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HZDS party still one man show

In contrast to the disorganised and squabbling factions within the ruling coalition, the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) is on something of a roll these days. Popular discontent with the government's restrictive economic policies has lifted support for the HZDS to around 30% in several recent polls, and the party is leading a high-profile drive to have early elections called and an agreement on political co-operation signed with Slovakia's other main opposition force, the far-right Slovak National Party.
"The HZDS has a clear vision of the future of this country," party spokesman Marian Kardoš said on February 28. "Slovak citizens are very dissatisfied with the government, and are looking for a change."


Some HZDS top brass have questioned the sense of signing a pact with SNS leader Anna Malíková (centre), but analysts say no real rifts exist.
photo: TASR

In contrast to the disorganised and squabbling factions within the ruling coalition, the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) is on something of a roll these days. Popular discontent with the government's restrictive economic policies has lifted support for the HZDS to around 30% in several recent polls, and the party is leading a high-profile drive to have early elections called and an agreement on political co-operation signed with Slovakia's other main opposition force, the far-right Slovak National Party.

"The HZDS has a clear vision of the future of this country," party spokesman Marian Kardoš said on February 28. "Slovak citizens are very dissatisfied with the government, and are looking for a change."

Kardoš's claims are supported by a poll carried out by the Markant agency on February 8 which gave the HZDS 32.2% support compared to 39.8% for the four parties of the ruling coalition. And while the government has said the 'change' people are looking for does not include early elections, the HZDS claimed on February 28 that within three weeks it had collected over 330,000 signatures on a petition to force a referendum on early elections.

For now, political professionals are ascribing the party's success to canny media tactics and government bungling rather than grass roots politics. "The increase in public support for the HZDS is a result of the coalition's poor governance rather than the policy of the opposition," said Ľuboš Kubín, an analyst with the Slovak Academy of Science. "The HZDS is now taking advantage of the democratic rules governing society. They can present their ideas and activities through the media, which aren't controlled any longer. The former opposition [from 1994 to 1998, presently the parties of government] was in a much more difficult situation, as the HZDS controlled all state-owned media."

Indeed, the only cloud on the HZDS horizon recently has been the political pact it had planned to sign with the Slovak National Party (SNS). The deal has been postponed three times in recent weeks, and analysts had begun to speculate that some HZDS members were questioning the sense of moving closer to the nationalists in light of the HZDS' aim to become a member of the European Democratic Union. Given Austria's recent diplomatic isolation after putting nationalist Jörg Haider in power, the pundits said, a more democratic wing within the HZDS had begun to advocate greater distance from the controversial SNS.

Kardoš, however, said the signing of the opposition agreement had been delayed by "technical problems with time schedules," and added it was now expected to be signed on March 2. Any difference of opinion among HZDS members over the wisdom of the agreement was a personal rather than professional matter, Kardoš said.

Kubín, for his part, said that recent statements by HZDS Vice-Chairman Vojtech Tkač and senior MP Oĺga Keltošová against closer co-operation with the SNS did not spell the emergence of a new, less radical faction within the movement (Keltošová called the pact "absolutely counterproductive," while Tkáč said it was "unnecessary at the moment").

Instead, Kubín said he believed Tkáč and Keltošová's apparent defiance of HZDS leader Vladimír Mečiar to be part of a media ploy to attract public attention. "The political will to sign this document was present at the end of January," said Kubín. "These delays were arranged only to increase the importance of the document for both the media and the public."

As the HZDS approaches its annual national congress on March 18 in the western Slovak city of Trnava, a former party insider says that the HZDS remains a one-man show, in which potential internal divisions are overshadowed by the omnipotence of Mečiar. Mečiar remains the only candidate for the post of party chairman.

"If the HZDS was a standard party, I would say it contains two factions - hard core Mečiar supporters like [former Agriculture Minister Peter] Baco, [legal expert Ján] Cuper, [MP Marta] Podhradská, and then reformers like Vojtech Tkáč and Oĺga Keltošová," said František Gaulieder, a former HZDS MP who quit the movement in 1996. "But the HZDS is still a one-man party, and that man is Vladimír Mečiar."

If Mečiar were to leave the HZDS, Kubín opined, it would only be in favour of a puppet figure he could control from behind the scenes. "I think that Mečiar is gradually preparing for the situation in which he is the only obstacle for other political partners to create a government with the HZDS," Kubín said. The HZDS, he said, had recently faced a huge dilemma - it couldn't win an election without the charismatic Mečiar, but couldn't form a governing coalition with him, given the deep suspicion other politicians still harbored of the three-time Slovak Prime Minister.

"If Mečiar were to withdraw at some future date, he could support some new face as HZDS leader and control the situation from the rear," speculated Kubín. "But that's not likely to happen for some time yet."

Oĺga Gyarfášová, a sociologist with the Bratislava based IVO think-tank, agreed that neither a leadership switch nor a serious challenge to Mečiar could be expected in the near future. "HZDS voters themselves don't demand any changes in the HZDS' typically confrontational and populist ways," she said. "That means that Mečiar, for now, has no reason to change anything."

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