AN OPPOSITION party called it the worst machinations with elections in the history of independent Slovakia; the ruling coalition called it simply whining by the opposition to divert attention from what the ruling parties called an election defeat of the right-of-centre parties. These are just two perspectives emerging about suspicions of tampering with election ballots and vote-buying in Slovakia’s regional elections that political observers say must be seriously investigated.
After the first round of the elections for Slovakia’s eight regional parliaments and governors on November 14, several cases of suspicions of vote-buying have been reported to the election authorities and to the police. Four members of the Central Election Commission refused to sign the final election protocol, a closing document on the course of the elections because of what they called irregularities.
“It is very serious and it should be properly investigated,” Grigorij Mesežnikov, political scientist and head of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) think tank, told The Slovak Spectator. “The fact that four members [of the election commission] have refused to sign the election report is alarming; it has not happened since the 1990s.”
The fact that four members of the election committee have refused to sign the election report suggests that the political culture of the elections was not at a very high level, according to political scientist Miroslav Kusý.
Štefan Kužma of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) filed a complaint with the Central Election Commission about alleged buying of votes on election day. According to Kužma, his party received several reports originating from eastern parts of the country.
“We have numerous reports of vote buying from Prešov Region, where people often made no secret of being paid for their vote,” Kužma told the SITA newswire. “Not parties’ programmes, but three to five euros decided who would become the regional head.”
Kužma said that this has cast doubt on the democratic character of the elections and he said this ranks Slovakia among countries such as Afghanistan or some African countries.
According to unofficial findings by opposition deputies, election turnout in some Roma settlements was 60 to 70 percent, compared to the overall voter turnout of just above 20 percent, SITA wrote.
The Košice Anti-Corruption Office said it would examine several election precincts in the Levoča district. A deputy of the regional parliament, Jan Lorko, filed a complaint over what he called suspicion of bribery, the Sme daily reported.
One of the alleged suspects is Miroslav Kellner, the Levoča district head of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party, who according to Sme, was seen by witnesses surrounded by a group of about 100 Roma citizens who had already cast their votes.
Reportedly, the Roma voters had been instructed to circle number 26, who was Levoča Mayor Miroslav Vilkovský, backed by the HZDS and Smer parties, Sme wrote.
Jozef Kislík of the Prešov Region Election Committee told the ČTK newswire on November 14 that some Roma citizens in the region arrived at polling booths with their elections ballots already filled in and then returned with blank ballots to instruct others how to vote. It is alleged they received money to vote for a particular candidate.
In the municipalities of Ostrovany and Jarovnice in the Sabinov district, the Prešov election committee investigated complaints about a mass of voters being driven to the polls in buses and trucks and their votes being bought.
“Members of our committee in Ostrovany managed to find two blank ballots, voluntarily handed over by voters coming out of the election rooms,” Kislík said. “Roma voters intended to bring them to the settlement. Very probably, these ballots would be returned by other Roma with names already circled. In this way, the elections are rigged.”
After the election committee members arrived in Ostrovany they discovered that someone had probably warned the inhabitants as they had stopped coming to vote.
Prime Minister Robert Fico was somewhat tight-lipped on election day as far as the vote tampering allegations were concerned.
“It is a fashion that the one who loses is the one who criticises,” Fico said on November 15, as quoted by newswire SITA.
Smer almost doubled the number of seats it holds in the regional parliaments, from the 70 seats it won in 2005 to 137 seats in these elections, either alone or in coalition with other members of the ruling coalition at the state level, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the Slovak National Party (SNS). In the regions in which Smer and HZDS alone were in coalition, they were most successful of all the parties, winning 101 of the total of 408 elected regional parliamentary seats, a 24.8-percent share.
Independent candidates will hold 55 seats (13.5 percent), while the centre-right coalition of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) and the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) won 50 seats, representing a 12.3-percent share, the Slovak Statistics Office reported. The remaining 65 seats went to other parties, including the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), Most-Híd, the Slovak National Party (SNS) and smaller parties as well as to what was called the 'wide Slovak coalition' in Nitra Region made up of both ruling and opposition parties, formed to stand against the SMK.
According to Fico, the election results clearly show that the opposition parties suffered a major defeat, adding that he would not comment on “insults” on the part of the opposition since these are not worthy of his response.
Fico also strongly objected to SDKÚ leader Mikuláš Dzurinda's accusations that Smer had bought votes “since if anyone ruled based on bought votes, we know who it was”. Fico was alluding to suspicions that emerged at the end of the second Dzurinda government about vote-buying in parliament in order to retain a governing majority amid disputes and defections in the ruling coalition at the time.
The regional elections on Saturday were a cause for shame for the current government of Slovakia, said Dzurinda. “Since November 1989 we have not witnessed such deep machinations and manipulation of election results as [we have] in these regional elections,” he said at a news conference on November 15, convened to comment on the election outcome.
He above all pointed out the practice of driving citizens from Roma communities to polling stations. According to Dzurinda, the coalition of the SDKÚ and KDH lost two to four mandates in regional parliaments as a result.
The SDKÚ claims to have evidence that the governing party Smer was buying votes in regional elections.
“Where does Slovak democracy want to be heading if we continue in this trend?” Dzurinda asked. “Will we have taximeters that will tell us how much one vote costs in Jarovnice or in Detva?”
Mesežnikov said that the reactions of the politicians are interesting – while the opposition parties are broadcasting warnings, the prime minister has been downplaying the importance of the allegations.
Mesežnikov said that it is much easier and cheaper to buy Roma votes in the way the media has reported than for the parties to come up with systematic solutions for problems faced by the Roma minority.
Political scientist Juraj Marušiak said that as long as there is the rule of law in Slovakia, vote buying should have consequences.
“Of course the consequences should be such that these suspicions are thoroughly investigated and that those guilty of vote manipulation are sufficiently punished,” Marušiak told The Slovak Spectator.
Marušiak opined that there are quite a large number of voters in the regions who can be bought in such a way and for many political parties it is evidently a faster way of achieving electoral success than any systematic campaign or addressing voters through real policies.
Michaela Stanková contributed to this report