After suffering his third direct political blow in just over two years, the most charismatic, captivating and controversial politician in Slovak history is on the ropes. But is Vladimír Mečiar, the former amateur boxer and three-time ex-Prime Minister, down for the count?
According to his own daughter, the answer is 'I hope so'.
"We [his immediate family] keep telling him 'Daddy, you have been doing this for 10 years and nobody appreciates your work. Do you think this will change?'" said Magda Mečiarová in a September 25 interview for the weekly magazine Život. "But so far we have not succeeded [in convincing him to leave politics], and so we must just respect his decision."
Love him or hate him - there's no grey area with Mečiar - he is unlikely to simply fade away from the national political scene. Revered as the 'Father of Slovakia' by his supporters and loathed by his detractors as Len-on (Slovak for 'just him', a play on the Russian dictator's name), Mečiar had been battered before, but analysts and his HZDS party subordinates say he can never be counted out.
"It would be pure speculation to say that Mečiar is finished politically," said HZDS parliamentary deputy Vojtech Tkáč. "And personnel changes in the HZDS leadership are not necessary."
While HZDS officials stand staunchly beside their leader, support for Mečiar among the voting population, while still strong, has been visibly weakened following his string of high-profile defeats: the 1998 national elections, in which the HZDS won the overall vote but could not create a coalition; the 1999 presidential elections, in which he lost to Rudolf Schuster even though the country was noticeably reluctant to elect the former Košice mayor; and most recently the November 11 HZDS-initiated referendum on early elections which, with a voter turnout of just 20%, fell a full 30% shy of being valid.
National voter preference polls too have shown a consistent, if gradual, decrease in Mečiar's support over the last two years. While analysts say that Mečiar remains a presence, if not a force, on the political scene, they add that his latest defeat in the referendum was at least an indication that voters were beginning to turn against him.
"Mečiar's influence is disappearing," said Soňa Szomolányi, head of political science at Bratislava's Comenius University. "He suffered a hard blow in the referendum, his third personal failure within the last two years. The gradual process of his weakening political influence is continuing with dramatic effects."
"Just take the long term view," she added. "In 1991, Mečiar was supported by 84% of the Slovak population. But today he is no longer the most popular politician in the country - he now has only about 20% support [a November MVK agency poll placed Mečiar's support at 22.3%, second in the country behind Smer party leader Róbert Fico - ed. note]."
Szomolány said that Mečiar's drop in support symbolised a swing in an ever younger electorate which was becoming more focused on western integration. "People realise that to have Mečiar in power would bring international isolation to Slovakia," she said. "That's why his grip is weakening."
Statistics appear to support her statement. According to another November MVK poll, Slovaks are increasingly drawn to both European Union and NATO integration. While EU accession last year was supported by 65.1%, the figure now stands at 76.4%. NATO entry, last year approved by just 41.4%, is now supported by 48.5% of the population.
Mečiar won heavy criticism from the two organisations for his authoritarian policies while in leadership from 1994 to 1998, and was seen as the main reason Slovakia was rejected from the first group of accession countries by both bodies.
Down, but not out
Although staggered, analysts and insiders warn, Mečiar still may stage a return, mainly through the person of Smer's Fico, who threw his support behind Mečiar's referendum. The two remain the most popular politicians in the country, and Mečiar himself has publicly stated that he could envision a future coalition with the former member of the SDĽ ruling coalition party.
While Fico has constantly denied the possibility of his ever working with Mečiar, saying that the HZDS boss had "zero coalition potential", his sincerity has been doubted.
"Fico can behave unexpectedly, we can never be 100% sure of what he'll do next," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs.
Both Mesežnikov and Szomolány added, however, that a joining of forces between Mečiar and Fico would likely be problematic because both are ambitious for power and neither are expected to settle for any position less than Slovak prime minister.
"An alliance with Mečiar wouldn't be advantageous for Fico, because if Mečiar got that close to power again, if he again became a member of the ruling coalition, he would not settle for being the second most important man in the country," said Mesežnikov. "And neither would Fico."
Added Szomolány: "[Mečiar] could not bear being a marginal politician, and he won't agree to any compromises."
Fico, who did not return calls placed by The Slovak Spectator for this article, has in the past firmly stated that he would refuse to play second fiddle to any potential coalition partner.
"I'm not in politics just for the hell of it," he said in an interview for the Slovak daily Práca on November 4. "I'm working to achieve a particular post. I will not accept any offers from Mečiar."
Without a deal struck with Fico, Szomolány said, Mečiar would "probably be forced to leave politics", leaving the HZDS with the cumbersome task of re-inventing itself. "[If Mečiar left], the HZDS would fall in the popularity polls," she said. "But it would also give the party a chance to transform itself into a relatively standard political party within the Slovak environment."
Not likely, according to the HZDS's Tkáč, who stood resolutely by his leader. "This is not a question about Mečiar. Our political work will be directed towards opening the floor for discussion with all political parties."
But all parties, besides the opposition far-right Slovak National Party (SNS), have for the past two years refused cooperation with Slovakia's most controversial politician. For most of the Slovak political establishment, the count continues and Mečiar is on one knee. Whether he can rise to the call once again remains to be seen.
27. Nov 2000 at 0:00 | Martina Pisárová