Inside Meciar's Three-Peat
Scenes From Slovakia's Latest Bizarre Election
Prognosis, October 6, 1994
BRATISLAVA -- Vladimir Meciar's stunning victory in Slovakia's early elections last week made fools out of every expert analyst and forecaster, except perhaps for Chris Sulavik, the local correspondent for Reuters. "No matter what happens," he predicted in early September, "you just know it's going to be really weird."
On Sept. 30, the first day of voting, Sulavik surveyed the evidence to date. "Last week they seized some kind of poisonous uranium in Slovakia, plus there was an earthquake in Komarno...."
Just then, Reuters interpreter Tatiana Vacova called in with the clincher: Meciar had been blocked from voting when his name mysteriously came up missing from the electoral register. "This is the greatest vileness they could have done to me," the two-time prime minister hissed at a throng of reporters. "This could not have happened in a civilized and democratic country," explained the man who has governed Slovakia for 30 of the past 51 months. The governing coalition, Meciar charged, was guilty of "primitive manipulation," and of violating his civil rights.
After 20 minutes, German Press Agency correspondent Daniel Brossler arrived at the Reuters office with Jana Dorotkova, a journalist whose Bratislava apartment becomes a sort of unofficial press club each time a Slovak government changes hands. The two of them leaned over one of the Reuters terminals and read about Meciar's ballot-box woes.
"That's not true!" Brossler cried desperately. He and Dorotkova tore off madly to match the story, abandoning plans to visit voters in an outlying village. At the offices of Trend, a with-it Bratislava business weekly where Dorotkova works, reporters burst out laughing when they overheard an exasperated Brossler trying to explain the story to his baffled home office: "You have to understand! This is Slovakia!"
'Kill the Old People!'
Slovakia looks different than it did two years ago, when the last elections were held. Even though the guy selling cheeseburgers in the passageway underneath Bratislava's May 1 Square complains that "Nothing has changed in the last four years," the slick new restaruant complexes and fast-food centers have sprouted everywhere, downtown squares and palaces have been spruced up, and the Slovak News Agency, long the laughingstock of the foreign press corps, has improved vastly.
Some other things, though, haven't changed one bit. Television news is still terrible, there still isn't any place to see live rock music, and unemployment continues to hover in the low double digits. Meciar remains impervious, in the eyes of every third Slovak, to the barrage of criticism he endures from former allies, foreign governments and Bratislava dailies. His opponents continue to cede broad sections of society to Meciar's oratorial magic and his campaign's deep pockets. "He went to every village where they'd never seen a politician before," snickered the Democratic Union's Milan Knazko, when I ran into him outside of a restaurant after the first day of voting.
Knazko, a popular actor, was Meciar's closest ally just three years ago. The two co-founded the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), and Knazko served as independent Slovakia's first foreign minister, before resigning from the government and the party in 1993, accusing Meciar of being a "habitual liar" who used "autocratic methods." Knazko's snide attitude toward the sticks illustrates the sharp divide between Slovakia's villagers and its cosmopolitans, and especially between the old and the young. Meciar, along with Workers' Party leader Jan Luptak and Slovak National Party Chair Jan Slota, relies on support from elderly peasants, the type of people who have fond memories of the Nazi-sponsored Slovak state during World War II, and who have seen the purchasing power of their pension checks plummet with the fall of Communism.
Since a whole class of educated city folk considers Meciar, Luptak and Slota to be insults to human intelligence, and because the most visible of the elderly nationalists are a particularly noxious and aggressive gang of yapping fools, one hears a surprising number of inappropriate jokes about "killing all the old people," or at least preventing them from voting. "Slovaks are just stupid," one hears often in Bratislava and Kosice.
"Meciar's voters are older [than they were in 1992], and with lower IQs," Knazko said with a wicked chuckle. "In a year, there won't be so many of them around. Just kidding -- but not really."
For the political parties who write these people off as a lost cause, the joke isn't really very funny, considering the geriatric set has yet to lose an electoral battle since 1990.
And sure enough, Slovak TV during the elections was full of footage showing octogenarian after octogenartian limping slowly toward the voting booth. One man was so clearly out of it, standing in front of a ballot box and looking about wildly for a place to put his vote, that an election worker grabbed his arm and guided it gently toward the metal slot.
