Slovaks reject former autocrat Meciar

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The Independent Online

A man described as the "lesser of two evils" won Slovakia's presidential elections as the country's autocratic, former prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, failed to make a comeback.

A man described as the "lesser of two evils" won Slovakia's presidential elections as the country's autocratic former prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, failed to make a comeback.

European Union leaders will be relieved that Mr Meciar, seen as a corrupt, nationalist, rabble rouser, failed to win the election a fortnight before the Central European country becomes one of 10 new EU members.

Mr Meciar, who earned pariah status because of allegations of corruption, muzzling the media, intimidating political opposition, and abusing human rights, was defeated in the run-off round of presidential elections held on Saturday.

The results showed that his rival, former parliamentary speaker Ivan Gasparovic, won with 60 percent of the vote.

However, Slovak and foreign observers noted that Mr Gasparovic used to be a close ally of Mr Meciar and is steeped in the same autocratic political culture, combining populist nationalism and communism, that alienated Mr Meciar from the West. Both men played leading roles in the peaceful 1993 split Czechoslovakia into the Slovak and Czech republics.

EU diplomats said yesterday that Mr Gasparovic might be the lesser of two evils. As a candidate, he was vague about his intended policies and Western officials are waiting to see what he will do when he assumes office in June. 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."

When Mr Meciar ran in parliamentary elections in 2002, the EU and Nato indicated that Slovakia would not be invited to join if he became prime minister. Then, Slovaks seemed to heed the warnings and Mr Meciar lost the elections and seemed headed for political oblivion.

However, he made an astonishing comeback when he topped the polls in the first round of the presidential elections two weeks ago. Mr Gasparovic came second, eliminating the current president, Rudolf Schuster, and the pro-government candidate, Slovakia's foreign minister, Eduard Kukan.

Both Mr Meciar and Mr Gasparovic exploited unpopular economic reforms by Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda's government to demolish Mr Kukan, who had been tipped to win. Mr Dzurinda said the belt-tightening measures were necessary under EU accession agreements.

Mr Gasparovic, who fell out with Mr Meciar two years ago, apologised for some of his actions while he was part of the Meciar government and said he would co-operate with the EU. He also played on voters' fears that the country of 5.4 million people would again be isolated if Mr Meciar won and contrasted his former boss's infamy in European political circles with his own relative anonymity.

Mr Gasparovic, 63, a lawyer during the communist era, calls himself politically centre-left. He was backed by Smer, a populist, opposition party which critics say promotes a slicker, more modern version of Mr Meciar's nationalism tinged with a communist message.

The president's role is largely ceremonial but he has a powerful veto which could stall remaining EU-inspired reforms.