Nationalist cruises to victory in Slovak poll

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THE CAUSE of reform in Central Europe suffered one of its biggest blows since the fall of Communism yesterday, with an emphatic victory in Slovakia's parliamentary elections for Vladimir Meciar and his populist nationalist party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). Liberal reformers and former Communists alike were trounced as Mr Meciar, a 52- year-old former boxer, punched his way to the front with 35 per cent of the vote.

Of the other 17 parties contesting the elections on Friday and Saturday, none scored much more than 10 per cent, meaning that Mr Meciar and the HZDS are virtually certain to form Slovakia's next government. Mr Meciar has been prime minister twice before, but was forced to give up office on both occasions, because his aggressive, authoritarian style and his apparent lack of enthusiasm for reform offended too many members of Slovakia's political elite.

Mr Meciar's victory is in danger of making Slovakia look like the odd-man-out among the four Central European countries that are bidding for membership of the European Union and Nato. Although former Communists have returned to power in Poland and Hungary, they have essentially kept their countries on a pro-Western, reformist path. The centre-right government of the Czech Republic is also strongly in favour of market economics and integration into Western institutions.

By contrast, Mr Meciar used his election campaign to portray Slovakia as a country vulnerable to predatory Western capitalists, cunning Czechs and disloyal members of Slovakia's ethnic Hungarian minority.

His extravagant promises of more jobs, lower prices, bigger pensions and 'coffee in every pot' went down well with large sections of an electorate that was voting in Slovakia's first elections since the divorce from the Czech Republic in January 1993.

The distribution of the vote made clear where Mr Meciar's appeal was strongest. In Bratislava, the capital, where the liberal vote was relatively high, the HZDS took only 25 per cent. But in central Slovakia, where unemployment and bankruptcy threaten industrial workers and old-fashioned state enterprises, the HZDS scored 44 per cent. The overall turnout was 74.6 per cent.

Polls had predicted that much of the anti-reformist vote would go to Common Choice, the electoral bloc led by the former Communist, Democratic Left Party. In the end, Common Choice finished a poor second, with only 10.4 per cent, barely half of pre-election forecasts. Mr Meciar's blunt rhetoric and nationalist themes succeeded in drowning out the message of the reformed Communists.

Third place went to a coalition of three parties representing Slovakia's ethnic Hungarians, which picked up 10.2 per cent, almost exactly reflecting their proportion of the country's 5.3 million people. Mr Meciar has rarely disguised his hostility to the Hungarians, hinting that they harbour plans to dismember Slovakia and unite their region with Hungary.

The HZDS victory may inject fresh nationalist tensions into Central Europe at a time when the region's states are eager to demonstrate that they are mature enough to form economic and security partnerships with the West.

The right-wing Christian Democrats came fourth with 10.1 per cent. The Democratic Union, a party led by the outgoing Prime Minister, Jozef Moravcik, came fifth, with 8.6 per cent.

In the 150-seat parliament, Mr Meciar's HZDS is guaranteed at least 58 seats and will probably govern with the support of an assortment of left-wing and nationalist deputies. The exact make-up of the new parliament will be known tomorrow. The HZDS total is expected to rise.

An early constitutional conflict seems likely, as Mr Meciar has vowed to establish a committee to investigate President Michal Kovac for alleged abuse of power.

The presidency is ostensibly a non-political position, as in Germany. But Mr Kovac has grown increasingly alarmed at Mr Meciar's methods and he suggested publicly during the election campaign that Slovaks should not vote for the HZDS leader.