After ten months of trailing in the polls to its biggest opposition rival, the SDK, Premier Vladimír Mečiar's HZDS is firmly back in the driver's seat. Recent opinion polls by two independent agencies, Focus and MVK, revealed that the HZDS has established a stable lead over the SDK. While the former agency put the gap at 1.4 percent, the latter reported a divide of 8 percent. There are two basic reasons for why the HZDS's reemergence.
The first one is clearly the result of the SDK's clumsy handling of a scandal that erupted after a colleague of the party's former campaign manager was accused of attempting to bribe journalists to write favorable stories on the SDK. Both agencies clearly used this event, which leaked to the public on May 28, as the catalyst to launch a new round of poll-taking. Focus carried out its survey between June 2 and 10, and therefore recorded only the disgust of SDK voters with the affair. The MVK survey, conducted between June 8 and 14, most probably managed to register also voters' abomination with the way SDK's leaders handled the defamation.
All Mikuláš Dzurinda, the SDK leader, was able to say in his reaction to both polls' results, was that "the SDK is saddened" - truly a leader-like reaction. And all the SDK leadership was willing to do in its response to having squandered a 12 percent lead from last October was to appoint a new campaign manager and declare that "the SDK is off to a new start."
Dzurinda often presents himself to the public as an avid runner. Well, then he should know that it's way too late to get off the starting blocks when your opponent is already halfway down the stretch. And what a start it was.
Mečiar has unleashed a truly untamed campaign that uses gimmicks - some of which would have been unlawful in democratic societies. Be it hoisting the HZDS flag on the summit of Mount Everest, forcing the Czech soccer champions to wear HZDS jerseys during a promotional soccer game, or blatantly illegal acts such as the unauthorized flyby of military helicopters two hundred meters above a packed stadium of 15,000 - these all demonstrate two things: first, that the HZDS leader apparently is determined to win the elections regardless of what it takes; second, that despite all the transgressions and flagrant fouls, he is still the master of the election campaign game.
A charismatic leader who was a member of the Czechoslovak Communist Youth Association when former Russian President Nikita Khrustchev took off his shoe at the United Nations' Assembly and hammered it on the podium to make his arguments stronger, Mečiar has learned everything about unorthodox ways of appearance. And appearance is all he needs to rule opinion polls in this country.
Pavel Haulík, MVK Director, said in an interview for the Pravda daily that the only reason why the HZDS was trailing the SDK by 12 percent last October, was because Mečiar was out of sight, undergoing treatment at a spa in Piešťany. "As soon as Mečiar doesn't appear in public, HZDS preferences drop by 5 percent," Haulík said.
Now that Mečiar has begun to communicate with the public, his powerful confidence doesn't leave his voters - and many of those still undecided - with a single reason to doubt that he is going to take his fourth straight championship. As every sports fan knows, it's precisely confidence that is the virtue of a true champion and the first precondition to becoming one.
Compared to Mečiar's campaign, the SDK looks like a bunch of amateurs. Ľudovít Černák, SDK's new campaign manager, announced that the coalition is preparing to launch a brand new campaign this month, featuring Dzurinda riding his bicycle across Slovakia and "representing a new image of the SDK voter as a hard-working sportsman," as Černák put it. Imagine an intellectual-looking guy getting off his bike in some godforesaken backwater village in Eastern Slovakia, all sweaty and smelly, harvesting scores of votes? Tour de Loser sounds more like it...
Given this state of affairs, one cannot be really surprised that even those who would never vote for Mečiar don't doubt that he will prevail eventually. According to Haulík, almost 50 percent of Slovaks - twice as many as those who said would vote for Mečiar - believe that HZDS will win the elections. Any questions?