At the Bratislava headquarters of Slovakia's largest political party, Premier Vladimír Mečiar's HZDS, it was business as usual on August 26, the start of the official election campaign. Campaign manager and press officer Ivan Mjartan said that the party was not planning any special events to mark the event: "It's not necessary, because the Slovak election campaign began a long time before the official start," he said.
The HZDS campaign has indeed been a quiet affair. Although over 30 groups of party deputies and officials are presently touring Slovakia and appearing at rallies, the HZDS does not distribute schedules of these meetings to journalists, and refers all requests for information to a daily planner printed in the government daily Slovenská Republika.
According to Mjartan, the HZDS's quiescent approach to the campaign was part of the plan. "It will be peaceful," he said, adding that the HZDS would only resort to tougher tactics if forced to do so by the opposition, "which is very aggressive and keeps sniping at us."
There are signs, however, that a tougher response is in the works. Mečiar's party has covered Slovakia with its billboards as has every other political party in the country, but has complained that its advertisements are being vandalised by the opposition. The party's campaign manager in Košice, Štefan Demeter, said the vulgar graffiti being sprayed on the HZDS billboards "are simply disgusting things representing the opposition."
Mjartan confirmed that the HZDS is prepared to respond to aggressive opposition tactics. On August 25, at the party's Bratislava headquarters, thousands of leaflets with caricatures of opposition politicians and crude jokes were stacked up in piles, each bearing the name of a village or town to which they were to be distributed. "Look, we are prepared for everything," Mjartan said. "Their distribution depends on what the opposition does. We will have to defend ourselves by the same means which they use."
Martin Lengyel, spokesman for the biggest opposition party, the SDK, said he "did not know of the existence of the HZDS leaflets." But SDK press agent Pavol Prikryl said that his party would not be guilty of provocation. "If Mečiar's party uses the leaflets under the conditions that Mjartan presented, then we do not have to worry about them ever being used," he said.
A certain amount of political gamesmanship has already occured during the pre-election campaign. The opposition daily Sme proved that the HZDS had been superimposing Slovak mountain peaks on a picture of the Swiss countryside on its election billboards, and then passing the collage off as a typical Slovak scene. Mjartan did not take the accusation lying down. "If we have a small piece of Swiss lawn, that is a problem," he agreed, but then turned his scorn on an SDK campaign ad featuring a picture of diminutive SDK leader Mikulaš Dzurinda shaking hands with the hulking Slovak hockey star Peter Šťastný. In the picture, the two men are the same height. "The fact that the SDK presents Dzurinda as being as tall as the hockey player Peter Šťastný, that's an illusion as well," said Mjartan.
But Mjartan insisted that the HZDS would continue to observe the rules of the campaign, no matter what the opposition did. "The 12 million crowns [campaign spending limit] will be kept by all means," he said, adding that the HZDS had a lot of sponsoring, and lives on contributions from its membership.
In the end, Mjartan said, the election would come down to the party with the best program, and should not be a vote for or against Mečiar or a choice between Mečiar and Dzurinda. "These two men are incomparable," he said. "While they have been in politics, what have they each done for Slovakia? But the elections also cannot be a plebiscite in which people will be either for or against Mečiar."
Mjartan said that it was crucial that voters consider the program presented by each party. "People should vote with their minds open, and not submit to the pressure, that with Mečiar Slovakia cannot be democratic and Europe will be against us," he said.
Nor was the HZDS preparing any special tactics for the last hours before elections. "We have no bombastic plans as the [opposition] daily Pravda has reported. Our meetings are scheduled, and we will make minor changes, but nothing extraordinary will happen," said Mjartan.
The quiet confidence of the HZDS election team derives from its faith in Mečiar. "We have a great leader, very active and with great charisma. Nobody can manage as many meetings as Mečiar can. But we also do not want to make our rivals look small. We want a fair game, and we want them to give us a chance as well," said Mjartan.