United they stand. Over 30,000 people crammed Bratislava's Námestie SNP to protest the government's election law proposal.
Meeting on the 10th anniversary of a candle-light rally for religious freedoms - the first anti-regime demonstration in post-1968 communist Czechoslovakia - the crowd cheered vigorous denunciations of the government and calls for fair elections by former President Michal Kováč and leaders of the biggest opposition bloc, the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK).
Kováč spoke at length of "the desire of millions of citizens for freedom and for lives of human dignity." These desires, he said, were being frustrated by the government. "Now we are facing the arrogance and intolerance of the ruling power," he continued, "and fear and skepticism is growing among the people."
The biggest cheers of the afternoon were reserved for Mikuláš Dzurinda, the SDK's official spokesman. Vladimír Palko, the KDH Vice-Chairman who chaired the event, introduced Dzurinda as "our leader," drawing a roar of approval from the crowd. Dzurinda vowed that if the government's controversial election law proposal were passed by Parliament, the five-party SDK coalition would go to the polls as a single party. "We can only win together," he said.
For many protesters, the demonstration was a chance to show their anger with four years of government under Premier Vladimír Mečiar. Ladislav Bartek, a 38 year-old laborer from the western Slovak town of Dubnica nad Váhom, said that for him the election bill had simply been the last straw.
"I came here today to show my disgust with this government, which is terrorizing this nation with its laws," he said. "Ordinary people are being oppressed; there is no freedom here." When asked if he thought Slovakia needed a new election law, he replied "we don't need any new law. Until now we have complied with the old one. It should be said that changing the law a few hours before the election will allow the government to win. It's a dictatorship here, and I don't agree with it."
Not-so-Silent Night. Singing hymns and shouting anti-government chants, a crowd of thousands assembled on Hviezdoslavovo námestie to commemorate the first anti-Communist protest.
Milan Krupčík, Plus 7 dní
Speakers at the rally predicted that the petition drive would be finished before Parliament's May session. Kováč, the petition committee chairman, expressed his belief that "at the end of our effort, we will be able to announce one million [signatures]" Last year's petition in favour of direct election of the President gathered over half a million signatures.
The petition drive got off to a strong start on the square, where up to 10,000 people signed it. Tatiana Dubníčková, a 22 year-old student from Púchov, said the ultimate success of the drive "depends on the strength of the Slovak people, and how they will resist this law. But I believe in people's common sense, and I believe we will win."
After 90 minutes of speeches, demonstrators lit candles and paraded to Hviezdoslavovo námestie, the square that had been the scene of the brutal suppression of 1988's peaceful protest by the Communist regime.
Now as then, religious songs were sung and candles cupped against the wind. But this time, the quiet hymns were punctuated by anti-government chants. "Enough of Mečiar," the crowd shouted, voicing its disappointment that eight years of democracy have not led to greater social and political harmony.
9. Apr 1998 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson