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EDITORIAL

Higher territorial units: What?

MANY Slovaks are more likely to vote in a televised talent show than in elections to the Slovakia’s eight self-governing regions, known by the Slovak-language acronym VÚC, despite the fact that decisions made at the level of VÚCs impact their lives more than yet another ‘star’ emerging on the television screen only to disappear in a year’s (or an hour’s) time.

MANY Slovaks are more likely to vote in a televised talent show than in elections to the Slovakia’s eight self-governing regions, known by the Slovak-language acronym VÚC, despite the fact that decisions made at the level of VÚCs impact their lives more than yet another ‘star’ emerging on the television screen only to disappear in a year’s (or an hour’s) time.

The Slovak acronym VÚC stands for ‘higher territorial unit’, which sounds as though taken from the collectivisation plan of the communist party’s central bureau, but it should evoke in the citizens the exact opposite, since the higher territorial units were created as part of an effort to dismantle the centralised state administration, which had lorded over all areas of people’s lives for more than 40 years.

Twelve years passed since the Slovak parliament approved the decentralisation plan back in 2001, but people still do not fully understand the authorities of the self-governing regions. Oľga Gyárfášová, a senior research fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), notes one of the reasons: the current form of eight regions was not based on natural territorial divisions.

Yet, the VÚCs handle more than €1 billion in state funds each year and have decision-making powers in education, social services, health care, master plans, and public transport, and oversee the maintenance of lower category roads, while coordinating inter-regional and cross-border cooperation and tourism. They make decisions pertaining to the operations of museums, galleries, libraries and pharmacies, just to name a few of the crucial sectors.

Thus, who runs the VÚCs will impact how people commute and travel, how much they pay for social services, how far they must go to access health care or what kind of access people will have to education or cultural attractions, for example. Moreover, it is taxpayer money which fuels VÚC machinery. But unfortunately for Slovaks, we show very little interest in how taxes are really spent. If we did, cronyism and corruption might be tackled with more success.

Perhaps, if the public paid more attention to what is happening around the elections to the VÚCs, people would actually mind that the national government does not clearly separate its regular work from campaigning for candidates of the ruling Smer party. The opposition Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) has lashed out at the government for what it calls abusing its trips to the regions for campaigning in the VÚC elections. These field sessions have conveniently become more frequent just ahead of elections and are covered with taxpayer money, the KDH argues.

It is worth watching the money for yet another reason: candidates can spend as much as they please on campaigning, since only the new election legislation, currently ‘under construction’, will introduce spending caps. Though, the law did set limits for campaigning starting on October 23, it did not seem to bother some of the candidates pretending that their mega-billboards, memoirs or rallies, were only to entertain the public.

Of course, candidates are unlikely to use the big bucks of their sponsors to run get-out-the-vote campaigns or explain why it is important for the citizens to vote. Furthermore, it isn’t as if the influx of cash has led to any particular campaign creativity, as the over-worn slogans are peddled to voters, who long ago grew resistant.

Politicians happily leave the job of explaining the importance of elections to civil society, but that is not to say the state’s openness to civil society groups keeps up with the workload. For example, the government shelved signing the memorandum of understanding with civil society groups until 2014.

Doubtlessly, some of the candidates, especially those backed by parties with disciplined voters, will benefit from the ignorance and disinterest of the rest because it helps them in developing the VÚCs into their own little fiefdoms – even if they are indebted ones. This is certainly not what the people who supported the idea of decentralisation and bringing the management of public affairs closer to people had in mind.

But how can the voters show the door to these ‘kings’ if they do not care enough or simply do not know? Perhaps they feel that they cannot be bothered with following yet another election, especially since next year they will elect a president and municipal mayors. And then there are those all-important TV talent shows to worry about.

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