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NOMINATION CONGRESS FOR SEPTEMBER ELECTIONS SEES WELL-KNOWN FACES BANISHED FROM PARTY CANDIDATES LIST

Mečiar shakes up HZDS ranks

VLADIMÍR Mečiar got what he wanted at a congress of his opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party - a list of candidates for September elections that drops some of the party's top members from its line-up, and gives the HZDS a more youthful, if less familiar appearance.
Revamping the party came at a price, with one prominent member leaving the HZDS following its July 5 congress in western Slovakia's Nitra, and another calling the meeting "a farce".
But HZDS chairman Mečiar, who has led the party since its founding in 1991, managed to steer the almost 300 delegates away from making changes to the candidates list he had prepared by threatening that if alterations were made, the party would not contest the elections. At one point he could be heard screaming at party members through closed doors.


FORMER SPEAKER of Parliament Ivan Gašparovič was disappointed not to be running for September elections.
photo: TASR

VLADIMÍR Mečiar got what he wanted at a congress of his opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party - a list of candidates for September elections that drops some of the party's top members from its line-up, and gives the HZDS a more youthful, if less familiar appearance.

Revamping the party came at a price, with one prominent member leaving the HZDS following its July 5 congress in western Slovakia's Nitra, and another calling the meeting "a farce".

But HZDS chairman Mečiar, who has led the party since its founding in 1991, managed to steer the almost 300 delegates away from making changes to the candidates list he had prepared by threatening that if alterations were made, the party would not contest the elections. At one point he could be heard screaming at party members through closed doors.

"You heard that? I was angry," he told a press conference afterwards.

"For God's sake, this is how it is: candidates lists have to be submitted by July 17, and the nomination congress is July 6. If these people [delegates] aren't capable of coming to agreement, I'm not going to accept any other functionaries. Who would prepare a new candidates list? That would result in the resignation of all top [HZDS] officials. That was the reason for the raised voice."

The raised voice, and the uncompromising manner in which Mečiar wrote the party's election script, was a sign to political analyst Michal Ivantyšyn of the Inštitút pre verejne otázky (Institute for Public Affairs - IVO) think tank that the HZDS, Slovakia's most popular political party, remained a one-man band.

"The way in which the candidates list was formed was unusual for the HZDS. The party chairman tried to change some of his close colleagues in the parliamentary caucus, but this change was not the result of a general agreement. Once again we saw that the HZDS is the party of one man," said Ivantyšyn.

Gone from the HZDS line-up for September elections are former Speaker of Parliament Ivan Gašparovič, former Labour Minister Oľga Keltošová, former Deputy Prime Minister Katarína Tóthová, and various other members of parliament now sitting for the HZDS. The party's caucus now has an average age of 62.

"The way in which the candidates list was decided was dishonourable, truly dishonourable," said Marta Aibeková, another long-time HZDS MP who was dropped. "No one thanked or even shook the hands of members who had held the caucus together."

Gašparovič seemed particularly shocked to be left off the list, as in political support polls he has consistently been the HZDS' second most trusted figure behind Mečiar. After proposals by two district HZDS branches to drop their candidates from the list in favour of Gašparovič were thrust aside by Mečiar, the former dismissed the congress as "a fiasco".

Gašparovič added the HZDS chairman had no reason to fear that he aspired to the leadership of the party. "Fear has big eyes, but I don't know why," he said.

Beyond securing the election roster he was after, Mečiar used the congress to speak of the party's aims in the coming elections, as well as to deliver a message to the HZDS' foreign critics.

Many western diplomats have said that if the HZDS returns to government after the elections, Slovakia may not be invited to join Nato and the EU as it hopes later this year.

The country was already dropped once from entry talks to both alliances in 1997 after some actions of the 1994-1998 Mečiar government were judged to be undemocratic.

But the HZDS, since opposing the Nato campaign in Yugoslavia in 1999, has since made integration its main declared priority, and has said western objections to its possible role in the next government are unfounded.

"It has been said of us that we have changed our rhetoric but not our actions," the HZDS leader said. "Only people who don't want to see [the truth] could say such a thing. The HZDS is put in the position as if its participation in the next government would be a barrier to integration, and that if people from the HZDS are in the government, there will be no integration. That's not a reason, that's a pretence.

"It is unacceptable that the HZDS should have to further accept... that while we were in government everything was bad, and that this no longer even has to be proven," said Mečiar.

At some points in his speech to delegates, Mečiar seemed to take a more aggressive tone with foreign diplomats than the HZDS has used to date. Claiming that Great Britain had promised to block Slovakia's EU entry bid if the US vetoed its Nato entry, Mečiar said of the UK that "it's tough to listen to such decisions... things have to be seen in their historical context, if the decision is correct, if a country which once abandoned us to Hitler, once abandoned us to Stalin, can take a third decision in this historical period to try and isolate us from integration processes within Europe."

On the other hand, some of the new names to be found on the candidates list were seen as a sign the HZDS was trying to present a more conciliatory face.

Diana Dubovská, a young, multi-lingual independent MP who only last week joined the HZDS caucus, was given 33rd spot on the list, virtually guaranteeing her a seat in parliament after September. Mečiar explained that Dubovská, a former air stewardess, had been favoured "because she has contacts to certain influential groups that could aid our integration ambitions".

In response, Peter Novotný, a former economist and regional branch director for the HZDS, quit the party on July 9 in protest at Dubovská's inclusion despite the fact she had been a party member for less than a year, which Novotný said violated HZDS internal rules.

Political analyst Juraj Marušiak, of the state-run Slovak Academy of Sciences, said that in placing political moderates such as Dubovská at 33, former Labour Minister Vojtech Tkáč at number 5 or former Deputy Economy Minister Jozef Brhel at number 25, "Mečiar is creating the impression that he is leaving the back door open [to political compromise]."

The analyst added, however, that in leaving controversial figures such as former secret service counter-espionage head Rudolf Žiak and spa privatiser Viliam Soboňa high on the list, Mečiar had signalled that "after elections the HZDS could return to its confrontational approach."

Declaring the party sought to reduce corruption, increase domestic political stability and secure western integration - "our fundamental basic goal" - Mečiar vowed the HZDS would win elections and form part of its next government by encouraging political "reconciliation".

"It didn't work with me [in government], it hasn't worked without me," the three-time former PM said. "So what now? We have to find a practical starting-point for the future."

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