BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Former authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar edged out the expected favorite in Slovakia's presidential election Saturday and seemed set to advance to a second round against a former political ally.
Meciar, whose rule was criticized by Western leaders for its lack of democracy and rule of law, won 32.7% of the vote in his bid for the mostly ceremonial presidency, said Ladislav Jaca, a Central Election Commission official. Ivan Gasparovic, who left Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia in 2002 to form his own party, was second with about 22.3%.
The candidate who had topped most opinion surveys before the vote, Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, was in third with 22.1%, less than 4,000 votes behind Gasparovic. Turnout was 47%, far below expectations.
Meciar and Gasparovic will advance to the April 17 runoff if the results are certified today.
The winner will help guide Slovakia in its first years in NATO and the European Union. Slovakia joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last week, and becomes an EU member May 1.
Meciar, an ex-boxer and night-school law graduate, took the republic of 5.4 million people to nationhood in 1993, after Czechoslovakia split up.
But his rule was clouded by allegations of authoritarianism, corruption and a lack of scruples in dealing with his opponents.
Meciar has acknowledged mistakes during his rule, but said the fledgling country needed a stern leader.
"Dictatorship is not part of my personality," but a certain amount of authoritarianism was needed in the first days of the young Slovak republic, he said.
Meciar has remained popular among elderly voters, who have suffered from the reforms in Slovakia since he left office in 1998.
"It's simple. I voted for Meciar because under his rule my life was better. We, pensioners, had more money to live on," Jirina Podhradska said after voting.