May 29 presidential elections deeply symbolic

The results of the May 15 presidential elections show that former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar remains a powerful force in Slovakia. Why is Mečiar still so popular here despite his autocratic style of leadership and his ambiguous committment to democratic principles?
Many rent their garments in dismay at Mečiar's 37% showing - ruling coalition deputies, international investors and democratically-minded Slovaks had been hoping that Mečiar would suffer a humiliating defeat and leave politics with his tail between his legs. Instead, Mečiar captured enough votes to give him a realistic chance of winning the second, winner-takes-all round on May 29: enough support, also, to leave his HZDS party mates talking about a steady upward trend in HZDS popularity since 1994.

The results of the May 15 presidential elections show that former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar remains a powerful force in Slovakia. Why is Mečiar still so popular here despite his autocratic style of leadership and his ambiguous committment to democratic principles?

Many rent their garments in dismay at Mečiar's 37% showing - ruling coalition deputies, international investors and democratically-minded Slovaks had been hoping that Mečiar would suffer a humiliating defeat and leave politics with his tail between his legs. Instead, Mečiar captured enough votes to give him a realistic chance of winning the second, winner-takes-all round on May 29: enough support, also, to leave his HZDS party mates talking about a steady upward trend in HZDS popularity since 1994.

It is not insignificant that Mečiar's popularity has risen in lockstep with a decline in living standards over the same period. Slovakia's transformation into a market economy has exacted a steadily growing toll on the old and the uneducated - the very voters who turn out at the polls to support the HZDS, the same who demonstrate so lustily every day in front of the Government Office and call Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda a "child killer" for allowing NATO to cross Slovak territory on its way to bombing Yugoslavia.

Mečiar is, above all, a symbol. He represents the past - the communist regime which took care of the material needs of all Slovaks, including the vulnerable. In his charismatic person, he represents a strength and a shield, a protection that many people feel they need against the merciless logic of market capitalism. Under Mečiar, the economy grew at a lusty rate, offering jobs and subsidised heating to those who would find neither in a normally-functioning market economy. In voting for Mečiar on May 15, many Slovaks were also registering their profound disagreement that political freedom was worth economic misery.

People who cast their votes against Mečiar have always tended to be educated and young - precisely those who stood to profit from democracy and a market economy. Mečiar and his HZDS cohorts stifled them, held at a distance the Promised Land where talent and ambition were rewarded.

The tale of Mečiar, and his defeat at the hands of the current reformist government last year, is the tale of Slovakia's struggle with its own transformation.

Foreign investors watching this transformation and how Slovak citizens feel about it have chosen Mečiar as a convenient target on which to pin their frustrations. "People [investors] just want him out of there. His name just turns them off," said one analyst with a foreign bank before the results of the May 15 election were known. A Bratislava brokerage firm reports that most of its foreign clients have put their portfolio investments "on hold" until they know the outcome of the final round of voting.

Isn't it curious how Mečiar has been demonised! The mention of his very name can depress the Slovak currency, send investors packing, bring the stock exchange to a halt. Talk in pubs has recently featured gloomy reminders of Nostradamus' prediction that the world would come to an end on August 18, 1999.

It's about time that a sense of reality returned to this country and its squeamish potential investors. If Mečiar wins the presidency on May 29 he will not single-handedly return Slovakia to a command economy, nor will he halt this country's inexorable march towards democracy and Drive-Thru Burger Kings. He will simply be a loud reminder that many people are finding it tough to cope on $200 a month, and that capitalism. for all its global adherents, is not any better at producing universal human happiness than other economic systems.

Politically, too, Mečiar's presidential showing was far more important in symbolic than real terms. The ruling coalition has been served warning that people's patience with economic reforms, or the lack of them, is growing thin. Not thin enough to vault Mečiar back into power, perhaps, but at 37%, thin enough to give pause for thought.

Mečiar's success, and the dismal results of all other candidates except Schuster, also put paid to the argument that he had ruined what otherwise would have been a much more democratic event. Mečiar critics had said that by entering the race, Mečiar had ruined the chances of independent candidates like Magda Vášáryová, turning the election into a referendum on himself.

When one remembers, however, that between them, Mečiar and Schuster took over 84% of votes, it is apparent that voters themselves felt strongly about the two men and the different visions they offered. With the economy on the brink of disaster and the ruling coalition dithering over reforms, people have very different opinions about the virtues of opening the economy to the world.

If Vladimír Mečiar wins the presidency on May 29, that in itself will be no disaster for Slovakia - most presidential powers are only symbolic, after all.

But if Mečiar wins, it will mean that more than half of those who voted had turned their backs on economic reform. That is why Mečiar breeds such fear among the government, foreign investors and young Slovaks - it's what he stands for, not what he is.

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