Slovakian PM enlists stars to woo voters

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SHE CAN certainly turn heads, but can Claudia Schiffer turn around the political fortunes of Slovakia's controversial Prime Minister? That is the question on the streets of Bratislava this week as Slovaks consider the latest electoral stunt by Vladimir Meciar.

The German model is one of a trio of celebrities drafted in by Mr Meciar to boost his standing before the country goes to the polls this weekend.

Along with Ms Schiffer, who has not previously been known for her interest in central European politics, the controversial nationalist leader has received bizarre morale-boosting visits from Gerard Depardieu, the French actor, and Claudia Cardinale, the Italian actress.

Depardieu said he had had a wonderful time with Meciar. "I am very glad that I could accept the invitation of Mr Vladimir and come among you," he told a rally of Meciar's supporters. "His surname is difficult for me to pronounce so he calls me Gerard and I call him Vladimir. Despite meeting for the first time today, I had the impression that we had known each other for a very long time. I spent a very nice Sunday with nice people. I drank good wine and saw the joys of life," he added.

All three visits received saturation coverage in the state-controlled television and pro-government newspapers, although locals quipped that Ms Cardinale's role in The Pink Panther with the late Peter Sellers made her a suitable supporter of the comedy of errors that is Slovak politics.

For unlike its neighbours Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, Slovakia has failed to make the first round of either Nato or EU accession, although this country of 5.3 million, whose capital is just 40 minutes drive from Vienna, started from a similar political and economic base, as a part of the Soviet bloc.

Western decision-makers say that Slovakia's internal politics mean it must be excluded from the new Europe, at least until the Government meets Western democratic norms - particularly in regard to the role of the opposition, an independent judiciary, the protection of Hungarian and Roma minorities and a free, independent media.

Critics point to the fact that the office of President, formerly held by Michal Kovac, a liberal opponent of hard-line nationalist Meciar, has been empty for six months. There was an attempt earlier this year to tilt the election law in favour of the governing coalition that drew protests from the EU and the United States. Opaque privatisation deals saw key industries sold off to government supporters, and there are alleged links between organised crime and sections of the government, particularly the Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS).

Prime Minister Mecar's latest electoral stunts are unlikely to reassure those in the West who question his government's commitment to serious political debate. It is unclear whether any money was paid for the celebrities' visits, or how much.

Both the four-party opposition who hold a commanding lead in opinion polls, at around 58 per cent, compared with 36 per cent for the governing coalition, and Western diplomats say they do not discount last-minute dirty tricks by the Government to ensure it remains in power.

However Meciar has promised that the elections, which will be observed by international monitors, will be both free and fair, and that he will respect the result.