Unaccompanied and visibly exhausted - as if he himself believed the odds against his referendum were as daunting as polls indicated - former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar began a stump speech in support of the approaching November 11 vote on early elections before a simmering group of supporters in the Žilina city council hall on a windy November 4 afternoon.
Urged on by the restless crowd of 500, Mečiar overcame his apparent weariness to assure his captive, predominantly elderly audience that the current government of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda would soon be ousted from power.
"Over the past two years your living costs have increased by 20%! But how much have your pensions increased? By 5% or 7%? We'll take care of that when we come back!" Mečiar vowed, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
But as The Slovak Spectator went to print November 9, the odds that the plebiscite would succeed appeared slim. The most recent poll, conducted by the Markant agency, suggested that 51.8% would definitely or probably not attend while only 41.1% of those polled said they definitely or probably would participate. Slovak law says that in order for the results of a referendum to be valid, over 50% of the voting population must take part.
The country's apparent rejection of what many have dubbed 'Mečiar's referendum' has led some government officials to equate the 'defeat' of the referendum with a show of public support for the government and its policies.
Not true, say political analysts and Slovak citizens. For many voters, the Dzurinda government has been deeply disappointing, and the referendum little more than a choice between two political evils.
"Under Mečiar I lost my job, because the company I worked for had to close down. Then I believed in 1998 that our lives would improve when we voted Dzurinda into power," said 26-year old Iveta Martiníková from the central Slovak village of Hálny. But her hopes, she continued, had been unfulfilled by the Dzurinda government.
Despite her discontent, however, she staunchly refused to participate in the referendum. "No, I'm not going to dance to Mečiar's tune," she said. "He's already been here and he wasn't able to do one good thing for Slovakia. Why should I help this man get back to power?"
Notwithstanding the typical voter base of Mečiar's HZDS opposition party - generally older people who are less educated and live in small towns and villages - Martiníková is a typical modern Slovak voter. Although she is not willing to support Mečiar's return, she is disappointed and fed up - and pondering how she will cast her ballot in 2002, the next round of parliamentary elections.
Indeed, a summertime poll conducted by the MVK polling agency suggested that only 28% of the population believed that the cabinet deserved another term in office. Furthermore, 60% of those polled said they were disappointed with Dzurinda's performance, while a full 82% said that the Prime Minister could not be described as "a man who keeps his promises".
"On all social levels there is a considerable feeling of disappointment with the policies of Dzurinda's coalition. Disappointment is everywhere," said Ivan Dianiška, a sociologist with the independent Focus polling agency. "Educated people are critical of the tardiness and the inefficiency of economic reforms. Those from the lower social classes are disappointed because the government hasn't doubled their wages [as Dzurinda promised before the 1998 national elections - ed. note]. And no improvement has been seen in the education or health care sectors either."
Which is why, analysts continued, the likely failure of the referendum could not be seen as a victory for the government, nor even a barometer of voter sentiment. "By no means can the referendum be taken as a test of happiness or discontent with the current government," said Soňa Szomolányi, head of political science at Comenius University in Bratislava.
Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) think tank, agreed. "It would be inappropriate to interpret an unsuccessful referendum as support for the country's current leaders."
As the Dzurinda government reviewed its record in a closed cabinet session November 8, Mesežnikov urged ministers to take a very critical look at their achievements over the past two years and to work hard to fix their mistakes. Public administration reform, he said, was "way behind schedule" and had to be addressed, as did constitutional reform and further economic liberalisation. The coalition should also examine its activities in past and future sales of stakes in state firms, which the analyst said had been "a breeding ground of corruption" in the past.
Were the government not to get its act together, Mesežnikov warned, it would increase the likelihood that Róbert Fico's non-parliamentary Smer party would come to power in 2002, a scenario which could also very well open the door for the return of Mečiar.
"Fico has denied that he would ever cooperate with Mečiar," the analyst said. "But I can imagine that he would do it [form a government with Mečiar] after the next elections."
But Mečiar supporters are convinced that the time for a "change of a change" [the HZDS referendum slogan] is now. "I keep my fingers crossed for you, Mr. Mečiar," said a supporter in Žilina, his voice trembling with excitement because, as he explained, he had finally met the 'Father of Slovakia' in person.
"I keep my fingers crossed for you, Mr. Mečiar, to get back to power again because it's impossible to live under this incapable government who are so... incapable," he continued. "They [the coalition] only bow to the West, but you, Mr. Mečiar, you go your own way and never fall to your knees. May it happen as soon as possible, Mr. Mečiar, may you replace this incapable lot."