THE MOVEMENT for Democracy (HZD) has emerged quickly as a political force since its July founding, but has done little to distance its politics from those of Vladimír Mečiar's opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party, says a political analyst.
While the HZD zoomed in August to seven per cent support in some polls, Mečiar's HZDS tumbled to below 20 per cent for the first time in over a decade, dramatically reshaping the nation's political stage with less than two weeks to go to national elections.
However, observers are still scrambling to understand why the HZD was launched, how it differs from the HZDS, and what role it could play after the September 20-21 ballot.
"The programme differences [between the HZD and HZDS] aren't great," said political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov of the Institute for Public Affairs think tank. "The difference between them has more to do with personalities."
On many key issues, particularly the most notorious political and economic crimes committed under the 1994-1998 Mečiar government, HZD leader Ivan Gašparovič defends the policy of the HZDS, a party he helped found and which he led for 12 years at Mečiar's side.
Corruption, Gašparovič said in a recent interview for TA3 television, "is worse today than it ever was."
Evidence, however, points to the contrary. While sales of state property under the Dzurinda government brought in $2 billion in 2000 alone, more than all foreign investment to date in the nation's history, privatisations under the Mečiar government saw many public assets sold for fractions of their real worth. The government's critics said that cabinet members and their supporters had benefited from the murky deals.
The Nafta Gbely gas storage firm, for example, was sold in 1996 to unknown buyers for one-sixth of its market value.
Overall, the ratio of purchase price to book value for property sold from 1992 to 1994 was over 68 per cent, according to FNM privatisation agency data, while under the third Mečiar government from 1995-1998 it fell to 28 per cent.
The HZD leader has also refused to criticise two blanket amnesties issued by Mečiar in 1998 absolving those behind the kidnapping of the former president's son and the thwarting of a 1997 referendum on Nato membership. These two crimes convinced Western alliances to scratch Slovakia from a list of candidates for early entry.
The amnesties have prevented either crime from being prosecuted.
Instead, Gašparovič has referred to "mistakes" that occurred under the Mečiar government, errors which, if the HZD finds itself in government after September 20-21 elections, "I would never do in the future."
The HZD has also said its left-of-centre platform is a return to the political roots of the HZDS, which began as a leftist force in 1991 only to veer to the right after a national congress in 2000.
"We followed policies that Slovakia needed at the time, but we always sided with socialist principles," said Gašparovič of the HZDS during the early to mid 1990s.
"We are a party of people returning to what [leftist policies] they felt in their very beings," said HZD number three Marta Aibeková, a former HZDS MP, at a press conference on September 3.
Among the HZD's other programme priorities are improving the work of the courts and enforcement of the law, gradually cutting unemployment, preventing criminality and increasing protection for victims, and equality for men and women.
Mesežnikov said that through the HZD Gašparovič was offering HZDS supporters a chance to vote for their traditional representatives without at the same time casting ballots for Mečiar, who has been ostracised both abroad and at home for authoritarian tendencies.
Both Nato and the EU have said Slovakia might not be invited to join their alliances were Mečiar to return to power this fall.
"In the HZD these supporters would be voting for a weaker party, but on the other hand the HZDS has no chance of getting into government with Mečiar," the analyst said.
Mesežnikov added IVO research had shown that HZD supporters tended to be "slightly younger and better educated" than the traditionally rural and poorly schooled HZDS electorate, but that the two voter groups remained very similar.
The HZD's list of top election candidates includes many former HZDS faces such as Poltár Mayor Ján Koršo (number 5 on the list), former HZDS MP Ján Benčat (4), former HZDS district chief in Rimavska Sobota Jozef Šimko (9), and former HZDS district chief in Zlaté Moravce Dušan Smatana (10).
Jozef Grapa, the former central secretary of the HZDS who was fired after organising a disastrously poorly attended referendum on early elections in 2000, is running at number 7 for the HZD.
The apparently close ties between the HZD and HZDS have brought statements from some ruling coalition politicians, including Christian Democrats leader Pavol Hrušovský and Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, that their parties would work with neither grouping after elections.
Mesežnikov, however, said that the HZD could prove attractive as a partner for the left-leaning Smer party of independent MP Robert Fico. Smer narrowly topped three late-August polls after having trailed the HZDS since its 2000 founding.
"For months Smer and Fico have had a formula for post-election cooperation - the HZDS without Mečiar," said the analyst. "Now he's got just that - the HZD."
Gašparovič in early September refused to speculate on whom he might work with after the national ballot, assuming the party crossed the five per cent threshold of support for securing seats in parliament.
Instead, the HZD leader said any political decisions would have to be shaped by Slovakia's desire to enter the European Union and Nato.
"All political parties will have to conduct themselves according to this goal, and all will have to make compromises in their programmes so the new government does not become a barrier to reaching the goal," he said.