Just a presidential toy?

THE ROOTS of a many presidents’ favourite plaything stretch back to the Roman Republic, where the institution of the veto emerged to protect the interests of common citizens, the plebs, in a senate dominated by elite families.

THE ROOTS of a many presidents’ favourite plaything stretch back to the Roman Republic, where the institution of the veto emerged to protect the interests of common citizens, the plebs, in a senate dominated by elite families.

It seems that President Ivan Gašparovič likes applying this ancient tradition with as much zeal as possible to a wide range of legislation passed by the Slovak parliament. The power of the presidential veto is one of the few held by Slovakia’s president that can make the life of the government quite miserable, especially if it holds just a slim majority in parliament while at the same time needs to hold together four independently ambitious parties.

With a president whose heart officially should beat neither for nor against any particular political party, one would think that the Slovak president’s veto power is a tool that will protect the interests of the public. Though there is no unambiguous answer to the question of whose interests are protected or advanced by Gašparovič’s vetoes, it is widely said that he has always owed his political success to supporters, opponents or other political figures that needed him to do a “particular job”.

The advent of summer has unleashed Gašparovič’s zest for vetoes, when on June 15 he first refused to sign the amendment to the Act on Use of Minority Languages. That amendment would have reduced the current 20-percent threshold for official use of minority languages in ethnically mixed municipalities to 15 percent – while making the rule effective only 10 years from now.

That presidential veto immediately pleased the Slovak National Party (SNS), which had labelled the legislation treason against the Slovak nation, joined by Smer party that described the bill as serving a purely Hungarian agenda. Gašparovič apparently felt that extending the rights of minorities, in the way it was passed by the ruling coalition, limits the rights of a “state-forming nation” something he says the constitution prohibits.

Those who campaigned on behalf of Gašparovič in the 2009 presidential election widely played the so-called Hungarian card. Before the first round vote in that election, SNS boss Ján Slota vigorously expressed his regret and concern over the support he said Iveta Radičová, Gašparovič’s strongest opponent, had received from the Hungarian minority. Dušan Čaplovič from Smer added at the same time that he expected Radičová would defend the interests of nationalist forces in Slovakia’s Hungarian minority. Gašparovič certainly has proved he was the right presidential pick for them.

Gašparovič then followed with a veto of the amendment to the Press Code that was designed to curb the right of public officials to have their ‘responses’ published by the media in almost all circumstances. That part of the Press Code was a widely-criticised addition put in place by Robert Fico’s government. Gašparovič seems to be disturbed by the fact that the media would not be required to publish a response if it contradicts “good manners or morals” so he asked that this be more clearly defined in the legislation.

Prime Minister Iveta Radičová quickly noted that the president had signed eight laws between 2006 and 2010 that included the very same term and she stated that she suspected the president's veto was more connected to the amendment’s purpose – to restrict the right of response by politicians such as the president, MPs, ministers, mayors and political party leaders .

But Gašparovič’s veto season did not stop there. He recently refused to sign the bill that would modify the work of prosecutors’ offices and open them up to more public oversight. It would, for example, introduce a competitive process for selecting prosecutors and require that prosecutors’ decisions be published. Among other things, the president objected that having a competitive process for choosing prosecutors does not guarantee the privacy of the applicants’ personal information. How could Gašparovič be protecting the interests of common citizens here?

All in all, Gašparovič’s recent vetoes would seem more genuine and legitimate if he did not owe such large chunks of his success in the 2009 presidential election to Fico, who the president loyally supported during his first term after Fico became prime minister in 2006.

There is a very important piece of history that must not sink into oblivion: Gašparovič was closely wed for many years to three-time prime minister Vladimír Mečiar and those years were certainly not the golden age of political democracy in Slovakia. So let’s not forget that one’s past actions do shape one’s present integrity in a very fundamental way – even if some people seem to have lost sight of this important truth some years ago.

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