LET’S start with a quiz: The slogan “So that your children won’t depart” promotes: a) a children’s hospital, b) a religious sect, c) a candidate in Slovakia’s regional elections. If you guessed c), you have an unusually deep understanding of political marketing. And you got it right. The motto can be seen on billboards in Košice, a city many people tend to leave to find better jobs elsewhere. Sadly, unconventional local ads are the most amusing part of the campaign, in what is one of the world’s more absurd elections. Here are just some of the reasons why it is difficult to take voting, and the regional governments (župy) in general, too seriously:
1. Disinterested voters. In 2009, attendance in the first round of voting was 22.9 percent. In the second, it was four points down. In 2005, only 7.12 percent of voters showed up for the second round in Trenčín Region. With these kinds of numbers, it’s very difficult to talk about the legitimacy of elected officials.
2. Unclear agenda. In theory, the regions should oversee secondary schools, senior homes, local hospitals and regional transportation. However, the state and the local municipalities are involved in all of these areas, making it almost impossible for people to understand what, exactly, the regions do. Moreover, regular people almost never come into contact with the regional administration.
3. Unnatural boundaries. The borders of the regions were drawn under the first government of Mikuláš Dzurinda, with one criterion in mind – to ensure that the Hungarian minority doesn’t take control over any of them. The strategy has worked, but the regions have nothing to do with history, tradition or geography.
4. Too many rounds of voting. If none of the candidates for regional boss gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, the two best contenders face off two weeks later. Only very rarely does the second vote change the order, and this approach has no precedent in Slovakia’s local politics: mayors are always picked in a single election. Why was this type of selection introduced? To ensure that if the trick with the borders fails and a Hungarian gets more votes than his Slovak opponents, in the second round all Slovak voters can unite against him.
5. Too many officials. Most of the heads of the eight regions could walk Bratislava’s streets for hours without being recognised. If you mentioned the name Pavol Sedláček, even most political science graduates would have trouble guessing that he is the one that runs Trenčín Region. Not to mention, each region also has an assembly of 40 or 50 people. What for?
6. Confusing terminology. There are several official terms that are used when it comes to the regions – “higher territorial units”, “self-governing regions” or “chairman of the self-governing region”. The words most commonly used – župa and župan – are not officially recognised.
7. Too few women. Not that you would need quotas to guarantee that both genders get a proper voice in public affairs. But after three sets of elections, Slovakia is still waiting for its first female regional boss. And out of the 66 candidates running for the post this year, only five are women, and only one has any chance of winning, Monika Flašíková-Beňová of Smer.
Too many regional cliques have an interest in preserving the status quo, so any dramatic changes are unlikely. That is not good news. This is one system that’s ready to depart.