VLADIMÍR Mečiar, the leader of the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party, emerged victorious from a showdown with party rebels led by vice-chair Vojtech Tkáč, who had objected to Mečiar's authoritarian leadership.
While Tkáč resigned his party function and urged other HZDS members to follow him, few did, and Mečiar emerged from the January 11 meeting of the party's national council in Nitra with the strong support of grass-roots members.
Tkáč said dissenters within the HZDS were fed up with Mečiar's autocratic practices and his failure to "account for disappointing results in national and municipal elections and the party's domestic and international isolation."
The expression of these views in the period leading up to the January 11 meeting led some observers to speculate about the possible resignation of Mečiar himself, but few were surprised when that did not happen.
Tkáč, who along with several other critics remains a member of the HZDS, said he expected his calls for the party leader to step down to be ignored.
"I did not go to Nitra with very high hopes and I didn't go there to win or lose. I just presented my position with regard to the situation in the party and suggested we account for the failure in [national and municipal] elections [that took place in September and December 2002 respectively]," he told The Slovak Spectator January 14.
Mečiar, the only chairman of the HZDS in its decade-long history and a three-time prime minister of Slovakia, has been blamed for his party's international isolation. Western diplomats have frequently complained that he lacks sufficient dedication to democratic principles.
The Mečiar administrations between 1992 and 1998 negatively affected the country's EU and NATO integration efforts, which only improved after the HZDS lost power in 1998.
Domestic political partners, meanwhile, have consistently refused to talk to the HZDS about possible cooperation, which has kept the HZDS out of government since 1998, even though the party won the most voter support in the 1998 and 2002 national elections.
Mečiar insists that he is not to blame for his party's isolation and has argued that the HZDS's 19.5 per cent share of the vote in 2002 elections - down from 27 per cent in 1998 - was a satisfactory result.
"As far as the election result is concerned, I think it was the best possible outcome in the given situation and [the decrease] was not at all related to myself. If it wasn't for me, the result might have even worse," he said in an interview with the Nový Deň daily.
Mečiar supporter MP Ján Jasovský admitted that the HZDS now has to address many questions relating to its standing on the local and international political scene, but he said there was no rush.
"Senior [party members] and letters from many districts express their support for Vladimír Mečiar. That needs to be accepted as bare fact.
"Nevertheless, we feel the need to change and strengthen our position on the political scene, and we need a tougher orientation towards foreign [acceptance]. There is also the question of a diminishing number of party members and sympathisers, but we have plenty of time to deal with that," Jasovský said.
Tkáč and his supporters, including Ján Gabriel and Ivan Kiňo, are still hoping that democratisation of the HZDS will take place by June this year, when a party summit will be held.
"The June party summit is my absolute limit for staying in the party [if things don't change]," Tkáč said.
Tkáč's departure would be the second high-profile resignation in a short period of time, as Mečiar's former right-hand man, Ivan Gašparovič, left the HZDS in summer 2002.
Meanwhile, analysts interpret Mečiar's success in Nitra as proof that he is still secure at the top of the party.
"Mečiar's role remains as strong and decisive as it has ever been since the beginning of the HZDS," said Ľuboš Kubín, political analyst with the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
Darina Malová, political analyst at Comenius University in Bratislava agreed: "The meeting confirmed that the HZDS is the party of its founder and that the majority of its members are dependent on his vision and decisions."
Despite being a controversial figure on Slovakia's political scene, Mečiar still ranks among the top two most popular politicians in the country and is considered an asset to his party in terms of generating voter support.
"Any party that would seek to replace a politician with such a high level of public support would be taking a big risk," said HZDS MP Ľudmila Mušková.
Nevertheless, speculation is growing that the dissenting group led by Tkáč is planning to start its own caucus in parliament, which would endanger the HZDS's position as the strongest parliamentary caucus with its 36 MPs.
Gabriel said that it was too early to talk about such a development, but he did not deny that an independent caucus might be formed in the future - or even a new party.
"If the party solves its problems, nothing will take place. [The HZDS] will be united, strong, and it will go on. If it doesn't solve its problems, then there may even be a new party, but it is too soon [to speculate about] that at the moment," Gabriel said.
20. Jan 2003 at 0:00 | Martina Pisárová