MEČIAR, left, and Gašparovič have been flying the same political colours for eight years.
photo: Peter Brenkus
The tone of the party's approach to the West, which has criticised its performance in the 1994-1998 government, was sounded by Mečiar's accusation against Great Britain that the UK was trying to isolate Slovakia within Europe just as "they once abandoned us to Hitler, once to Stalin".
Many western diplomats have said that if the HZDS returns to power this fall Slovakia's path to Nato and the EU could be barred.
The HZDS chairman also alleged, in his address to the congress reprinted in the opposition paper Nový deň, that while Madeleine Albright had been US Secretary of State, "there existed a certain form of antipathy to the fact that Slovakia was an independent state."
As for the party's stance on Nato and EU membership, "the HZDS is the party which laid the basis of integration... at a time when other parties didn't believe in integration." The West's doubts about the HZDS' belief in democratic principles were not raised by its thwarting a 1997 referendum on Nato entry but, Mečiar said, by the "systematic work" of current ruling coalition officials to discredit the party abroad.
But it was actions as much as words last weekend which left the impression of the HZDS as an incorrigibly authoritarian party. Mečiar, acting under party statutes changed in 2000 to give him greater say over internal appointments, put together and forced through a list of candidates for 2002 elections that apparently angered many in the party. Not only did he lobby for party newcomer Diana Dubovská to be given a prime spot on the election ticket, he dropped party stalwarts such as Oľga Keltošová and Ivan Gašparovič, and prevented the congress from discussing proposals to have Gašparovič included in favour of other candidates.
It's not that this was anything new for the HZDS, which has always been entirely founded on the charisma of Mečiar, and which has always been subject to his whims. The HZDS chairman seems to change his closest colleagues about once every two years, and similar purges happened in 1998 and in 2000. The reason seems to have been several rebellions Mečiar faced from his own party faithful (the departure of Milan Kňažko in 1992, the apostasy of Michal Kováč in 1994), and the effect this disloyalty has had on Mečiar's political approach.
Nor is the belly-aching of HZDS members truly different from the past, when one remembers that the thwarted 1997 Nato referendum brought about the resignation of the Mečiar government's Foreign Minister, Pavol Hamžík, or that the 2000 Trnava congress purge of HZDS deputy chairmen brought much seditious muttering from the now banished Keltošová.
What is truly amazing is that the party has changed so little after four years in opposition, after so much western criticism and apparent domestic political isolation. Equally incredible is that a man who accuses the UK of abandoning Slovaks to fascism and communism, while in the same breath calling his party the guarantor of western integration - that this man still commands the political support of almost every third Slovak.
The only possible explanation for these apparent paradoxes is the power of Mečiar as a man, politician and mythical force. It's the HZDS' bad luck that this power attracts sycophants when the party most needs integrity, just as it's the country's misfortune that Mečiar's charisma is still distracting the HZDS from credible opposition politics.