SLOVAKS in general still lack a clear understanding of the role of the regional authorities or the impact they can have on their lives, observers say. Despite a collective budget of more than €1.1 billion in 2010, many people are unaware of how much the eight Self-Governing Regions (VÚCs) are responsible for spending.
The VÚCs have decision-making powers in education and social services as well as in public transport and in maintaining 2nd- and 3rd-category roads, but they also coordinate inter-regional and cross-border cooperation and tourism. The VÚCs are funded by taxes paid directly to the regions, including personal income and motor vehicle taxes. They also receive grants from central government ministries and from European structural funds.
Each region however suffers from its own combination of local issues. While some struggle with minority problems, others need better care for pensioners. But their voices sound in unison when it comes to the need for more money.
The race for Bratislava Region is usually among the most-watched. This year, 11 candidates are running for the post of governor, including the incumbent, Vladimír Bajan, an independent candidate supported by the ruling Smer and Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) parties. His main challenger is the joint candidate of the right-of-centre parties, Pavol Frešo. Another candidate is Branislav Záhradník, a former Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) party member, who is running as an independent candidate. The SNS is entering its sole MEP, Jaroslav Paška, in the race.
Among the main problems of the region is the need for more roads and the quality of the existing ones, more than half of which do not meet standards, and some 900 places which are lacking in social service and retirement homes in the region. However, it is not easy to obtain EU resources for the region, which is classed as being among the EU’s richer regions, the Sme daily reported.
Trnava Region includes a couple of predominantly Hungarian-speaking districts. However, the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) is not running a governor candidate, leaving the ground open for Most-Híd, a party with significant representation among the Hungarian minority, which is putting forward one of its founding members, Gábor Gál. The so-called ‘Hungarian card’ – an attempt to use anti-Hungarian feeling among Slovaks to smear a candidate – has been played during the campaign. The incumbent Tibor Mikuš is supported by the SNS while Milan Jureňa is backed by the HZDS.
Five right-centre parties, including the SDKÚ and Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) support Gabriel Pavelek. The challengers of the incumbent are mainly critical of the economic situation in the region, especially a record loan of €1.5 billion for the reconstruction of roads and for the purchase of the building where the VÚC has its offices, according to the Sme daily.
Traditionally, this is the region where political parties have formed a broad Slovak coalition in order to prevent the success of an ethnic Hungarian candidate. Back in 2005, both opposition and ruling coalition parties created a coalition to defeat the former governor, Miklós Fehér of the SMK.
Incumbent governor Milan Belica owed his victory in the last election to this ‘grand Slovak coalition’. This year, again, Belica is backed by a coalition crossing opposition and ruling coalition lines, comprising Smer, the SDKÚ and the KDH. He has four challengers, including SMK candidate Ágnes Biró.
Not even the economic crisis has stopped the Nitra VÚC’s plans to build a new headquarters, with its €10.6 million price tag. Belica argued that the project would solve some of the region’s jobless problems.
It seems that, as in Nitra, construction of a new headquarters worth over €10 million will be in the spotlight in Trenčín Region. The Vion Zlaté Moravce company, which won the construction contract, was picked without a tender, and the contract was signed only days before incumbent governor Pavol Sedláček (HZDS) took office in 2005. The Public Procurement Office later fined the Trenčín VÚC approximately €500,000, saying the direct order with Vion was not justified, according to Sme reports.
Among Sedláček’s five challengers in the elections are Juraj Liška, a former defence minister, who is running as an independent candidate, and Martin Fedor, supported by a coalition of right-wing parties including the SDKÚ and KDH.
The region suffers from an under-developed road network, which hinders the accessibility of the regional capital from the northern parts of the region and has dampened interest from foreign investors. Trenčín Region is therefore hoping for the fast completion of the planned R2 motorway, despite its repeated postponement by the government.
Žilina Region is the only one where the ruling coalition parties – Smer, the SNS and the HZDS – have formed a coalition to support the incumbent, Juraj Blanár. In all the other regions, the SNS has been excluded from coalitions which included its partners in the national government.
Blanár will face three challengers in the first round of the elections, including the joint candidate of the SDKÚ, KDH and Civic Conservative Party (OKS), Pavol Pavlásek, and independent Jozef Tarčák, Blanár’s predecessor in the regional president’s post.
Blanár’s opponents have focused criticism on a loan of more than €35 million, which the VÚC has to pay back in 30 years, that they say has been used to fund consumption rather than development. Blanár has defended the loan as a necessity for the region to be able to draw EU funds.
Banská Bystrica Region suffers from one of the highest unemployment rates in Slovakia, but regional-elections-related headlines have been dominated by political disputes.
On November 3 the current regional president, Milan Murgaš, was expelled from the Smer party because he had decided to run for re-election as an independent candidate. Smer instead selected another candidate, Vladimír Maňka, who is also one of Smer’s MEPs.
Maňka, supported by Smer and the HZDS, is challenged by eight candidates. Apart from Murgaš, there is a candidate backed by the right-wing coalition, Jozef Mikuš, and Marian Kotleba, the controversial leader of far-right group Slovenská Pospolitosť, is running as an independent.
Prešov Region is the biggest of the eight regions both in area and population, but it also has the second highest unemployment rate and, together with Košice, the highest concentration of Roma living in settlements.
The previous elections lifted Peter Chudík, Smer’s candidate, to the top VÚC post while the regional parliament was filled mainly by candidates from right-wing parties. This time around, Chudík is seeking re-election. He is challenged by nine candidates, among them Pavel Hagyari, the mayor of Prešov, who is supported by a coalition of non-parliamentary parties, and Ján Hudacký, the joint candidate of the KDH, the SDKÚ and Freedom and Solidarity (SaS).
None of the candidates running for top regional posts has come up with any substantial programme for the Roma community.
Košice Region is home to large Roma communities living in poverty and poor hygienic conditions. The Košice suburb of Luník IX has become a symbol of the unsolved problems of the Roma community.
The list of seven candidates for the regional president includes the incumbent, Zdenko Trebuľa, who is supported by a wide coalition comprising Smer, the HZDS, the SMK, Most-Híd and others. His most serious challengers are Ján Slabý, the SNS candidate, and Ján Süli, the candidate of the right-wing coalition.
One topic that has dominated the election campaign is uranium mining, which could bring considerable investment to the region but also poses serious environmental challenges.
According to the SITA newswire, eight out of 15 potential uranium mining localities in Slovakia are in Košice Region. One of them, Jahodná, near Košice, will become the subject of a serious struggle, SDKÚ MP Jarmila Tkáčová predicted.