TKÁČ (right) says his rebel caucus is still part of the HZDS.
One analyst described Mečiar's call for early elections a "science-fiction plot", as such early elections can be called only because of a rift within or among ruling parties, not the opposition.
The group of rebel MPs, led by former HZDS vice-chairman Vojtech Tkáč, meanwhile insisted they still considered themselves HZDS members, despite announcing plans two weeks ago to form an independent caucus in parliament in protest at Mečiar's autocratic practices.
In defence of Mečiar, HZDS deputy chairman Jozef Tarčák said that "no political party has greater internal democracy than the HZDS", a statement Tkáč dismissed ironically as a "pearl [of wisdom]".
"This is the end of the era that took us into isolation, the end of a style of politics that is based on the decision making of one man," Tkáč said.
Senior HZDS officials agreed at a special meeting of the party's leadership in the northern town of Žilina February 15 that Tkáč's group were "no longer members of the HZDS," Mečiar said.
They also expelled two influential regional politicians, Peter Chudík and Peter Tomeček, as well as the head of the party's youth organisation, HMZDS, Monika Krištofičová, all of whom expressed support for Tkáč's group.
Mečiar said that the HZDS was only acting in line with the group's previous decision to become independent and later start its own party.
"Nobody excluded the Tkáč group. They left by themselves and launched an MP caucus with the intention of creating a new [political] body," he said.
Tkáč argued, however, that the expulsions were invalid, and that, if at all, they would not form a new party sooner than June this year, when a national HZDS summit is scheduled to take place.
The rebels say they are hoping that Mečiar will be forced out of the top party post, which the controversial chairman has held ever since the party's foundation more than a decade ago, a turn of events analyst Grigorij Mesežnikov, from the Institute for Public Affairs, described as "very unlikely".
In response to a request from the HZDS leadership that the rebels return their MP mandates, and thus effectively leave parliament, Tkáč said: "The HZDS members who should return their mandates are the ones who brought the party into domestic and international isolation, those who break the party's rules and don't fulfil the party programme."
When Mečiar was prime minister between 1994 and 1998, Slovakia was excluded from Western integration tracks because the administration was perceived to lack a dedication to the democratic values prized in the West. Even though the HZDS scored the most votes of any party in the two national elections held since 1998, the party has remained in opposition because it could not find coalition partners.
Few observers expressed surprise at the expulsion of Tkáč's group at the HZDS meeting. Mesežnikov said Mečiar had always dealt decisively with "dissidents who dared to state their opinions openly".
He predicted Tkáč and his group would "end up starting their own party", as Mečiar was still extremely powerful in the HZDS.
Mesežnikov added that it was highly unlikely Mečiar would give up his position at the helm of the HZDS, "unless something momentous happens between now and June, such as a decrease in voter support to about 10 per cent, for example".
According to recent surveys, the HZDS enjoys nearly 17 per cent voter support, and is the second most popular party after another opposition party, Smer.
HZDS member Viliam Veteška, one of four vice-speakers in the Slovak parliament, agreed that Mečiar's departure from his post was unlikely.
"Such a situation would only arise in two cases: either because Mr Mečiar wanted [to leave], or if a personality appeared who was so remarkable as to be able to topple him in the elections at the summit. I personally don't expect this to happen in June," he said.
For his part, Mečiar said that running for the chairman post again was "still an open question" for him, adding, "I will decide on the day of the summit".
Among those who publicly expressed support for Tkáč's rebel group was Oľga Keltošová, former labour minister and until recently a respected HZDS figure. She currently works as a city councillor in Bratislava and also acts as Tkáč's parliamentary assistant.
"I have said in the past that if there is anyone who should leave the HZDS, it is Vladimír Mečiar and the people who surround him," she said at a February 16 press conference.
Mečiar's determination to keep his still-influential party together and under his control was evident from the stern comments he made to the media after the February 15 meeting.
When asked how he felt about the possibility of losing such party members as Keltošová, Mečiar said: "It will be hard but we will survive."
24. Feb 2003 at 0:00 | Martina Pisárová