Regional elections approach

EXPECT low turnout before and unusual political alliances after November’s regional elections, as Slovak citizens and foreigners with permanent residence take to the polls to elect regional governors and parliaments. But parties opposing Smer’s dominance at the national level may yet try to use the elections as a sort of countervailing force, according to experts.

EXPECT low turnout before and unusual political alliances after November’s regional elections, as Slovak citizens and foreigners with permanent residence take to the polls to elect regional governors and parliaments. But parties opposing Smer’s dominance at the national level may yet try to use the elections as a sort of countervailing force, according to experts.

Four years ago just 22.9 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the elections for Slovakia’s eight regions, officially called “higher territorial units” or VÚC in the Slovak acronym. For now, there is little reason to expect turnout to be any different this time around. Still, as Pavel Haulík of the MVK polling agency told The Slovak Spectator, national politics may yet influence events at the regional level as there is a significant imbalance between the representation of Smer and the rightist opposition parties in “big politics”, he said.

“It could happen that the voters of one of these two big groups will have a feeling that the elections to the VÚC could be a kind of brake or counter-force to what exists in the big politics,” Haulík told The Slovak Spectator.

The race for governor of the Bratislava Region is likely to be the most intriguing, said Ján Baránek of Polis polling agency, as ruling Smer’s Monika Flašíková-Beňová will be challenging incumbent Pavol Frešo, the candidate of the opposition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), and thus might turn into a fight between Smer and the opposition.

Other than that there will likely be little drama.

“These elections have never been seen as important,” Baránek said. Meanwhile Haulík said VÚC voting is seen “as the least important of all elections in Slovakia”.

The campaign

The first round of voting is slated for November 9. The candidates running for VÚC president need to harvest 50 percent of the vote in order to win the race. If not, the two best performing candidates from each region progress to a November 23 run-off.

Voters will also choose deputies to regional parliaments with the numbers depending on the size of their election district.

The official election campaign will start on October 23 and has to be wrapped up on the morning of November 7, which is 48 hours before the start of balloting, with a ban on any kind of promotion during the moratorium.

Nevertheless, Baránek said that with the elections seen as insignificant by the voters, it will be hard to run any “motivational campaign”, adding that “firstly people would have to see a reason why they should go voting”.

Baránek suggests that the political preferences of specific voters will, in part, decide: the voter of Smer or the voter of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH ) will go and vote for their candidates.

Haulík attributes the public’s disinterest to the fact that the regions, the mid-level of government in Slovakia, are seen as something redundant, with people not being entirely familiar with the authorities of the regions and “assuming that these issues could be managed even without the existence of the VÚCs”.

Yet, the VÚCs have decision-making powers in education, social services and public transport with the maintenance of lower category roads, and they coordinate inter-regional and cross-border cooperation and tourism. The VÚCs are funded by taxes paid directly to the regions, including personal income and motor vehicle taxes as well as grants absorbed from central government ministries and European structural funds.

Regional elections have never attracted much voter interest, with the very first such vote in 2001 achieving a turnout at 26.02 percent, the highest ever for this type of vote.

Four years later, in 2005, only 18.02 percent of the electorate showed up to vote in the first round. Haulík suggests that many of the elections will be decided in the first round.

Unusual coalitions in the regions

In regional elections even parties otherwise acting as rivals in national parliament tend to patch together coalitions in order to achieve the best outcome at the regional level. There is speculation that opposition parties may use the regional elections to challenge Smer. Baránek noted that SDKÚ has tried to bring parliamentary politics into the VÚC elections, but he also advised against it.

“These are completely different elections,” he said.

As evidence of the difference, Baránek pointed to the so-called “wide-Slovak coalition” which joined together both opposition and coalition parties through several elections to weaken the election success of ethnic Hungarian candidates in areas heavily populated by ethnic Hungarians.

“As far as they find accord and are able to make the region progress, they [the parties] understood that it would be ineffective to break up these coalitions due to party affiliation,” Baránek said. “Moreover, the line where politics is melting has been shifting from traditional divisions towards shared values.”

For the left-leaning Smer party, the KDH is always a closer partner than the liberal Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), Baránek explained, suggesting that SaS and KDH have far fewer shared values than the conservative Christian Democrats have with Smer.

Haulík however suggests that currently there are fewer non-standard coalitions than there were in the past, noting that the candidate lists have not been closed yet and thus the situation still might change. As for the programme the candidates might offer, it influences people only to a certain degree, Baránek said, adding that the candidates’ programmes “are quite similar”.

“None of the known candidates have brought a vision of progress for the VÚC which would be significantly different from what other candidates offer,” Baránek said.

Haulík too says that party affiliation will have a decisive say in people’s choices, since people’s knowledge about how the self-governing regions work is very low due to the absence of regional media bringing independent information on VÚC management here in Slovakia.

“Moreover the difference of the election system when compared to big politics is also causing problems because the voters are not able to re-orient themselves,” Haulík said, adding that this different election system frequently results in controversial coalitions in the regions.

The deadline for the registration of candidates for VÚC president and members of the regional parliaments is September 30, with local authorities required to publish complete candidate lists for their electoral district by October 20.

Citizens older than 18, including foreigners with permanent residence in Slovakia, are eligible to vote in regional elections. People older than 18 can run for regional parliament while people running for the VÚC president have to be at least 25 years old, according to election law.

Radka Minarechová contributed to this story

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