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CRITICS SAY PARTY PROSPERED AT EXPENSE OF COUNTRY

10 years after: HZDS marks turbulent past

Slovakia's most popular party, the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), had planned to celebrate its 10th anniversary June 2 in the same Banská Bystrica state theatre where it was founded. But a last-minute decision by Culture Minister Milan Kňažko - himself a former member of the party - to forbid the use of state premises forced the party to call off the festivities, and underlined the depth of disagreement over just how much the HZDS has helped - or harmed - the country it ruled in three separate administrations.
Political analysts say the party has been a unique phenomenon in Slovak politics. It has never registered less than 27% support, or finished anywhere less than first place, in the three elections it has contested (1992, 1994 and 1998). Its leader, the charismatic Vladimír Mečiar, had over 80% voter trust ratings at the height of his popularity in 1991, and even today has the firm support of over a quarter of the electorate.

Slovakia's most popular party, the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), had planned to celebrate its 10th anniversary June 2 in the same Banská Bystrica state theatre where it was founded. But a last-minute decision by Culture Minister Milan Kňažko - himself a former member of the party - to forbid the use of state premises forced the party to call off the festivities, and underlined the depth of disagreement over just how much the HZDS has helped - or harmed - the country it ruled in three separate administrations.

Political analysts say the party has been a unique phenomenon in Slovak politics. It has never registered less than 27% support, or finished anywhere less than first place, in the three elections it has contested (1992, 1994 and 1998). Its leader, the charismatic Vladimír Mečiar, had over 80% voter trust ratings at the height of his popularity in 1991, and even today has the firm support of over a quarter of the electorate.

HZDS stalwart Oľga Keltošová, a former Labour Minister, ascribed the party's enduring power to its grassroots network. "Even in the smallest Slovak district, our broad membership base never lost contact with voters," she said June 6. "Mečiar on his own attracts most of our voters - over one million people [of Slovakia's 5.4 million population] through the strength of his person."

And yet, say political observers, the party's fortunes have not always been those of the country. "The HZDS's 10 year history is a mixed bag of victories and failures, in which the victories have belonged to the party and the failures have affected Slovakia," said Darina Malová, a political scientist at Comenius University in Bratislava.

Among the losses Malová ascribed to the HZDS were the division of Czechoslovakia in 1993 without a referendum, murky privatisations from 1994 to 1998, a referendum on NATO membership and direct presidential election that was thwarted by the government in May 1997, Slovakia's global image as a nationalist and undemocratic country, and its eventual exclusion from the first round of entry talks into the NATO military alliance and the European Union.

It is against this mixed background of failures and enduring strength that the HZDS has begun a transformation. Chairman Mečiar announced at the beginning of June for the weekly Czech paper Týden that he would never again work with the opposition Slovak National Party, his coalition partner from 1994 to 1998, because the latter did not support NATO entry, now one of the HZDS' declared goals. The party at the same time began collecting signatures on a petition in favour of NATO membership, and singled out the country's two most western-oriented parties - the ruling Christian Democrats (KDH) and the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) - as its most natural future partners.

"The HZDS completely identifies with democratic values, with integration into the EU and NATO," said Mečiar in a statement marking the party's 10th anniversary.

Bumps in the road

While the HZDS may be reshaping its platform, analysts say that the continued presence of the popular Mečiar at the helm paradoxically condemns the party to political isolation.

"In terms of absolute numbers of votes, the HZDS has the greatest potential of any party, but in terms of gaining political power its potential is close to zero [because no other party will agree to form a coalition with the HZDS - ed. note]," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the IVO think tank in Bratislava.

Apart from the SNS, every party in Slovakia has said since 1998 that it would refuse to work with the HZDS as long as Mečiar remained in charge. "Mečiar has a reputation as an untrustworthy politician who doesn't keep agreements, and one who is unreadable, which is why no party is willing to take the risk of working with him," said Malová.

Now, in the wake of Mečiar's statements to Týden, even the SNS is re-thinking its view of Mečiar. "Mečiar and the HZDS are sending various signals that they are trying to please foreign countries with their politics," said SNS leader Anna Malíková June 5. "Cooperating with Hungarians and Gypsies and ruling out working with Christian and nationalist parties such as the SNS - you have to wonder who wants what here... I'm going to ask for an official explanation [from Mečiar], because I've had enough of this."

On the other hand, both HZDS officials and political observers dismiss periodic reports that support is massing inside the party to force Mečiar out. As Malová explained, the party would likely not fare well at the polls without Mečiar, nor would its voters accept a quiet forced retirement for Mečiar after elections when it was the man, not the party, for whom supporters had cast their ballots.

Much of the dilemma lies in the fact that HZDS voters tend to support values that are in conflict with democratic principles. According to a survey published last year of the supporters of each political party, conducted by political scientist Vladimír Krivý, HZDS voters show higher levels of support for anti-immigrant, anti-western policies, and greater favour for authoritarian and paternalistic political behaviour, than is common among supporters of current ruling coalition parties (see chart, this page).

Thus, while the HZDS attempts to remake its political image, its behaviour is unlikely to substantially change, say analysts.

"Since its transformation [into a "people's party" in March 2000] the HZDS has tried to propagate integration," said Mesežnikov. "But it was the HZDS in the first place which prevented Slovakia's integration, and its transformation has not changed the fundamental nature of its policies - to say one thing and do another."

It appears that for the moment, this view also reigns among the HZDS's potential political partners. HZDS member of parliament Vojtech Tkáč said last week he felt the programmes of the Christian Democrats and the Hungarian Coalition were closest to that of the HZDS, and that Mečiar's party would be approaching these groups first after 2002 elections. Senior members of the parties mentioned by Tkáč, however, vigorously denied his statement.

Said Christian Democrat MP Vladimír Palko: "Cooperation with the Christian Democrats will remain wishful thinking on the part of the HZDS. It will never become a reality.

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