Slovaks bored with VÚCs

A FEW days ahead of the November 26 regional elections, public opinion polls suggest a turnout fiasco. Only 20 percent of eligible voters plan on casting a ballot.
Top state officials, including President Ivan Gašparovič, urged Slovak citizens to shed their apathy and elect representatives to the higher territorial units (VÚCs).

A FEW days ahead of the November 26 regional elections, public opinion polls suggest a turnout fiasco. Only 20 percent of eligible voters plan on casting a ballot.

Top state officials, including President Ivan Gašparovič, urged Slovak citizens to shed their apathy and elect representatives to the higher territorial units (VÚCs).

"I know you are tired of politics and the promises of politicians. But at this very moment, I want to ask you not to feel resigned. Do not give up the basic democratic right of free elections," the president implored on November 22.

The lack of voter enthusiasm was similar four years ago, when just 26 percent of voters turned out for the VÚC elections.

Gašparovič explained why every Slovak should exercise his or her right to vote in regional elections, calling them "extremely important".

"Decentralization transferred many important competencies to the VÚCs, affecting all of us directly. In these elections, we have the power to elect those who will make important decisions about our schools, our health care, our social services, culture, trans-portation, as well as investments."

During his November 22 visit to Žilina, Speaker of Parliament Pavol Hrušovský said that he thought people were gradually realizing the importance of regional politics, but added that he was still "worried about low voter turnout".

According to a poll carried out by the Slovak Statistical Office and issued shortly before The Slovak Spectator went to print, only 20 percent of respondents said that they would definitely vote in the November 26 VÚC elections.

A quarter of respondents said they would not go to the polls; 8 percent were still undecided.

On November 26, Slovaks will elect the heads of eight regional VÚCs: Bratislava, Trnava, Trenčín, Nitra, Banská Bystrica, Žilina, Prešov, and Košice, and the respective regional councillors.

According to the data provided by the election commission, a total of 67 candidates are running for VÚC head positions; 2,676 candidates are vying for the remaining 412 councillor seats.

The allure of higher territorial office has diminished, along with voter turnout over the years. During the first regional elections in 2001, 133 candidates ran for the top VÚC posts and more than 4,000 candidates ran for councillor positions.

Who is running and why?

Paradoxically, as the public's interest has waned in regional elections, well-known local personalities, such as business people or sports and media figures, are increasingly attracted to this level of politics.

With the decentralization of Slovakia's public administration, regions have received greater powers. Today, local governments are authorized to make many decisions including financial ones.

Anti-corruption groups warn that decentralization simply increases the abuse of power and money in regional politics.

"Unfortunately, voter apathy is increasing despite the fact that there is big money and power in regional politics," said Zuzana Wienk, the head of the Fair Play Alliance, a non-governmental watch-dog organization in Bratislava.

Her group conducted background checks of candidates running in the VÚC elections. Although the Fair Play Alliance discovered that many of the candidates were listed as business people on the Slovak business register, only 5 percent of the candidates acknowledged themselves as business people or licensed entrepreneurs.

Fair Play Alliance warns that when politicians are involved in business, directly or indirectly, there is a threat that their decisions will not be driven purely by the public interest.

According to the NGO's analysis, some candidates had outstanding tax debts, while others had previous claims with the debt collector agency, Slovenská konsolidačná. Fair Play Alliance said it would not publish any names ahead of the elections, however.

The NGO has proposed several measures to help politicians develop a transparent and trustworthy system of communication to encourage voters to believe that their decisions are not in conflict of the public's interest.

"The public's mistrust of politics is high and we think this is the right time for politicians to do something about starting to build up trust," Wienk said.

According to the alliance, it is striking that none of the political parties or candidates themselves offered any explanation as to how they planned to avoid suspicion that, once elected, they would make decisions transparently and avoid conflicts of interests.

"We believe that practical experience can be very useful in politics. However, with regards to putting personal interests ahead of the public interest, a politician should offer voters an assurance of transparency of the decision-making processes as a public servant, compared to what they do as a private citizen," said Wienk.

Among the well-known and influential business figures that have decided to run for regional councillor are Alexander Rozin and former media mogul Andrej Hryc, both of whom are competing for the Bratislava regional parliamentary post.

European MP Monika Beňová is also on the list of candidates as well as several active parliamentary politicians, such as Ján Cuper from the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). Cuper, recently in the news for using his deputy immunity for escaping drunk driving fines, is competing for the post of Bratislava VÚC chairman.

Other interesting names include HZDS MP Viliam Soboňa, who is running for the Banská Bystrica VÚC top post, and football coach Dušan Galis, who is running for Bratislava councillor on behalf of Smer, Free Forum and the Movement for Democracy, as is Smer's deputy chairman, Robert Kaliňák.

The ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union lists Branislav Záhradník, a top manager at public broadcaster Slovak television, as its candidate for Bratislava VÚC councillor.

Pavol Bielik, the mayor of Rača and a member of the ruling Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), is also running for Bratislava VÚC councillor. Bielik is undergoing a court trial over serious corruption charges. He allegedly demanded Sk5 million (€128,000) from a construction company in turn for organizing a permit for its project. He denies the charges and although the KDH top bodies appealed that the regional KDH branch withdraw Bielik as a candidate, Bielik's peers kept him on the roll.

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