'Extreme' Slovakian candidate leads presidential race

A Slovak politician, labeled by Western governments as an extreme nationalist and autocrat, could become the country's head of state after beating all his rivals in the first round of presidential elections this weekend.

Vladimir Meciar, a former prime minister, led Slovakia into international isolation after his administration was accused of corruption, muzzling the media and the political opposition, and abusing human rights for its treatment of the Roma and other ethnic minorities in the country. His party lost parliamentary elections in 2002 in large measure because the electorate heeded warnings from the European Union and NATO that Slovakia would not be invited to join those organisations with Meciar as leader. However, results announced following Saturday's presidential elections showed that Mr Meciar has bounced back dramatically winning the first round with a third of all the votes cast for 10 candidates. He and the runner up, Ivan Gasparovic, go into the second, final round, on April 17.

The biggest shock on Sunday was that the pro-government candidate, Slovakia's foreign minister, Eduard Kukan, was knocked out after being pushed into third place by a former close ally of Meciar's, Ivan Gasparovic. Slovakia's current president, Rudolf Schuster, came fourth and also drops out.

The result is embarrassing for Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda whose country is one of the ten new members joining the EU on May 1. Mr Dzurinda led the opposition parties which ousted Meciar in 1998 and seemed to have eradicated Meciar as a political force by beating him again in 2002.

Mr Meciar, a 61-year-old former lawyer, draws his support from blue-collar nationalist voters and was the chief architect of the 1993 peaceful split of former Czechoslovakia into the Slovak and Czech republics. He and Mr Gasparovic campaigned on a platform opposing the government's social reforms, which have cut painfully into welfare benefits in a country with 20 percent unemployment.

Analysts said a low turnout - less than half bothered to vote - and corruption scandals dogging the ruling coalition benefited Mr Gasparovic. Mr Meciar who was previously opposed EU and NATO membership now says he is a "changed man" but it is unlikely the Brussels and the defence alliance have substantially changed their opinion of him.

However, his rival for president, Mr Gasparovic, is now regarded as the more extreme nationalist. The president's role is largely ceremonial but he can veto legislation.

Whoever wins is likely to upset remaining reforms on health, welfare and education the fragile government, which has no overall majority, says are vital to meet EU criteria.

One observer said: "This is a bad result for Slovakia. In the West Meciar is regarded as the devil but everyone in Slovakia knows that Gasparovic was the devil's right hand."

The only consolation for Mr Dzurinda was that a referendum called by the opposition to force an early election failed because of low turnout this weekend.

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