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HZDS calls rallies "a success"

A month-long series of protest rallies organised by the leading opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), culminated in a demonstration that drew about 5,000 citizens to Bratislava's Námestie slobody (Freedom Square) in front of the Government Office on June 8.
Despite the poor showing, HZDS officials were in strong voice. "The current government follows only its own economic and political interests," said party boss Vladim'r Mečiar. "They won't retreat from power, therefore we have to organise civic initiatives which will stop the overall decline of our country. A referendum [on early elections, to be held in mid-November] is the only way to stability."


Former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar was in strong voice at his HZDS party's final rally in Bratislava June 8.
photo: TASR

A month-long series of protest rallies organised by the leading opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), culminated in a demonstration that drew about 5,000 citizens to Bratislava's Námestie slobody (Freedom Square) in front of the Government Office on June 8.

Despite the poor showing, HZDS officials were in strong voice. "The current government follows only its own economic and political interests," said party boss Vladim'r Mečiar. "They won't retreat from power, therefore we have to organise civic initiatives which will stop the overall decline of our country. A referendum [on early elections, to be held in mid-November] is the only way to stability."

But while HZDS officials estimated that over 75,000 people had participated in what they termed a "successful" campaign of nation-wide rallies, analysts questioned the final tally, and said that the disappointing numbers signified declining support for the country's most popular party. Although the rally was to have been the crowning protest in the series of nation-wide gatherings, although beloved party boss Mečiar was on hand to deliver his anti-government polemic, and although party officials have said that the rallies were a huge success, the turnout was far below what the party had initially predicted.

"We were pleasantly surprised with the large number of people who attended our meetings," countered Jozef Božik, HZDS vice-chairman for media policy. "It is clear that there is no other political party in Slovakia which would be able to attract so many people to support its stance."

Senior HZDS official Augustín Marián Húska, speaking at a previous rally which drew only 20 people, added that fear of persecution was keeping more HZDS supporters from attending the HZDS rallies.

But Grigorij Mesežnikov, political analyst and head of the Bratislava-based think tank Institute for Public Affairs, said the figure of 75,000 was "absolutely unrealistic" and dubbed the rallies a "total fiasco".

"In comparison, just look at the rallies which were organised from 1996 to 1998 by the then-opposition parties, which today form the ruling coalition," he said. "In Bratislava the attendance was never less than 10,000 at regular rallies and there were some gatherings which numbered as many as 40,000 people. To speak of wide support for HZDS activities is just ridiculous."

Soňa Szomolányi, Political Science Department head at Comenius University in Bratislava, agreed with Mesežnikov and added that the low turn-out indicated that Slovaks did not agree that the country's current economic situation was as acute as the HZDS claimed. "Statistics show that economic indicators such as the rate of inflation and savings are by no means as catastrophically low as the HZDS is trying to present them," she said.

Szomolányi added that far from speaking on behalf of the common man, the party had ulterior motives behind organising the rallies. "[The HZDS] is trying to mobilise their electorate because for the second year in a row since the 1998 elections when they lost power, they haven't been able to find a place on the Slovak political scene. Instead, it acts as a counter-productive opposition force," she said. "Ever since Mečiar left parliament [after 1998 elections] he has had no real impact on politics. Using rallies and scandals like the Elektra case [when black-mask commando police units blew down his front door and charged the ex-prime minister with abuse of power and fraud] to his advantage is all that he can do right now."

The HZDS, meanwhile, refuted the criticism of political analysts, saying that the party represents the true feelings of the general public. "[These analysts] are just pseudo-analysts who want to play down the importance of our actions," the HZDS's Božik said. "For example, they claim that our electorate is largely composed of elderly people, but my experience shows otherwise. I can tell you that we have about 30% support from each of the categories of elderly, middle-aged and young people."

Mesežnikov, for his part, thought it unlikely the HZDS would ever be able to attract new voter support from the younger generations. "The party has a very centralised system and strongly undemocratic features," he said. "Polls show that the party with the greatest potential for attracting young voters is Robert Fico's Smer [Direction] party."

While analysts agreed that the HZDS would be hard-pressed to attract new voters, the fervent loyalty of their current supporters was not questioned. Mária Hrdlicová, a 55 year old pensioner who came to the June 8 rally from Nitra, summed up the HZDS supporters feelings when she said: "May God give us the early elections as soon as possible! It's terrible what this dirty government is doing to us. They are nothing but liars and renegades who cheat on their own nation. Shame on [Prime Minister Mikuláš] Dzurinda, [Interior Minister Ladislav] Pittner, [Chief Investigator Jaroslav] Ivor and the lot of them."

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