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Good Showing for Western Favorites in Slovakia Polls

Elections: Initial returns make European Union and NATO acceptance appear more likely.

September 22, 2002|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — In a major boost to Slovakia's bids for membership in NATO and the European Union, preliminary results of parliamentary elections showed Saturday that parties viewed favorably by the West will be positioned to form the next government.

Diplomats from North Atlantic Treaty Organization and EU countries had repeatedly warned over the last year that if former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar was returned to power by the elections held Friday and Saturday, this country's prospects for joining those organizations would be held up. Meciar's heavy-handed rule in the mid-1990s badly strained Slovakia's ties with both the United States and the European Union.

Now the path appears clear for Slovakia to be among as many as seven nations expected to receive NATO membership invitations at a November summit in the Czech Republic. Slovakia's chances of being part of an eastward expansion of the European Union in 2004 or 2005 also are greatly strengthened.

"People understood it's a very serious election, that the whole direction of the country is being decided," Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said late Saturday. Exit polls projected that if four center-right parties form a coalition, they could control about 80 seats in the 150-seat parliament and reelect Dzurinda as prime minister.

Another possibility is that three or four of the center-right parties would join with the populist SMER party, headed by Robert Fico, to command a larger parliamentary majority. SMER was projected to win about 25 to 29 seats, and Fico is considered a leading candidate for prime minister if his party joins the government.

Fico favors NATO and EU membership and a crackdown on corruption, but in many ways his politics are not clearly defined. His critics fear that, like Meciar, he might have authoritarian tendencies, but he is seen as acceptable to the West.

While official vote counts will not be released until today and the exit polls could not give precise seat totals, top politicians Saturday treated the surveys as generally reflecting the election results.

In both of the major polls, Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia placed first, with a projected 31 seats. All other parties, however, said they would not join him to form a government.

Early this year, opinion polls showed Meciar's party drawing greater public support than all four center-right parties and SMER combined.

Slovakia, formed out of the 1993 breakup of Czechoslovakia, was refused entry into NATO in 1999 during the alliance's first round of expansion to formerly Communist countries. The decision was based largely on the judgment that the nation under Meciar had not been sufficiently democratic.

Western diplomats have regularly issued warnings that Meciar is still internationally unacceptable.

"The outcome of the election will decide whether the country can accomplish what it wants to accomplish--full membership of the EU and full integration with the Euro-Atlantic structures," Guenter Verheugen, the EU commissioner for enlargement, said recently. The statement was widely understood as a warning of the consequences of a Meciar victory.

Meciar supporters resent the West's pressure.

"I'm a Slovak, and I support Meciar because I think he's such a brain, and I think he's got the ability to take this republic out of this mess we're in," a female pensioner who was willing to give only her first name, Imelda, said Saturday. "I don't know why these people in the West don't like him and why they don't try to find out why Slovaks like him."

Meciar played a key role in promoting the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia, and in Slovakia he is viewed by supporters as the father of the country. But critics charge that he ran an authoritarian political machine based on patronage, corruption and disrespect for democratic rules.

Many anti-Meciar voters are sympathetic to the West's stance.

"If Meciar were to be the top politician, it would be a shame for all of Slovakia, because he acts like a boor," said Frantisek Belyus, 57, a computer software technician.

Western diplomats "are right" to warn against Meciar, said Branko Bubela, 30, a musician. "It's difficult to pinpoint, but I think Meciar and Fico have in mind a more dictatorial regime."

It now appears almost certain that at the November NATO summit in Prague, the Czech capital, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia and Slovakia will be invited to join. Romania and Bulgaria are also widely seen as having strong chances of winning membership.

Most countries in the former Soviet bloc desire NATO membership not just to ensure their security but also as a badge of acceptance into Europe, to impress foreign investors and to serve as a steppingstone to joining the European Union.

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Special correspondent Iva Drapalova contributed to this report.

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