Trip down the catwalk?

EVERYTHING should have been done differently: this sentiment sums up the impression that your everyday Slovak gets when following the political discourse about the upcoming referendum that was initiated by the Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party and which will be held on September 18.

EVERYTHING should have been done differently: this sentiment sums up the impression that your everyday Slovak gets when following the political discourse about the upcoming referendum that was initiated by the Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party and which will be held on September 18.

Some object to the referendum’s timing while others take issue with the campaign behind it, or the lack thereof; some say it should have been held together with parliamentary or municipal elections in order to save on expenses, while still others proclaim that it never should have been called in the first place.

The advocates of the six-question referendum say that of course some politicians in their cushioned chairs dislike the idea; if certain of the issues receive a positive outcome it will mean those politicians will have to give up some of the special privileges they enjoy.

The opponents of SaS’ pet project say that these privileges would have been challenged regardless, since the idea of stripping members of parliament of part of their immunity has already been adopted by the government anyway.

Those concerned about how their taxpayer money is being spent have cried out that what we are facing here is yet another referendum that will be voided due to the low level of voter turnout, and thus it’s just a waste of taxpayers’ hard-earned money. Optimists say it is another chance for the public to exercise their right to decide in public matters, while sceptics say it is nothing more than a farce, since once again a referendum is being used to push some narrow political agenda or even worse: the promotion of a single political party.

But now some background to the musings above: In the six-question referendum, voters will be asked to decide whether parliament should cancel the monthly mandatory fees paid by electricity consumers to support the public-service Slovak Television and Slovak Radio. Another question deals with limiting the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by members of parliament. The third question asks whether the number of seats in Slovakia’s parliament should be reduced from 150 to 100 for the next election term. The public is also asked whether the purchase of government limousines should be limited to no more than €40,000 per car. The final two questions concern voting via the internet and changes to the country’s Press Code that would prevent elected officials from demanding the right of reply to media stories. A voter can give one of two possible answers to each of the six questions: yes or no.

What puts the referendum on shaky ground is how it germinated, even though it is a completely legitimate initiative on the part of Richard Sulík’s party. Paradoxically, if Sulík’s SaS had not made it into the ruling coalition there would have probably been much more meat in both the campaigning and the discourse concerning the referendum, and perhaps even the debate would have dealt more with the substance of the questions rather than the circumstances surrounding them.

Many see the referendum as SaS’ 'trip down the catwalk', which would have ensured a bit of attention and glamour for the party in the event that it ended up outside government or, worse still, parliament (which, when the petition sheets were handed to the president on June 9, was already quite unlikely).

Perhaps a telling detail is that the current star of the SaS campaign supporting the referendum is former Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) deputy Ján Cuper, who was notorious for his peculiar parliamentary “factual remarks”, as he called them, which mainly served to obstruct debate. This time however it is not Cuper’s rhetorical skills that have put him in the limelight, but rather his lack of them: the campaign shot features an archive video of Cuper when he was driving drunk. In the video he tries to explain his actions, but his tongue does not quite obey his will. At the time Cuper was a member of parliament. SaS is using the clip to show how MP immunity has been abused.

SaS, according to Sme daily, had not asked Cuper’s permission before using the video and now Cuper is calling for the video to be withdrawn and an apology extended. He says that he has never abused the immunity and, indeed, it was he himself who called the police.

Messy as the situation may be, get-out-and-vote campaigns are crucial for the country. Slovakia is one of those countries where at least half of the eligible voters have to participate in this expression of direct democracy in order for a referendum to be valid.

Another blow to the fragile body of the referendum is the fact that SaS’ ruling coalition partners seem to view it as an unwanted stepchild; they neither wanted it nor contributed to its birth, but they still have to tolerate and feed it. No fiery recommendations will be given to voters to get out and vote when the politicians themselves have already announced that they’re going to simply ignore the referendum.

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