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EDITORIAL

The powers of the president

THE BATTLE for the presidential seat is now over and one can do nothing but prepare for things to come. In order to assess the damage the new head of state can be expected to incur on the country, it is necessary to take a careful look at what the Slovak president can and cannot do after he takes office in June of this year.
"The president is the head of the Slovak Republic. The president is a representative of the Slovak Republic at home and abroad and ensures by his decision-making the duly operation of constitutional bodies," reads the opening part of the Slovak constitution that deals with the presidential post.

THE BATTLE for the presidential seat is now over and one can do nothing but prepare for things to come. In order to assess the damage the new head of state can be expected to incur on the country, it is necessary to take a careful look at what the Slovak president can and cannot do after he takes office in June of this year.

"The president is the head of the Slovak Republic. The president is a representative of the Slovak Republic at home and abroad and ensures by his decision-making the duly operation of constitutional bodies," reads the opening part of the Slovak constitution that deals with the presidential post.

Nothing can now be done about the fact that Slovakia will have little reason to be proud of the man acting on its behalf on the major international stage at a time when Slovakia will need to focus on two crucial areas of foreign policy - ensuring Slovakia's strong position in the EU and attracting foreign investment.

By entering NATO in early April and joining the union on May 1, Slovakia achieves two of its fundamental objectives.

Nonetheless, experts agree that the shape Europe takes will be decisive for Slovakia, which has to carefully consider whether its interests will best be served by a strong unified federation or the preservation of the current model respectful of the rights of small states.

It will be equally important for the country to make quick progress, as increased competition on a unified market will bring prosperity to those who are prepared and ruin to all others.

Although it is the cabinet's, not the president's, role to lead talks in Europe's future on behalf of Slovakia, the new president could much complicate the position of the government.

When the controversial Jörg Haider's Austrian Free Party joined the Austrian cabinet in 2001, EU countries reacted by temporarily freezing bilateral political relations with the country. Those actions brought little result and faded away, but they still created a precedent.

While there is yet nothing to suggest that history will repeat itself, it cannot be ruled out that, at a time when all parties in the European debate strive to strengthen their own positions, measures aimed against the Slovak leadership will materialise.

Any precautions EU countries might take against Slovakia could harm the country's position at this decisive moment in European history.

There is also a lesson to be learned from Haider's immediate response to pressure from the EU - the man reacted by suggesting, among other things, that Austria reconsider its membership in the union.

While anything of the kind seems impossible in the Euro-optimistic Slovakia of today, the present enthusiasm is certain to disappear as the dark sides of membership appear and the new anti-EU sentiment will look for its champion. Who better than the new president?

Interestingly, it will be up to Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, who was already packing his bags for the presidential palace before the first round of presidential elections brought him unexpected defeat, to clean up the mess on the international scene and convince foreign partners that the new president is not as bad as he seems.

Major foreign investors care mainly about the business environment in Slovakia. The ruling coalition has already managed to pass most of its reform-oriented legislation, such as the introduction of the flat tax rate, which, for a number of months, won Slovakia what now seems an absurd reputation as the "tiger of the Tatras".

All there is left for the government to do to lure in cash from abroad is ensure political stability. And that task is proving more and more difficult for the current coalition, which has lost its majority in parliament and has failed to present a clear strategy for getting itself out of the crisis.

Instead, the success of opposition candidates in presidential elections has made the coalition's bad situation worse.

The president himself has no direct say in domestic policy, but he can add to the instability by doing what President Rudolf Schuster did throughout his last months in office - return legislation to parliament.

After the president returns draft legislation a majority of all 150 legislators is needed to pass the measure, compared to a simple majority of only the voting MPs needed to pass a proposal the first time around.

At present, the minority coalition succeeds in pushing through its proposals thanks to ad hoc support by various small groups formed within the much-fragmented Slovak parliament. But gaining that backing is proving to be increasingly difficult.

Every proposal agreed on by the coalition that fails to pass in parliament will bring the cabinet closer to collapse.

If the government falls, the president may play a crucial role. According to the country's constitution, it is the president's role to appoint a new prime minister. The fundamental law does not specify to whom the job is to be given.

The PM picks other ministers, who are then also appointed by the president. Only then does the cabinet as a whole present its manifesto to the parliament, which holds a vote of confidence in the government.

In the event that parties combine to hold a parliamentary majority and agree to form a ruling coalition, the president has no opportunity to push through his own parties or candidates, because such a government is blocked by parliament.

But if the present cabinet ever collapses without an agreed replacement, the shape of the new government will be in the hands of the president.

It is anyone's guess how such a process would end up. But the thought of the new Slovak president playing a key role in the process is troubling.

Even if the current administration finishes off its four-year election term, the president's turn to choose the PM will certainly come after the regular general elections to be held in the autumn of 2006.

Judging by today's chaotic political developments, for perhaps the first time in Slovak history there are no obvious alliances and much may depend on who is entrusted with the task of forming a coalition.

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