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Toughest challenge for Mečiar

FINANCIAL TIMES, Tuesday, October 28, 1997
Vladimír Mečiar, as prime minister, has dominated Slovakia since the state's birth almost five years ago, and faces his toughest challenge next year with opinion polls showing he has little hope of winning re-election against a resurgent opposition coalition.
But it would be a brave observer who would bet on Mr. Mečiar's losing. Three times prime minister, he has been stripped of power twice, neither time at the ballot box, and he has always bounced back. He remains the country's most popular and masterful politician, with an instinctive grasp of rural nationalist opinion and a flair for political manoeuvring.

FINANCIAL TIMES, Tuesday, October 28, 1997

Vladimír Mečiar, as prime minister, has dominated Slovakia since the state's birth almost five years ago, and faces his toughest challenge next year with opinion polls showing he has little hope of winning re-election against a resurgent opposition coalition.

But it would be a brave observer who would bet on Mr. Mečiar's losing. Three times prime minister, he has been stripped of power twice, neither time at the ballot box, and he has always bounced back. He remains the country's most popular and masterful politician, with an instinctive grasp of rural nationalist opinion and a flair for political manoeuvring.

The opinion poll rating of the HZDS has fallen from its 35 percent support at the last election to about 26 percent but one or both of its allied parties - the Workers' Party (ZRS) and the extreme Slovak National Party (SNS) - could fail to pass the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament. Instead, Mr. Mečiar may have to reach an agreement with the former communist SDĽ, which is running at about 11 percent support in the polls. It is split between traditional and progressive wings which have said that they will only cooperate with "democratic elements" in the HZDS and not Mr. Mečiar or his associates, or with the SNS. Brigita Schmognerová, vice-chairwoman of the party and one of the leaders of the progressive wing, says: "The probability of governing with HZDS is close to zero," but, unlike the other opposition parties, the SDĽ is taking part in round-table negotiations with the government.

It is also being wooed by the new center-right Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) which came together in August after the referendum campaign. Its largest parties are the Christian Democratic KDH and the liberal Democratic Union, but it also includes the right-wing Democratic party, the Greens and the Social Democrats.

The SDK is running 6 points ahead of the HZDS in the polls but suffers from the lack of a prime ministerial candidate. Its constituent parties have buried differences by agreeing to choose a prime minister after the election but have appointed Mikuláš Dzurinda, a senior Christian Democrat, as their spokesman. If he makes a success of the job, the premiership may be his.

The other difficulty for the SDK is that it is still drawing up its program and critics claim little unites it apart from hostility to Mr. Mečiar. Jan Čarnogursky, leader of the KDH, disagrees: "As the government progresses it may develop differences but it has two or three years' work to do that it agrees on."

The SDK is also preparing a public agreement with the three ethnic Hungarian parties, which always win about 9 percent of the vote, and is ready to offer them seats in the government. But the HZDS has already begun using this against the SDK because Slovaks have bad memories of Hungarian domination until 1920 and the way that Hungary seized parts of the country before the second world war.

Mr. Mečiar is likely to maximize his advantage by modifying the electoral system, a move which only requires a simple majority in the parliament. A change from proportional representation to a British first-past-the-post system has been vetoed by the small parties in the governing coalition but a German mixed system or a move to a national list PR system (with Mr. Mečiar 's name on every ballot paper) look quite possible.

It is also clear that the election will be a bitterly fought one, given the country's low level of political tolerance. The opposition is already worried about proposed changes to the electoral commission and is demanding monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It is hoped that these fears are groundless, and that the election will cement Slovakia's democratic credentials. But if they have some justification, it may confirm the serious doubts that the EU and Nato clearly have about the country's political maturity.

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