A long last look. Slovak voters bade goodbye to their favorite politicians until after the polls closed on September 26.
The campaign pitted the free-spending and ostentatious Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) of Premier Vladimír Mečiar against lower-profile opposition parties like Mikuláš Dzurinda's centre-right Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) and Rudolf Schuster's centre-left Party of Civic Understanding (SOP). Representatives of all parties said that the results of the September 25-26 vote would determine the future of the country for decades to come.
As the late afternoon shadows lengthened on the final day on the hustings, Mečiar and Dzurinda went head to head in Bratislava at cross-town rallies. "I have no doubt that we will win these elections," Mečiar told about 4,000 supporters at a HZDS rally in the partially empty Pasienky sports hall. "Unfortunately we seem to be alone, but we are more powerful than anybody else." A final pre-election poll released by the independent MVK agency on September 11 gave the HZDS 27.6% support, highest of any party.
"We will win," said SDK leader Dzurinda to around 10,000 party faithful on sunny SNP square. Eduard Kukan, leader of one of the SDK's five member parties, said after the rally that the SDK's "realistic expectations are for 28% support. But even if we do not win, the opposition altogether will have more support than Mečiar." The MVK poll gave the SDK 23%, and put the combined opposition at 58%.
The SOP (15.3%) and the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS - 6.3%) chose to deliver their final messages in the northern Slovak town of Žilina. Schuster's SOP drew fewer than 100 people to a large, windswept amphitheatre, leaving party functionaries muttering to each other about a "catastrophe."
The SNS, Mečiar's ruling coalition partner, fared better than their opposition rivals, attracting 1,000 people to Žilina's main town square. First vice chairperson Anna Malíková entertained the crowd with fulminations against the "parasites" - Gypsies, Hungarians and the unemployed - that "infest" Slovakia. "Whoever doesn't want to work shouldn't eat," seconded SNS vice Chairman Viťasoslav Móric.
The final rallies of the campaign brought to an end a bitter slanging match over the style as well as the substance of the different parties' electoral pitches. The HZDS approach, which focused on the infrastructure and economic triumphs of the past four years, has been slammed by the opposition parties as bombastic and wasteful.
The party managed to coax international stars like German supermodel Claudia Schiffer and French actor Gerard Depardieu to attend political rallies and state functions in September. While the HZDS maintained it had not broken Slovakia's campaign spending laws in wooing the stars, the Slovak media, political opposition and many citizens said that millions of crowns had been thrown away on empty posing.
"Four years ago, I voted for Mečiar," said Žilina cab driver Tibor Kubiš, "but not this time. He is just throwing money intothe Danube [River] at a time went ordinary people barely have enough money to eat or buy medicine."
But Mečiar's Bratislava audience received with enthusiasm yet another series of jokes about the HZDS leader's new acquaintances, Schiffer and Italian actress Claudia Cardinale. "I had dinner with Cardinale, and because of the beautiful atmosphere, it lasted until 2:30 in the morning," said Mečiar. HZDS vice chairman Ivan Gašparovič then warned the Premier, "don't tell everyone how late you stayed up with Cardinale, or you'll be summoned before the American Congress."
The SDK, which campaigned on a platform stressing respect for the constitution and conformity with European Union political norms, has taken blows from both government and opposition parties for its electoral tactics. Leader Dzurinda's bicycle tour of the country was ridiculed by the HZDS as cheap showmanship. The SDK's reaction to the struggle for the ownership of private TV Markíza, meanwhile, brought the party a thinly-veiled warning from Mečiar. Elections might be cancelled, the Premier said, if the SDK continued to appeal for public protests against HZDS meddling with the media.
The SOP's Schuster also had some short words for Dzurinda, alleging that the SDK had grown "arrogant" in the past few weeks. "They are already celebrating as if they were the winners," he told his followers, "but they are nothing without the support of the SOP."