Then Meciar was on, talking uninterrupted for several minutes about the conspiracy to foil him from voting. In fact, the same mishap befell Chairman Peter Weiss of the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL), and a handful of other top politicians, but they all chose to shrug off the incident as a technical slip-up.
'Maybe Demagoguery Would Have Helped'
On the second and final day of elections, the big story is whether Meciar will vote. Actually, the election commission ruled that anyone who had trouble Friday needed only to bring an ID on Saturday, but the press corps wants to make sure nothing bizarre happens.
Finally, at 1 p.m., the stocky HZDS boss, with his beefy neck and enormous ears, strides up past a very loud group of 10 crazed supporters who are jeering at journalists and screaming "Vlado! Be strong!"
After voting and answering a few questions, Meciar slowly makes his way through the crowd of photographers, chats briefly with his unruly fans, sidesteps a sudden scuffle, and then stops "spontaneously" at an adjacent hospital, where three ragged nurses and a sickly child stand waiting to give the once and future prime minister the chance to show he cares. It's such a crude setup that few bother to pay attention.
The voting ends at 2 p.m. We catch the first Friday exit poll results at HZDS headquarters, and no wonder everyone's smiling: 31 percent for HZDS, a measly 12.3 percent for the second-place leftist coalition led by SDL. HZDS press handlers hand out sandwiches, cigarettes, campaign goodies and cognac. "See? We're not barbarians," says one woman. Meciar cancels his scheduled press conference. The election victor will not be seen again in public for days.
Over at the SDL office, Peter Weiss is shaken. He complains that Meciar's TV stunt lured as many as 6 percentage points from the large block of undecided voters. His coalition partner, the Green Party's Jozef Pokorny, is much more bitter: "Maybe we gambled by being too serious and too truthful," he tells me. "Maybe a little demagoguery would have helped."
'Slovakia Needs a Government'
On Sunday, the election commission gives the official final results to Reuters before noon. The rest of us have to wait another 40 minutes for the "official announcement" press conference. There a drab man with a low monotone reads the results for all 18 parties in each of the country's four electoral districts. After 25 minutes of frantic scribbling, journalists are handed xeroxed pages with every number he's just uttered. No matter how you read it, it's a drubbing, an absolute triumph and vindication for one of Europe's weirdest politicians.
No human on earth, to my knowledge, predicted that HZDS would receive three times as many votes as its nearest competitor, let alone that Jan Luptak and his "Workers' Party" would come away with the role of kingmaker. But there it was: HZDS and the Slovak National Party would hold 69 of the 150 seats in Parliament. SDL, the Christian Democrats, the Democratic Union and the Hungarian coalition would together have 68, if they could finally be persuaded to cooperate. Luptak, with his 13 seats, controlled the swing faction.
Over at the Slovak Radio building, the heads of the seven parliamentary parties, with the conspicuous exception of Meciar, sit for a 90-minute television discussion about the results. Luptak, who looks like a crazed Slavic elf in a suit, babbles a stream-of-consciousness rap about the economy, temples pulsing and voice rising to a fever pitch. "What happened after November ? First what happened? The [Parliament] deputies voted higher salaries for themselves. Then what happened? The deputies went to the factories and raised the salaries of the managers. Then what happened? They raised the salaries of bankers. Then they began to get jealous, so they raised their own salaries again. What kind of reform is that? What about the workers?"
Journalists, and even some panelists, fight a losing battle to suppress laughter. Luckily, super-nationalist Slota interrupts the monologue to needle his nemesis, Bela Bugar of the Hungarian Christian Democratic Movement: "God saved us from you being in the government." Bugar suggests that perhaps God doesn't have a nationality.
After trying to get Luptak to explain his economic theories for 30 minutes (summary: "We need to revitalize the economy"), I talk to Christian Democrat leader Jan Carnogursky, the last true anti-Communist in Slovakia within spitting distance of power.
After opposing Meciar and everything he represents for the past four years, Carnogursky said he is now willing to join the victorious thug in a coalition. I ask why. "You have to understand," he pleads. "Slovakia needs a government."