Pre-Election Jitters Hit Slovak Political Scene

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Pre-Election Jitters Hit Slovak Political Scene

Slovakia’s parliamentary elections are still
more than three months away, but the media is already rife with
intrigue and accusations of foul play. Last week offered up
accusations of political manipulation at Slovakia’s public
television station and a mysterious statement by President Rudolf
Schuster’s spokesman.

During an official visit to Canada last week,
Schuster’s spokesman Jan Fule was quoted by various Slovak media on
6 June as saying that the president had assured Canadian Prime
Minister Jean Chretien that he would not ask former Prime Minister
Vladimir Meciar to form the next government–even if Meciar’s party
wins the elections. But Schuster later denied making any such
statement about Meciar, and added that he did not want to influence
the decision of Slovak voters.

“If I said that [Meciar’s Movement for a
Democratic Slovakia] HZDS cannot form the government, I would be
automatically influencing the elections,” the president was quoted
as saying by the news agency TASR on 10 June. He added that he
considered it “inappropriate” to talk about who he might ask to
form the next government.

Meciar has long been a lightning rod for
criticism from Western politicians, who have accused him of running
roughshod over democratic principles during two stints as prime
minister in the mid-1990s. In recent months, various NATO officials
have publicly suggested that if Meciar returns to power after
Slovakia’s September elections, the country may not be invited to
join the alliance at the NATO summit in November.

Last week, Schuster was in Canada and the United
States as part of a campaign aimed at drumming up support for
Slovakia’s membership in NATO. During the Canadian leg of his trip,
Chretien was quoted by the Slovak daily SME as saying that Canada
supports Slovakia’s bid to join NATO but adding that the situation
would be more “complicated” if Meciar wins the elections.

Later, during Schuster’s visit to the United
States, U.S. President George W. Bush reportedly avoided making any
recommendations to Slovakia, aside from expressing the hope that
the turnout would be high in the September elections.

While the Slovak president contradicted his
spokesman on his post-election intentions this time, he has made at
least one similar statement in the past. In March, Schuster
appeared to suggest that he would not necessarily ask the winner of
the elections to form the government. “Usually, according to the
constitution, the president appoints the winner of the elections to
form a government. Usually. This means that it need not be the
winner of the elections,” he told journalists at the time.

Under the Slovak constitution, the president has
the authority to call on a specific politician to form a government
that would be capable of winning a confidence vote in parliament.
Meciar’s HZDS has been leading all the opinion polls for months,
but that is no guarantee that the party will be able to form a
workable governing coalition after the elections. With the support
of 29 percent of respondents in the most recent poll, the HZDS has
little hope of winning an outright majority in the 150-seat
parliament.

In 1998, Meciar’s HZDS won the most seats in the
elections, but he was unable to gain the support of a majority in
the parliament. Instead, current Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda
managed to cobble together a broad governing coalition of rightist
and leftist parties.

Even as Schuster was traveling in North America,
events were heating up in Slovakia around the public Slovak
Television (STV) station. Two reporters at the station, Beata
Oravcova and Michal Dyttert, announced on 2 June that they were
quitting their jobs due to what they described as unacceptable
political pressure from the station’s management. For years
Oravcova and Dy ttert have hosted the popular Sunday political
debate show O pat minut dvanast (Five minutes to twelve).

The two journalists said they were ordered by
the station’s management to invite media magnate and politician
Pavol Rusko to a debate they had organized among three other
politicians. Dyttert and Oravcova say they were told that Rusko and
his ANO party had not received enough airtime on STV recently.
Rusko is a co-owner of the Slovak commercial television station TV
Markiza.

While Dyttert and Oravcova said they had agreed
to invite Rusko to appear on a future episode of their program,
they added that program director Igor Zemanovic told them to invite
him to be on one they had already arranged. The episode in question
was scheduled to focus on parliament’s recent approval of new
legislation on social security as well as its decision not to pass
a law on conflicts of interest. Dyttert said Rusko had not been
invited to this particular episode because his party had not made
any major political initiatives related to those two issues.

Zemanovic told the daily SME that he had asked
the two journalists to invite Rusko because he wanted the show’s
coverage in general to be more balanced. “The participation of
other parties on the show is roughly in line with their ratings [in
public opinion polls]; only in the case of the ANO party have we
for a long time not been able to manage this. That’s why I decided
to give the moderators an order on Thursday,” he was quoted as
saying in the 3 June issue of SME.

The reporters say they then decided to quit the
station. “This is a matter of principle, a matter of STV
independence. We cannot accept that management lets a politician
onto a program even though his presence is not relevant at all,”
Dyttert was quoted as saying by the news agency SITA on 2 June.
Thirty-one other STV reporters signed a statement of support for
Dyttert and Oravcova.

STV’s station manager, Milan Materak, has backed
management on the issue and has fired two of the reporters who
supported Dyttert and Oravcova. The STV Council, a public oversight
body that acts as a supervisor over the station, met to discuss the
case, but it came to no conclusions other than to reaffirm its
support for Materak.

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