Not so long ago, Slovak political analysts were telling anyone who would listen that Vladimír Mečiar and the HZDS had two choices regarding the September elections - they had either to win or to manipulate the results of the vote. Losing was not an option, in part because it would mean that Mečiar could no longer protect his friends and supporters from political retribution.
Foreign observers stationed in Slovakia bought this line, for the most part, and began to pay very close attention to what was happening in Parliament. The new national and municipal election laws and the disposition of presidential powers came under a microscope, and generated endless communiqués and finger-wagging from foreign governments.
And as the warnings and pressure mounted on the Mečiar government - to stage a free and fair vote, to invite OSCE observers, to treat opposition parties fairly - the likelihood that the HZDS would manipulate the vote, if it had ever existed in the first place, dropped to virtually nil. By its very intensity, the foreign and domestic scrutiny forced the HZDS to seek victory through its campaign alone. And what a campaign it promises to be.
Although parties are not officially allowed to begin campaigning until August 26, the HZDS has been de facto on the hustings for at least a month.
The party's July 18 nomination convention in Trnava attracted an estimated 20,000 participants and was staged with the kind of bombast usually reserved for third world military dictators. It was estimated by the Czech daily Mlada fronta dnes to have cost as much as opposition parties will spend on their entire campaigns.
A petition drive, launched nationwide by the HZDS on July 26, aimed to generate 400,000 signatures by August 10. Seeking to ban the privatization of state gas and electricity companies, the petition will not bind parliament to enact any legislation to that effect, but did give the HZDS a good excuse to go knocking on doors and setting up booths on bustling city squares.
The Donar advertising agency, run by Mečiar supporter Fedor Flašík, says it has more than 20 different billboard ads for the HZDS already up and running around Slovakia. The campaign theme portrays Slovakia as "the country of your heart," and features inspiring pictures of mountains and villages, including the now-infamous picture of the HZDS flag on Everest. Even though Flašík was caught by the Slovak press using a picture of Switzerland he found on the Internet and air-brushing the High Tatras into the background ("write what you want, it's all crap, it makes me laugh," said the beleaguered Flašík to the daily Sme on August 7), the Donar billboards are far superior to those of the opposition SDK, which feature a woodenly smiling Mikulaš Dzurinda grasping the hands of his various colleagues and promising to remain "together for a better Slovakia."
During the first week of August, several well-known cultural figures came forward and said they had been contacted by the HZDS through its election campaign chief, Alexander Rezeš, and his mammoth VSŽ company. Lucie Bílá, a famous Czech pop singer, said that she had been offered "millions" of crowns to promote the HZDS, but had refused because "I want to be able to look in the mirror every morning." The popular Slovak band Senzus reported that it had turned down 7 million crowns for touting the premier and his entourage. Although Slovak law limits parties to spending 12 million crowns on their campaigns, the HZDS looks set to shell out many times that amount in pre-campaign hype alone.
Whatever its campaign eventually costs the HZDS, it will be money well spent, because it looks increasingly likely that prying foreign eyes will be allowed into voting stations and vote count rooms in September. During the July 30 visit to Slovakia of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, Mečiar invited Italian observers to watch the elections, and said he would be contacting other European leaders with the same request. Some international observers are interpreting that invitation as valid for one and all, and say they will be running parallel vote counts to guage the accuracy of the declared results. All of which means that Mečiar, Flašík, Rezeš and co. must stake everything on an overwhelming and relentless campaign, and leave nothing to chance on September 26.
13. Aug 1998 at 0:00