THINK TANK SAYS NEW GOVERNMENT MUST ACT TO IMPROVE CURRENT LOW SCORE

Survey gives Slovakia’s democracy a mediocre grade

A GRADE worse than 3 rarely pleases a Slovak pupil, as it is closer on the grading scale to 5 – meaning ‘fail’ – than to 1 – ‘excellent’. The new government, currently boasting promises to improve Slovakia’s political culture, increase transparency and actively fight corruption, will start from 3.4 – the grade given to democracy in Slovakia in the second quarter of 2010 by the Institute of Public Affairs’ (IVO) Barometer survey.

A GRADE worse than 3 rarely pleases a Slovak pupil, as it is closer on the grading scale to 5 – meaning ‘fail’ – than to 1 – ‘excellent’. The new government, currently boasting promises to improve Slovakia’s political culture, increase transparency and actively fight corruption, will start from 3.4 – the grade given to democracy in Slovakia in the second quarter of 2010 by the Institute of Public Affairs’ (IVO) Barometer survey.

The IVO Barometer has been grading the quality of democracy in Slovakia four times a year since 2008, halfway through the government of Robert Fico. Since then, the grade has worsened from an average of 2.9 in 2008 to 3.4 in the first half of 2010.

Experts who contributed to the most recent evaluation say that the rating remained unchanged in the second quarter of 2010, and thus the quality of democracy stagnated through the first half of 2010 and remained very close to the level at the end of 2009.

Grades are awarded in four categories: democratic institutions and the rule of law (grade 3.5 in Q2 2010); legislation (3.25); human and minority rights (3.25); and independent media (3.5). The only improvement was noted in the latter category, although the media category has typically been ranked worst.

Some cheer for independent media

Miroslav Kollár, an analyst with IVO, said that the improvement was based on two aspects. The key one related to recent decisions by Slovak courts in libel lawsuits brought against media outlets.

“It’s positive that there are juridical rulings that can serve as a sort of precedent in the future, or in leading the defence on the part of the media,” Kollár said. One of the rulings was by the Constitutional Court in a case brought by Judge Peter Polka against the Plus 7 Dní weekly. The court found in favour of the defendant, stating that: “the limits of acceptable criticism are the widest for politicians and the narrowest for ordinary citizens” and that “there is an accepted trend tending to shift the position of the judges… towards [that of] politicians”.

The grade also improved thanks to the fact that the experts found that all the media, with the exception of the state-owned public broadcaster Slovak Television (STV), reported on the June parliamentary elections “in a way that could neither dramatically help nor harm some of the candidates”.

For the positive trend of improving media independence to be continued, Kollár suggests it will be important to see what line the courts follow in future when ruling in libel lawsuits against the media, how the government handles the problems of the Slovak public-service media, in particular their funding and the definition of their purpose, and how the legislative environment is shaped in the future.

“Every new piece of legislation in the past four years limited the space for free practice of the journalistic trade and complicated the conditions on the media market,” Kollár said.

Elections and the quality of democracy

Parliamentary elections took place on June 12 and, as the most significant political event in the country during the surveyed period, had an impact on democracy which was evaluated by the IVO Barometer. Experts who contributed to the survey point out that minority rights suffer when the so-called ethnic (particularly Hungarian, but also Roma) ‘card’ is played – i.e. fears are stirred up among the majority Slovak population about the purported intentions or actions of minority groups – during an election campaign, and there were several such instances in the run-up to the June poll. But the pre-election period provided grounds for other concerns too.

IVO president Grigorij Mesežnikov, referring to the area of democratic institutions, said that the there were events that occurred in the election campaign “which suggested that the ruling parties used the administrative capacities they possessed thanks to their position of power to improve their standing prior to the elections”.

He referred to several press conferences which the prime minister convened at the Government Office, attended by the highest representatives of his Smer party which served mainly to send out electoral messages. There was a similar purpose, according to Mesežnikov, behind various events organised under the umbrella of state institutions, such as opening football grounds, opening Bratislava Airport’s new terminal or unveiling memorials.

“Administrative capacities have not been used in this way in an election campaign in Slovakia since 1998,” Mesežnikov said.

He drew particular attention to an alleged provocation connected to the Slovak Democratic Left (SDĽ) party which occurred only hours before the elections. On June 11, Prime Minister Robert Fico convened a press conference in which he stated that letters carrying a forgery of his signature and encouraging Smer voters to vote for the SDĽ were being distributed to Slovak households.

“This case was forgotten after the elections, but there could be a suspicion that it might have been an attempt to influence the decision of a significant part of the electorate,” Mesežnikov said.

Room for improvement

The results of the IVO Barometer suggest that Slovak democracy needs improvement in all areas. Mesežnikov said that first of all the government should deal with the agenda item that they presented as their primary aim: increasing transparency and fighting corruption.

According to Mesežnikov, the four parties of the ruling coalition have very similar programmes in this area and he believes they should attempt to translate them into actions and concrete legislative measures.

“It’s also connected with the expectations of the public,” Mesežnikov said. “Promises have been made, and there were even suggestions about which legislative measures [to fight corruption] would be presented in parliament.”

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