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With Slim Margin, Slovakia's Premier Looks Set to Return

Elections: Four pro-Western coalition parties rally around Mikulas Dzurinda.

September 23, 2002|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda appeared positioned to remain head of a strongly pro-Western government after election results Sunday showed four center-right parties winning a slim majority in Slovakia's parliament.

Leaders of the four parties, which together won 78 seats in the 150-seat parliament, generally rallied around Dzurinda on Sunday as the obvious pick to lead the new government after his Slovak Democratic Coalition did much better than expected.

"You cannot ignore the will of the citizens," television magnate Pavol Rusko, head of the New Citizen Alliance, one of the likely coalition partners, said in throwing his support behind Dzurinda.

Slovakia was formed out of the 1993 breakup of Czechoslovakia, and its governments have generally been authoritarian-populist or controlled by ideologically mixed coalitions of convenience.

Sunday's election results, however, indicate that Slovakia is now poised to enter the European mainstream in its domestic politics as it seeks membership in NATO and the European Union. All of that should contribute to stability in Central Europe and strengthen democracy in former communist states, observers say.

"There is a greater chance to set up a fully unified government than ever before," Dzurinda declared Sunday. That comment was seen as an indication that Dzurinda intends to govern without the support of Robert Fico's populist SMER party, which if brought into the coalition would give it a more comfortable majority but also introduce sharper policy and personality differences.

Fico, who before the voting Friday and Saturday was seen as a leading candidate for prime minister, appeared to recognize Sunday that the opportunity had slipped away. "We'll have to decide whether we'll go into opposition or come to some kind of agreement," Fico said.

While Fico's disappointment was obvious, he sought to put the best face on the showing by his relatively new party, which will enter parliament for the first time. "I think there's an idea we're crying," Fico said. "But we started several years ago from zero. It's a good result. I cannot say it's absolute failure. I cannot say it's a success."

Former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia placed first with 19.5% of the vote and 36 seats. But Meciar lacks potential coalition allies and is seen as having little chance of forming part of the government, prompting protests from party officials. "The winners of the election should not be shunted aside," complained Jan Kovarcik, deputy chairman of the party.

Western diplomats had warned Slovak voters before the election that if Meciar were to return to power, Slovakia's bid to enter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would be blocked. Meciar's heavy-handed rule in the mid- 1990s badly strained Slovakia's ties with both the United States and the European Union.

The election results clear the path 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 EU in 2004 or 2005 are also greatly strengthened.

U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia Ronald Weiser said Slovakia had voted for "those who share the democratic values and principles of the United States and of NATO."

Dzurinda's party placed second to Meciar's party but first among the expected coalition partners, winning 15.1% of the vote to take 28 seats.

Fico's SMER, which had been expected to battle Meciar's party for the top spot, placed third overall, with 13.5% of the vote and 25 seats.

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.

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Special correspondent Iva Drapalova contributed to this report.

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