Voting rules to change

A LONG-AWAITED law unifying the rules for all elections held in Slovakia finally sailed through parliament in late May. Before the law was passed, the government allowed the public a period of time to discuss the new rules and to reach a consensus across the political spectrum. Despite this, opposition parties and political transparency watchdogs have serious concerns about some of the rules.

(Source: SME)

A LONG-AWAITED law unifying the rules for all elections held in Slovakia finally sailed through parliament in late May. Before the law was passed, the government allowed the public a period of time to discuss the new rules and to reach a consensus across the political spectrum. Despite this, opposition parties and political transparency watchdogs have serious concerns about some of the rules.

On May 29, parliament passed new election rules which are to become effective only in 2015, meaning that, stricter control over campaign financing and limits on campaign spending will not be applied in the municipal elections taking place this autumn. The new election law is replacing six laws that set out the rules for different kinds of elections in Slovakia, with the declared aim of unifying the rules for elections, and to make the running and financing of political campaigns more transparent. The new rules include the introduction of an independent body to oversee party financing and campaigning, new limits on campaign spending, and an equal moratorium for all elections taking place in Slovakia.

Some of the new rules, mainly those regarding election campaign financing, come as a response to recommendations from the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) on the transparency of political funding. GRECO criticised Slovakia in October 2013 for its inability to promptly make the necessary changes, and set a deadline for rectifying the situation for July 31, 2014.

Originally, the new election code was supposed to come into effect in 2013, but was postponed to July 2015.

Transparent campaign financing

Some of GRECO’s recommendations were mirrored in a commitment designed by non-governmental organisations Transparency International Slovensko (TIS), the Slovak Governance Institute (SGI), and the Institute for Economic and Social Reforms (INEKO), which all of the parties currently sitting in parliament signed before the 2012 general elections.

The pledges included more detailed property returns from politicians, higher penalties for violating political transparency rules, and detailed records of the money that parties spend on elections. Also, the parties promised to move oversight of the incomes and expenses of political parties from parliament and the Finance Ministry to an independent audit body.

It took more than two years since this pledge for the new rules to materialise, which introduce an independent body, the State Commission for Elections and Control of Political Party Financing. Political transparency watchdogs say it remains to be seen whether this body will be effective, but some have expressed concerns over the composition of the commission, as most of its 14 members will be nominated by the parliamentary parties.

“A similar regime functioned in parliament before, and it did not prove itself,” lawyer Pavel Nechala of TIS told The Slovak Spectator, adding that much will depend on the ability of the parties to nominate people “who will be willing to perform their role professionally and independently and not get pushed into the position of those who sweep scandals under the rug”.

Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, whose department authored the law, responded to such concerns by citing the Central Registry of Contracts as an example, which is also overseen by the government and still serves as a trusted source of information for journalists.

“Political parties will control each other,” Kaliňák told the Sme daily after the law was passed, adding that he “would have agreed to have NGO representatives in the commission”, but they are not allowed to participate in this kind of decision based on their statutes.

As for the commitments the parties pledged to fulfil after the 2012 elections, one issue that still remains unresolved are changes to the asset declarations of public officials. Even though this issue is not covered by the election law, it is a closely related topic.

“I would definitely stress the need to reform the asset declarations of politicians,” Nechala told The Slovak Spectator, noting that a new law to this effect has been prepared, but has not reached parliament yet due to “the unwillingness of Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paska”.

New asset declarations were projected to be introduced as of 2014, but parliament has not yet debated the law.

Financial limits

To increase the transparency of campaign financing, the law requires political parties and candidates to run the financing of their campaigns exclusively through so-called open accounts: these are to be created separately for each campaign, and information about the transactions on these accounts must be accessible to the public.

Transparent accounts will not be mandatory in the upcoming municipal elections, but some mayoral candidates have already pledged to use such accounts for receiving donations and paying for campaigning. In the recent presidential election, unsuccessful candidate Radoslav Procházka used such an account in his campaign, but questions have recently emerged over whether all the money he spent in the campaign actually went through the account as he declared.

The new law also introduces new financial limits for campaigns. While political parties will be allowed to spend altogether €3 million for campaigns in national and European parliamentary elections, presidential candidates will be limited to €500,000 for their campaigns. In both cases, the sums include all costs of campaigning 180 days before the elections.

As a comparison, President-elect Andrej Kiska declared his total spending at about €1.1 million, while Procházka said he spent about €250,000.

Under the new rules, there are limits for regional and municipal elections, too. A candidate for the regional governor post can spend €250,000, similar to a mayoral candidate for Bratislava and Košice. For other mayoral candidates, the spending limit depends on the number of citizens in their respective municipality, ranging from €100,000 for those in municipalities with 60,001-120,000 inhabitants, and €2,000 for those in municipalities with up to 2,000 inhabitants.

The limits that have existed so far have not been observed, however, Nechala of TIS noted, suggesting that if limits are introduced and then not respected, it only undermines the trustworthiness of the institution that will oversee the application of the law.

“Limits are not necessary; it is necessary to know the relations that public officials have towards businessmen,” Nechala said.

Further changes expected

Even though the election rules are now unified, the changes might not be final. Firstly, there is a controversial last-minute proposal to limit the so-called passive election right for mayors, who under the new rules will be required to have at least a secondary education. Some opposition MPs have deemed this unconstitutional and plan to contest it at the Constitutional Court.

Secondly, the new election rules have no capacity to deal with one of the major problems of elections in Slovakia, which surfaced especially during the recent European Parliament election - low election turnout (only 13 percent in the EP election). Slovakia hardly ever sees higher voter participation than 50 percent, and especially for regional and European elections, the turnout is way below that.

To boost voter turnout, Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák wants to propose merging consecutive elections. He announced this intention on the public-service television network RTVS on June 1. Such a measure however requires a constitutional majority in parliament, since it would involve prolonging or shortening the mandates of some officials.

Read also:
Voting: major changes
Mayoral seat not for just anyone

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