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EDITORIAL

The cross or the hockey stick?

PARLIAMENT'S failure to approve constitutional amendments related to elections to the European Parliament (EP) is not a good sign, but true and long-lasting embarrassment may only come after the elections are over and the first Slovak MEPs take their seats.
Although constitutional changes put forward by the cabinet are in no way crucial for Slovakia's future in the European Union, or for the legitimacy of the voting scheduled for this spring, the opposition's refusal to back the administration's legislation is troubling for two reasons.
Firstly, it shows that Slovakia will be entering the EU with a government so weak it cannot push through fundamental measures related to the union, that it can be caught by surprise by developments in parliament and is consequently dependant more on improvisation than planning.

PARLIAMENT'S failure to approve constitutional amendments related to elections to the European Parliament (EP) is not a good sign, but true and long-lasting embarrassment may only come after the elections are over and the first Slovak MEPs take their seats.

Although constitutional changes put forward by the cabinet are in no way crucial for Slovakia's future in the European Union, or for the legitimacy of the voting scheduled for this spring, the opposition's refusal to back the administration's legislation is troubling for two reasons.

Firstly, it shows that Slovakia will be entering the EU with a government so weak it cannot push through fundamental measures related to the union, that it can be caught by surprise by developments in parliament and is consequently dependant more on improvisation than planning.

The weakness of the ruling coalition is nothing new. What is new, however, is that this weakness has an impact on the EU agenda, which had formerly been immune to the fighting plaguing other areas of political agenda.

Secondly, it shows that the opposition, which has raised no substantial objections to the draft, now sees the EU only as another checker on the game board of domestic politics and is ready to use it regardless of Slovakia's best interests.

The fact that the EU remains a very distant issue for most Slovak voters allows them to get away with it.

However, after Slovakia joins the EU in May, the government will no longer be the only one looking out for the country's best interests. There will also be the Slovak MEPs, and there is one very important thing one needs to remember when it comes to them.

"The worse the people you send over are, the better for us. They will be easier to manipulate," an unnamed MEP from a current member country allegedly told MP Jozef Banáš some months ago.

There have not yet been any surveys focusing specifically on the issue of EP elections, but if opinion polls are anything to go by, the opposition party Smer will get the largest chunk of the 14 seats reserved for Slovak representatives in the EP.

Smer declared long ago that it plans to partially reverse or cut altogether many of the crucial reform steps of this coalition.

Moreover, Smer's list of candidates lacks the experience required for making an impact on European politics. Vice-chairwoman Monika Beňová heads the party's ballot, and she has no political experience outside of the year and a half she has spent in the Slovak legislature.

The other party certain to score well in the EP vote is the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), headed by former authoritarian PM and presidential hopeful Vladimír Mečiar.

The HZDS is doomed to remain supported mainly by the fans of its boss, not known for their sense for democracy, reform, or European vision.

The party's ballot for EP elections is headed by Sergej Kozlík, who as finance minister and deputy PM for the economy in Mečiar's cabinet shares responsibility for the wild privatisation and mismanagement in public finances between 1994 and 1998. This certainly doesn't make their ballot any more attractive to pro-reform voters and it's no guarantee of good performance in the EP either.

Support for the four parties of the current coalition is not as strong as that for the two opposition parties, but with good campaigning all of them stand a chance of getting a representative into the EP.

However, two of these parties, which served as the 'lesser evil' pro-reform voters could opt for in the 2002 parliamentary elections, have made enormous mistakes in putting together their candidate lists.

The Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), stained by scandal, weakened by internal division, and with seemingly no new personalities to offer, has decided to make hockey legend Peter Šťastný its number one candidate.

Although Šťastný is well respected and liked in Slovakia, it is not for his political skills. For decades Šťastný has lived in Canada - outside of Slovakia and outside of Europe. Moreover, he has no political experience whatsoever.

This must disqualify Šťastný in the eyes of educated and pro-reform voters, even if the hockey player's intentions are good and his charisma is strong.

The selection process of candidates within the liberal New Citizen's Alliance (ANO) has been one huge embarrassment.

Former ANO MP Banáš left the party after he was not selected as its number one candidate, which he said he was promised some time ago by party boss Pavol Rusko in exchange for not running for vice-chairman of the ANO.

In addition, the ANO has failed to effectively play down allegations that the final decision on who will take the top spot on its ballot was manipulated. Banáš has claimed that MP Eva Černá, not the announced top candidate, Jozef Heriban, gained the most votes in the pary's secret vote on the issue.

Moreover, Heriban is an unknown figure whose main strength so far seems to be the fame of his wife Alena Heribanová, a talk-show host and author.

Slovak voters continue to find it difficult to identify with the ethnic-based Hungarian Coalition Party, which in turn is doing little to change that. And in the context of the EP, party representatives may indeed prove just as close to Hungarian as to Slovak MEPs.

The Christian Democrats have done nothing wrong. This party's strongly conservative agenda makes it more acceptable for the rural electorate than for urban pro-reform voters. Though the EP has no direct powers to decide about abortions, religious education, and the presence of the church in public life, those pro-reform voters who do not share the party's fear of European liberalism may find it difficult to support it.

The most probable result of the present offer is an extremely low turnout in the EP elections, enhanced by the remoteness of the institution and overall voter fatigue. That will help those with the most devoted following - the HZDS, the Communists, and the Hungarian Coalition.

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