All in favor. Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar (right) unveils his party's electoral strategy at a two day congress in Košice.
"We have no other alternative but to win the elections [set for September 25 and 26]," Mečiar told a press conference shortly before the seventh annual congress of his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) drew to a close. "Our aim is to win half the mandates in Parliament."
Past and present party insiders say that the HZDS's obsession with electoral victory has blinded it to internal divisions and has alienated parts of Slovak society. But the party faithful respond that they are united behind their leader, and that the support of the Slovak electorate will be secured by an electoral program that relies on careful management of its media image and a carrot and stick approach to regional state bodies.
A roaring success
HZDS deputy Eva Zelenayová said the the Košice congress, attended by 418 party voting members and 250 domestic and foreign guests, proved that "currently the HZDS is perfectly consolidated." During the weekend meeting, Mečiar was re-elected as HZDS Chairman, while Augustin Marian Huska, former Finance Minister Sergei Kozlík and the unknown Milan Topoli were confirmed as party vice-chairmen.
Ivan Mjartan, Slovakia's ambassador to the Czech Republic, said that "I was sitting at the congress and assessing the discussion, and I can fully confirm the movement's cohesiveness. There is no sign of any internal tension."
Mjartan's assertions notwithstanding, the party has recently been undergoing a change of the guard. Following Mečiar's assumption of presidential powers on March 2, party vice chairman Olga Keltošová was confirmed as Slovakia's ambassador to the United Nations. Long-time HZDS spokesman Vladimír Hagara resigned his post on April 14, saying that he would continue to be involved in "media policy".
More significantly, Arpád Matejka, the 1991 co-founder of the HZDS, told The Slovak Spectator on April 16 that he would not run as a HZDS candidate in September's elections, and that he would give up his post of party vice-chairman at the Košice conference.
Citing disappointment with his party's privatization policy, and with its failure to win EU membership for Slovakia, Matejka said that "I am speaking a little bit against some of the ideas of the HZDS, but I spend time among ordinary people, and am not used to painting rosy pictures, especially if they are not supported by reality. Many voters are disappointed with the social and economic development of our republic."
Pressed for specifics, Matejka added that "property should not be concentrated in the hands of a few individuals...one person should not have 20 to 30 factories."
Irena Belohorská, vice-chairman of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, was inclined to be philosophical about Matejka's departure. "The last four years have been characterized by really good relations within the HZDS," she said, "but I don't think it's good when people who have different opinions just hang on to their functions." Matejka was probably just tired of political life, she said, and could be "simply substituted with someone else who might bring a fresh approach."
Consitutional Affairs Committee vice chairman Dušan Macuška was less generous, saying to Radio Twist on April 17 that Matejka "had more ambition than talent. He knew that as a candidate for [party] vice chairman he wouldn't win, so he withdrew his application." Matejka, for his part, did not attend the second day of the Košice meeting.
HZDS politicians returned from Košice vowing to get tough with Slovak journalists. Culture Minister Ivan Hudec told delegates on April 26 that the government had prepared new law on media aimed at the publication of misleading information. "Sometimes, it cannot be called information because it is an expression of such opinions which are not based on facts," Hudec said. "Basically, they are private opinions often breaching the rights of individuals and legal entities."
The government's amendment to Slovakia's election law, now in second reading in Parliament, already contains a provision that would restrict the broadcast or publication of political information during the election campaign to state owned television and radio stations. "[Private] media today have the ambition to create politics, not only to report the facts," said Mjartan. "[The election law amendment] is designed to prevent people's opinion from being moulded by one political party through private and partisan television [stations]."
Huska, for one, took the HZDS's displeasure with independent media to heart. Approached for an interview by The Slovak Spectator in Parliament, he refused, saying "I'm really quite busy, and anyway, why would I want to talk to [your paper]? You're not objective enough."
HZDS election team chairman Alexander Rezeš told the state TASR news agency on April 27 that the party's 1994 campaign had captured many votes in Slovakia's villages and towns, but that in 1998 the party would focus on larger cities and younger voters. The day before the Košice conference, eight HZDS cabinet members visited eastern Slovak cities to shake hands and drum up support.
But the Slovak Union of Towns and Villages (ÚMO) claimed in a Bratislava protest on March 25 that the HZDS is planning to employ less collegial means in winning regional support. ÚMO leader and Bratislava mayor Peter Kresanek said that a proposed law on municipal government, due to be submitted to Parliament during its May session, "restricts democratic self-government."
Mečiar himself gave evidence of a tougher stance towards municipalities on April 23, when he told Slovak Radio (SRo) that he had cut off state funding for the towns of Sväty Jur and Štúrovo, both of which had held a referendum on April 19 that the government had fiercely opposed. "We will not promote the development of municipalities that disregard the laws of the land," he said. "If they don't feel they are part of this state, let them have no portion of the benefits."
On April 23, nine of 13 Slovak Roman Catholic bishops signed an open letter that was sharply critical of the government (see related story, page 3). Political analysts said the letter indicated a significant level of popular dissatisfaction with the pre-election policies of the HZDS.
HZDS deputy Michal Baranik called the letter "tactless and biased," and said that "if I were a Christian, I'd feel fashamed." But former party deputy František Gauleider said that the bishops had been expressing the fears of a wide spectrum of Slovak society that the HZDS's obsession with victory in September could lead to manipulation of electoral rights. "Personally, I think that there are two options for the HZDS," he said. "Either they win the elections, or they manipulate them."
"In 1994 we were written off (in the polls)," said Mečiar. "Everything will be different (in September)."