WHEN someone asks how you like your new župan, they can mean one of two things – either they are interested in the newly elected boss of your regional municipality, or your bath robe. Unless they only speak proper Slovak. In that case, it is only the clothing they’re talking about.
Although regular people and the media rarely use any other term than “župa” or “župan” when discussing the eight regions into which Slovakia is divided and the people in charge of them, the law and official documents see it differently. The constitution uses the sexy term “higher territorial unit”, abbreviated VÚC, and further legislation uses the equally appealing “self-governing region”. The people in charge are simply “chairmen” of these technocratic-sounding institutions. Why not “župa” or “župan”? Politicians are reluctant to use these much more natural terms, because they are supposedly of Hungarian origin. That explanation is absurd for two reasons – all experts say that the terms are traditionally Slovak, and even if they were not, xenophobia is not the best of excuses. But fear of Hungarians has damaged not only terminology, but also geography. The borders of the regions were drawn so that Hungarians don’t have a clear majority in any of them, which meant breaking up the natural regions in the south. And once they were at it, the government divided several other traditional regions as well, creating in 2001 eight artificial blocks of territory.
But the absurdity didn’t stop there. No TV or radio ads are allowed in the election campaign. Why? Go figure. On the other hand no financial limits are set on the campaigns and candidates are not obliged to publish any information about donations and campaign financing. Local municipalities don’t have any obligation to guarantee equal conditions for all candidates and are not prohibited from making donations to campaigns – meaning mayors running for regional office can use local newspapers published by their village or city for their propaganda, which many of them do.
The number of seats in local parliaments, 408, is insane. Most Slovaks couldn’t name a single representative, making decision-making completely unaccountable. But then again, not that many people bother to vote anyway. The 22.9-percent turnout is being celebrated as an enormous success. That’s only because last time around it was even less –18 percent. No election can be seriously considered legitimate if the results are dictated by a fifth of the electorate.
The candidates are not to blame. In fact, many of them actually hand out cash to motivate voters from Roma settlements to attend and vote. For them. Saying Slovakia is the Afghanistan of central Europe is still a little hyperbolic. But if the trend continues, so will pretending that Slovakia has fair and equal elections.
The ruling Smer party gained a decisive victory and the opposition suffered a defeat: that is the brief summary of the election results. But jumping to any definite conclusions about what this says about the country is very tricky, and not just because of low voter attendance. Mainly, it is because of the supernatural political alliances in the regions. In Trnava, Slovak nationalists from the SNS and Hungarians from the SMK supported the same candidate for župan. For the last four years the local SMK ruled as part of a coalition with Smer and the months of tensions between Robert Fico’s government and the Hungarian minority has seemingly done little to block the chances of further collaboration. Then again in Nitra, the coalition Smer and HZDS teamed up with opposition SDKÚ and KDH to form a “Slovak coalition” to defeat the SMK. Those are just a few illustrations of how hard to grasp and absurd regional elections are. And why it’s impossible to say what it really means to be a župan.