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EDITORIAL

Why the referendum will fail

IN THE run-up to the referendum on early elections, scheduled for April 3, the ruling parties have decided to do three very wise things - avoid confrontation, feed a sense of uncertainty, and tell people to keep out of the ballot rooms come the day of the plebiscite. This mix is destined to help the coalition overcome this threat.
If the government chose to ask the Constitutional Court to rule whether the referendum question or date contradicted the country's fundamental law, the message to the voters would be clear - we are afraid of the referendum and we are ready to do whatever it takes to stop it.

IN THE run-up to the referendum on early elections, scheduled for April 3, the ruling parties have decided to do three very wise things - avoid confrontation, feed a sense of uncertainty, and tell people to keep out of the ballot rooms come the day of the plebiscite. This mix is destined to help the coalition overcome this threat.

If the government chose to ask the Constitutional Court to rule whether the referendum question or date contradicted the country's fundamental law, the message to the voters would be clear - we are afraid of the referendum and we are ready to do whatever it takes to stop it.

Instead of helping the coalition out of the mess it has found itself in, turning to the Constitutional Court would almost certainly backfire and lead to resentment, anger, and possibly also sympathy for the apparent underdog - the opposition party Smer or, quite frankly, anyone whose protests would be loud enough to reach the public's ears.

And even if the judges ruled in line with the government's position, the victory could soon turn Pyrrhic. If, for example, only the date on which the referendum is to be held were changed, the frustration resulting from the government's legal manoeuvring and the attention it would likely have received would probably only increase, rather than decrease, voter turnout.

That is not to mention the embarrassment the cabinet would suffer in the event that its claims were all swept from the table by the country's top court. This is also a possibility, considering that even the experts on the government's side are far from united on their interpretation of the rules.

The coalition has opted not to give any pretence to a resentment-driven mobilisation of voters, a decision that also helps keep the referendum out of the headlines.

Yet at the same time, the cabinet has shrewdly kept the back door open by saying that it may turn to the Constitutional Court after the vote.

That is in line with the second component of the pre-referendum strategy - enhancing the sense of ambiguity and confusion about the legality of the plebiscite, its effects, and its overall meaning.

When it is not clear whether citizens are allowed to vote on a question, whether the results are binding for parliament, whose vote is required to bring any referendum result into life, and whether the referendum has met all legal requirements, citizens are likely to be far more hesitant to attend.

All of this, along with the coalition's explicit plea that its supporters not attend the referendum, has one clear goal: making sure that less than 50 percent of eligible voters show up and the referendum is declared invalid.

As recent history proves, the strategy is very likely to work. Out of numerous referenda, only one has thus far been able to attract a sufficient number of people - the referendum on Slovakia's entry into the EU in May 2003.

This was a historic decision, which would determine the course of the country for decades to come and which had the unanimous backing of all relevant political forces, who all tried their very best to draw as many people as possible into the voting room.

In the early months of 2003, opinion polls consistently showed that as many as 80 percent of people would show up for the EU referendum. In late March, just weeks before voting, a survey by Slovak Radio found that 77.6 percent of voters planned to take part, while as many as 9.4 were undecided.

Despite the efforts of coalition and opposition parties and research results, only 52.15 percent showed up in the end, barely enough for the referendum to be valid.

On February 6, Slovak Radio found that 63.3 percent of citizens were planning to vote in the referendum on early elections. In this year's referendum, both the motivation and preliminary attendance figures are lower than was the case in the EU referendum.

Some say the interest of citizens can be boosted by the fact it will take place along with the first round of presidential elections.

Again, a brief look at history should put this into better perspective. The first direct presidential elections, accompanied by huge public attention, took place in 1999. The stakes in those elections were rather high - the return of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar into a top seat could seriously threaten the country's integration ambitions.

Yet only 73.89 percent of voters attended the first round of elections, and 75.45 the second.

At the time, the entire anti-Mečiar political spectrum, which already controlled the government, stood united and presented a common candidate - Rudolf Schuster.

Now the number of candidates is larger, all coalition parties support different contestants, and there is a lack of a large topic, or a large threat, that could draw Slovaks to the voting rooms and decide the election.

As a result, less people are likely to participate than did five years ago. And very many of those voting will be supporters of the ruling coalition or those who perhaps oppose it but see no other alternative - all of whom will not attend the referendum.

What Slovakia needs most right now is stability, which would ensure that the country sees these crucial reforms through. That stability is now under serious threat. Most troubling is the inability of ruling and semi-ruling politicians to find a common agreement, which may lead to early elections even when the referendum fails.

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