "truly competitive race where people will feel free to vote for their favourite personalities without any politically calculated pressures".

In general, however, it is believed that civic candidates and those without the support of a popular and stable political party have little chance of success.

"Everything depends on who the actual candidates are. If there are, for example, candidates such as Mečiar, Schuster, a Communist Party candidate, and other left wing candidates, they will all want to address voters who are unhappy with the cabinet reforms and the potential votes will necessarily be split among them," Mesežnikov said. Such a situation would diminish the chance of left-leaning candidates winning the presidential race.

However, Mesežnikov pointed out that the same rule applied to candidates coming from pro-reform and pro-cabinet backgrounds.

In Slovakia's first direct presidential elections in the spring of 1999 there was an almost 74 percent voter turnout. This year Mesežnikov expects a drop to about 60 to 65 percent.

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