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Vol 2, No 40
20 November 2000
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Leadership in Flux
Slovakia's HZDS change their tactics with referendum defeat
Tim Haughton

Is Vladimír Mečiar preparing to leave the Slovak political stage? It is hard to imagine Slovak politics without the three-time prime minister and leader of Slovakia's most successful political party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). The failure of the HZDS-inspired referendum on early elections this month, however, may herald the end of Mečiar's frontline political career.

He has announced his exit once before. After his coalition government lost the 1998 parliamentary elections, he went on Slovak TV, waved goodbye to the nation and burst into song. He relinquished his parliamentary seat and returned to his villa in northern Slovakia. The lure of politics was, however, too great.

After what he described as "arm-twisting" and "pleading" by his close friends and political allies, he entered the direct presidential elections in 1999. Mečiar won through to the second round but was defeated by Rudolf Schuster in the run-off. Defeat in the referendum is, therefore, Mečiar's third defeat in three years. Is this the knockout blow for the one-time boxer?

Speculation about possible successors for Mečiar is a popular pastime amongst Slovak journalists. At the beginning of November, the leading Slovak newspaper and trenchant critic of Mečiar, Sme, carried a front page story declaring that Mečiar is on the lookout for a successor. Two leading HZDS figures, Tibor Cabaj and Jozef Gajdoš, were quick to quash the rumours, but Mečiar and HZDS are faced with a dilemma.

Potential coalition partners

Mečiar is the most popular and loved politician in Slovakia. But he is also the most unpopular and hated politician in Slovakia. HZDS is a party interested in power, but although it is the most electorally successful party in Slovakia, it is unlikely to ever win enough votes to form a majority government by itself. HZDS, therefore, needs coalition partners.

The obvious coalition partner is the Slovak National Party (SNS). SNS was part of the 1994-1998 government, but the experience was not an altogether happy one. Former SNS leader Ján Slota's notorious remarks that the solution to the Roma problem was a "long stick and a small yard" and SNS's implacable opposition to NATO membership were not conducive to helping the government achieve their stated aims of NATO and EU membership.

At HZDS's Trnava Congress earlier this year, when HZDS transformed itself from a "movement" into a "party," Mečiar declared that entry into NATO was a top priority. SNS's price in any game of coalition politics would include the defence portfolio. Acutely aware of that fact, Mečiar announced in the course of the referendum campaign that he rules out any coalition with SNS unless the nationalists change their policy on NATO.

If not SNS, then who else? Mečiar has declared an interest in working with Robert Fico's new party "Smer." Fico promised Slovak voters a new direction and a new face for Slovakia but has yet to articulate his programme, preferring instead to deal in platitudes. (Fico has declared he will outline a detailed programme six months before elections.)

Although Smer is consistently scoring between 15 and 20 per cent in the opinion polls, Fico's popularity may be dented by some recent revelations. The story had been doing the rounds in journalistic circles for months, but a fortnight ago Markíza TV publicized rumours of an extra-marital affair and some compromising photographs.

Nevertheless, Smer appears to be the most obvious coalition partner. Fico, however, likes to distinguish between HZDS and its leader. He stresses that one should not ignore a party that receives the support of a quarter of the Slovak electorate, but he has said on many occasions that he does not want to be a springboard for Mečiar to grasp power.

Apart from Smer, the only other party that might join HZDS in a coalition would be the Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ), although that possibility should not be stressed too much. In a similar vein to Fico, SDĽ would only contemplate coalition with HZDS if Mečiar were not in the government. Within HZDS circles, therefore, the previously heretical question has been raised: shall we ditch the man who describes himself as the "father of the nation?"

Mečiar's fan club?

Mečiar has dominated HZDS since its inception in 1991. Critics and rivals of HZDS's founder have, in Hirschman's schema, on the whole chosen the "exit" rather than the "voice" option. (Hirschman argued that any actor in a polity had three options: remain loyal, voice their objections or leave). Although it is incorrect to say HZDS is just a Mečiar fan club, it has become more so as time has ticked on from 1991.

Affection for Mečiar within the party and HZDS voters is very strong. The derisory turnout at the referendum (20 per cent), however, was well below the combined support base for both parties (HZDS and SNS) that supported the referendum. Is there anyone to step into Mečiar's shoes?

Sme suggested that Mečiar considers the next leader of the party should be Miroslav Maxon. A former finance minister, Maxon is an intelligent and articulate man, but he does not even have a tenth of the charisma of HZDS's current number one. Another name frequently mentioned is Vojtech Tkác. Tkác, and former employment minister Olga Keltosová, have been the only major HZDS figures to openly criticize party policy.

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Both Tkác and Keltosová are well respected. Many vociferous critics of HZDS grudgingly accept that the technocrats Tkác and Keltosová are intelligent and contrast them favourably with the rest of HZDS's leading lights. Tkác would have the advantage of reaching out to voters outside the traditional HZDS support base, but his ability to stir the hearts of the HZDS activists a la Mečiar is questionable.

A possible escape route for HZDS is to turn Mečiar into something akin to a party chairman in the British sense. British party chairmen spend their time campaigning but have no direct input into policy formation. Mečiar could, therefore, use his formidable campaigning abilities to drum up support for HZDS, whilst leaving day-to-day government to others. Although Mečiar would love to still be Slovak Prime Minister, he knows the chances of him being whisked around in the prime ministerial car are slim.

Given a choice between HZDS remaining in opposition and HZDS in government but without its current leader, it seems a plausible assumption to suggest Mečiar would plump for the latter. Besides, from his villa in Trenčianske Teplice he would still be able to exert considerable influence. The dominant actor might have to leave the stage, but he could become a prompter reminding the other actors of their lines.

Tim Haughton, 17 November 2000

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