Big things come in small packages

THOSE active in so-called "high politics" - cabinet ministers, party leaders and deputies of national parliaments - have always felt the public's gaze more intensely than their colleagues at the local level. In Slovakia, due to its experience with massive centralization, this has led to a general underestimation of the importance of small-town politics.

The buzz of high politics has overshadowed local politics for years, especially in the media. News outlets would rather record the bombastic statements of a high-ranking politician (whose message is not designed to say anything but to create attention) than the story of a local leader who assigns a government contract without a tender.

But the stakes in local elections are getting higher. Local governments can now establish high schools and nominate their directors. They can decide on the price of a bus ride within 100 kilometres. They can grant transport licenses and determine the route of local public transportation. Local governments say how much businesses should be taxed for business vehicles. They can establish nursing homes, theatres, museums and libraries. They can even become proud owners of hospitals.

The fact that political parties have a reason to fight for power on the local level should be a wake-up call. As regional administrations slowly siphon off power from central administrative bodies, local soil is becoming fertile ground for corrupt conduct.

Local political leaders are making decisions that increasingly impact people's lives. No wonder Slovakia's political parties are more inspired than ever to sculpt the most absurd local coalitions.

Such coalitions have little to do with political principles and rarely reflect the real relationship between parties in high politics. Instead, these pint-sized alliances illustrate how far the various party leaderships are willing to go to court success on a local level.

Just recently, HZDS boss Vladimír Mečiar made a revelation: rival opposition party Smer asked the HZDS for Sk5 million (€130,000) in exchange for a coalition marriage in Bratislava's regional elections. Smer promptly hit back, claiming Mečiar's statement was irrational - the revenge of a rejected bride.

Smer says it decided a while ago to exclude the HZDS from any cooperation plans.Smer, consistently critical of the ruling coalition, has been hoping to form a coalition with the ruling coalition member, the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), as a strategy to win regional elections. Smer is about as friendly with the KDH in high politics as it is with the HZDS - which is to say not friendly at all.

Another potential alliance is shaping up between the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), the New Citizens Alliance (ANO), the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) and the Democratic Party (DS).

Political scientists suggest that Slovakia's parties are using regional elections as a testing ground to gauge the possibility of forming unlikely coalitions for the 2006 parliamentary elections.

Some of these potential coalitions - the SMER-SDKÚ-HZDS alliance, for example, originally designed to weaken the influence of the SMK in the Nitra region - could backfire, inspiring Slovak voters to mistrust any political discourse that has come before. One only wonders the effect a coalition made up of the liberal ANO party, the Movement for Democracy (HZD), the right wing Slovak National Party and the Free Forum would have on the electorate.

Bratislava is one of the most attractive regions to fight over. It seems that stakes are high enough that the SDKÚ and the KDH, allies in the previous elections, will now compete against each other in the upcoming election.

In fact, the KDH might open up to Smer as a result of the SDKÚ opening up to the HZDS. Although Mikuláš Dzurinda has never openly declared friendly ties with Mečiar's HZDS, the relationship between the two parties have certainly thawed.

Some voices are calling for changes to the electoral system in regional elections. They argue that the winner-takes-all approach inspires the creation of impossible coalitions.

Others warn that Slovak voters should worry more about the candidates themselves than the system. Financial daily Hospodárske noviny reported that Trnava region incumbent Peter Tomeček, widely suspected for abuse of power, is getting ready to run in the elections.

Another HZDS member, Viliam Soboňa, stripped by parliament of his deputy immunity for suspected involvement in privatization fraud, plans to run for the gubernatorial post in Banská Bystrica.

Some media sources suggest that Rača Mayor and KDH member Pavol Bielik, suspected of bribery involving Sk5 million (€125,000), might also try his hand at candidacy.

Despite the burgeoning power of local governments, local elections are expected to inspire low voter turnout, except perhaps in Bratislava, Košice and Banská Bystrica. But residents of all the smaller municipalities out there should remember that as much is at stake for them in their community as it is in the country's capital.

By Beata Balogová

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