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Battallions of faces repel voters

THE COROLLARY follows that the greater the volume of money flowing to local governments and higher territorial units, the greater their importance.

THE COROLLARY follows that the greater the volume of money flowing to local governments and higher territorial units, the greater their importance.

The run-up-to the November 26 regional elections reveals that Slovaks simply do not agree. Either that, or the expected low voter turnout suggests that Slovaks are so impaired by the massive centralization of the past that they cannot imagine a time when local politics would matter.

Without any intention to initiate an intellectualizing debate about the definition of "higher territorial units," (VÚCs), one has to admit that the choice of the term is not the most fortunate.

Not only do foreign journalists have a tough time describing what it signifies to their readers, but also many Slovaks do not understand what is said, either.

A recent poll by the MVK polling agency revealed that only half of the population understands what "higher territorial units" actually means. People tend to mix up VÚCs with local governmental offices, or they simply do not know what the abbreviation stands for.

Originally, an older word "župa" - meaning county - was considered. However, politicians dropped the term out of fear that "župa" carried negative historical baggage.

The language ambiguity overshadows the question as to whether voters fully realize the impact that VÚCs might have on their lives when they do not entirely understand what the term stands for.

How does one begin to talk about the functions and authorities of the units themselves?

Local governments can now govern on a wide range of issues that can and will affect daily life in any given region. They can establish taxes, high schools, nursing homes, theatres, museums and libraries, controlling the reins of business and cultural life as well as health care. Local governments can determine the price of a bus fare within 100 kilometres. And they can grant transport licences and draw the local public transportation routes.

Still, poll after poll reports expected low voter turnout for the upcoming November 26 regional elections.

Analysts attribute voter disinterest to the inability of politicians to capture the public's attention with relevant topics. Campaigns in many places were almost unnoticeable.

Candidates often demonstrated a serious lack of knowledge about what would fall under their jurisdiction as elected regional officials.

In some cases, they campaigned to fulfil goals that, if elected, they could not possibly deliver, since they would not have the proper authority to enforce them.

Campaigns in general consisted of battalions of faces smiling down from billboards. Faces, for the most part, were the only noticeable platforms being offered.

Some say the public's disinterest is understandable, since the common man rarely comes into direct contact with the VÚC. How should anyone know what practical impact these units might have on one's life?

Certainly businesspeople and politicians understand the importance of VÚCs much better. While the lack of voters might be a problem, there were plenty of candidates lining up to take their chance at the polls.

Political ethics watchdog agency, the Fair Play Alliance, warned that many of the current candidates running for office in this year's elections have ties with government contracts worth a total of more than Sk1 billion (€35 million), just between the years 2001 and 2005.

If elected, these candidates will likely have an advantage when it comes to winning government contracts over those who have not previously won state orders, the alliance warned. This aspect certainly explains big business's interest in running for local politics.

Yet another aspect that may repel people from participating in the regional voting process is the unreal political unions that regional elections seem to produce.

"Sworn enemies" in high politics are now locked in several local coalitions. These awkward bedfellows are declaring a temporary truce on the regional level only "for the good of the region".

Analysts say that some of these coalitions were created to test the public's reaction to possible unions between parties with fairly incompatible ideologies and programmes on a national level.

It seems that on a local level, boundaries are more easily crossed between liberal/conservative, nationalist/minority, left/right. But when the boundaries bleed, people naturally grow confused, and the lack of a clear and compelling programme seems to keep them home on election day.

Voters might still opt for a new face (smiling billboards!) to deliver hope and a less formal programme, but Slovaks historically remain conservative when it comes to voting for an untested face in politics.

Certainly, staying home and ignoring local elections is not healthy for Slovaks.

The country needs to realize that political parties are fighting for power on the local level for a reason. Regional admini-strations are no longer puppets.

These bodies have siphoned off power from central administrative bodies and are ready to wield their increasing power and impact our lives.

It all also means that our local soil is becoming fertile ground for corrupt conduct, which Slovaks can in fact control by getting out the vote.

Beata Balogová

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