GALANTA - LESS THAN TWO months old, the non-parliamentary Movement for Democracy (HZD) party has spent much of its pre-election campaign telling voters how - if at all - it differs from the HZDS bloc it broke away from in July.
At times, such as at this September 5 rally in south Slovakia's Galanta, even HZD members themselves have seemed unconvinced of the singularity of their mission.
For starters, the HZD is led by Ivan Gašparovič, a 12-year close associate of HZDS leader Vladimír Mečiar. Despite the apparent sincerity of Gašparovič's anger at being dropped by Mečiar from the HZDS two months ago, and of his subsequent decision to launch the HZD, political observers have noted the two groups still share many personal and political ties.
"People often ask us whether this isn't just a ploy, and whether we won't unite with the HZDS after elections," said Jozef Grapa, candidate number seven on the HZD list and former central secretary of the HZDS.
"We absolutely reject this. We would disappoint both ourselves and our voters [by re-uniting with the HZDS]. People need to understand this, and we have to explain it to them."
Nevertheless, HZD posters and handouts at the rally bore a "D" logo in the same colours and style as the "S" party symbol used by the HZDS.
HZD election chief Martin Sarvaš admitted that the party's supporters largely fit the demographic profile of HZDS voters.
"Our target group is people with Christian and national values, not too rich. They weren't too well off during the [1998-2002] Dzurinda government. It's a broad spectrum of lower middle class people."
What separated the two parties' backers, he said, were personalities.
"Our supporters don't like the [opposition] Slovak National Party because of its nationalism, and they don't like Mečiar's style of communication and his handling of people."
The Galanta show started off with a performance by the popular Senzus folk-rock group, which in the past has been a mainstay at HZDS campaign rallies.
Later, the crowd was entertained by an impersonator who imitated former President Michal Kováč, who was also the target of HZDS mockery in the 1998 campaign.
Pišta, as the comedian is known, then announced that although Katarína Tóthová, a candidate for the HZDS, had fallen from a horse and hurt her head the previous day, she would nevertheless say a few words. He donned a yellow wig and gave a very credible impression.
Sarvaš said this number always got the best reactions from HZD rally-goers.
The fun was followed by serious talk, as Gašparovič spoke of the changes the HZD proposed to make to the election law, and of giving half of the state budget's income to lower government bodies.
The next speech, by the HZD's Marta Aibeková, was interrupted by heckling from HZDS supporters in the front row.
Sarvaš said it was not the first time HZDS voters had tried to disrupt his party's rallies.
"Almost no one goes to SNS and HZDS rallies, so they come to ruin it for the masses of people that come to see Senzus and our friendly system of communicating with people," he said.
Aibeková, responding to the hecklers, ended her speech with a flourish:
"Each party holds events for its supporters, and I would like you to know that this is a rally of the HZDS." She had almost left the stage before realising her mistake, but came back and with a laugh corrected herself.
After Senzus managed to quiet the crowd, Gašparovič led a singing of the well-known Slovak folk song "Nepi Jano, nepi vodu," whose lyrics begin: "Don't drink Jano, don't drink water, water can only hurt you. Have some wine instead, that's good medicine."
Apart from singing about alcoholic beverages, the HZD also provided thirsty voters with free beer along with the goulash and soft drinks.
Grapa, encouraged both by the party's almost seven per cent poll support and the progress of the HZD election campaign, said: "People's will to come out and see us is enormous."