Sunday, April 25: Former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar appears on the private station TV Markíza to discuss his presidential ambitions, as well as a host of sensitive topics left over from his almost six years in power. At the conclusion of the show, known as "Na Telo," the two Markíza reporters approached Mečiar to shake his hand. Somehow, their microphones were left on, and captured the accolades of the interviewers.
"You were very energetic today, Mr. Mečiar," said reporter Soňa Bullová. "You played it very well," added Vladimír Repčík.
Mečiar, in fact, played his Markíza grilling with the skill and charisma that kept him at the top of Slovak politics from 1991 to 1998. He looked like a different man from the manic, self-pitying character who crooned a song to viewers on his last television appearance after being voted out of office in September last year. His eyes were caged, his replies voluble and comprehensive, his smile derisory. He was in top form, and left one doubting whether this was the same Mečiar whose authoritarian brand of politics made Slovakia a pariah among western democracies.
So, does Mečiar really stand a chance of winning the presidency during direct elections on May 15? According to the latest polls, the answer is no. With 24% support, he trails Košice mayor and SOP party boss Rudolf Schuster by 12 points, and unless Mečiar can make converts of the voters who shunned him seven months ago, Schuster will win by a comfortable margin.
But that verdict, of course, relies on the accuracy of the polls, and more crucially, on Slovak voters turning out in sufficient strength to lift Schuster to the presidency.
Last September, over 84% of Slovak voters turned out to elect a new government. That splendid showing won the praise of international observers, and sparked not a little pride among Slovaks themselves. The danger now is, however, that voters will not show up in the same numbers to elect their president - that they will feel they have already done their democratic duty and now can safely ignore politics for a season.
A recent programme on TV Markíza underlined all too clearly that ordinary people have only the faintest idea of who is actually running for president, and only slightly more interest in the elections themselves. This bodes ill for Schuster and well for Mečiar, for the supporters of Mečiar's HZDS party have always been conscientious when it came to showing up at the polls. If, as it appears likely, Schuster and Mečiar finish one-two in the first round of presidential voting, with neither capturing more that 50% support, then both advance to a second round run-off where the biggest vote-getter takes the presidency. And if the same people who stormed the polls in 1998 neglect their duty in 1999, Mečiar stands a very real chance of winning.
A Mečiar victory would not be in Slovakia's best interests, to put it mildly. One could expect amnesties to be issued in the first few days in the Kováč Jr. kidnapping and marred 1997 referendum cases, and then at least three and a half years of executive stalemate with the current government, including ministerial and diplomatic appointments.
Even if he does not win, however, Mečiar has changed the face of the presidential race just by entering it. Before Mečiar announced his candidacy on April 9, voters had a choice between Schuster, who is supported by the coalition government, and independent candidates like former actress Magda Vášáryová and former President Michal Kováč. Vášáryová, in fact, has 18% support, and would have been Schuster's main rival had the pugilistic Mečiar not thrown his hat in the ring.
But by joining the race, Mečiar has turned it into a referendum on himself - on whether or not people want him back after booting him out of power last year. He has thus neatly scuppered the chances of the other independent candidates, since people who don't vote for Mečiar are now less likely to "waste a vote" on anyone not likely to defeat the former Prime Minister.
Win or lose, Mečiar is back - that much was clear on TV Markíza last weekend as he fielded the ill-prepared and impertinent questions put to him by reporters Bullová and Repčík. He's back, and only a solid turn-out on May 15 will send him packing. And even then, as a loser, he will have done more to influence the course of elections than any of the other candidates.
He's a tough man to ignore.