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Slovakia: Election Campaign Ends

By Genevieve Zalatorius/Jolyon Naegele

Bratislava, 23 September 1998 (RFE/RL) Slovakia's turbulent parliamentary campaign ended today, 48 hours before polls open for two days of voting Friday and Saturday.

The campaign was marked by lavish spending by Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) bringing in stars such as Gerard Depardieu, Claudia Cardinale and Claudia Schiffer in a bid to attract a younger audience than Meciar's traditionally late-middle aged following.

HZDS and other leading political parties held their final rallies yesterday. Meciar told his supporters that HZDS would win but would have a difficult time forming a coalition government. He said he was willing to hold coalition talks with anyone except "irridentists," a reference to ethnic Hungarians who traditionally poll some ten percent of the vote.

A recently enacted election law makes Slovakia a single electoral district, enabling Meciar's name to appear as a candidate on every ballot in the country.

However, opposition activists warn that any controversy regarding the validity of the vote, be it in the most remote village, could lead to the election results for the entire country being declared invalid. The Interior Ministry is managing the vote, with the police, backed by the army, providing security.

The campaign has also been marked by a variety of accusations, including the alleged counterfeiting of ballot papers, illicitly recorded taped discussions among opposition politicians over how to respond to a Meciar victory, accusations of mysterious payments to key opposition leaders and a bid to takeover the country's popular independent TV station, Markiza.

In addition to electing a new parliament, voters will also be asked to cast ballots in a referendum on whether to bar the privatization of six key companies including Transpetrol, the electric utility Slovenske Elektrarne and the gas utility SPP.

The election comes at a time when Slovakia has been without a president for more than seven months, with presidential tasks being carried out by Meciar and the Speaker of parliament, Ivan Gasparovic, also a leading member of HZDS.

The election takes place against a media situation characterized by general lack of balance. The election law, passed last Spring, has granted state-owned electronic media, which is pro-Meciar, a favored role in covering the election campaign.

But soon after passage of that law, politicians of the SDK party conceded that the party had paid Slovak journalists to write favorably about the opposition.

As to Markiza TV, it late last month become embroiled in an ownership dispute when an outside company, Gamatex, declared itself the new majority owner in a bid to collect on a debt. Thousands of Slovak citizens, however, came out to stand outside Markiza television offices last week to show their support and demonstrate against a take-over that threatened to further influence the balance of news. Markiza has tended to favor some opposition politicians while mostly ignoring others. It generally has taken an anti-Meciar line.

Bratislava's outspoken, independent FM station, Radio Twist, for weeks has been adding a disclaimer to its news broadcasts saying that due to censorship, it is unable to provide complete coverage of the election.

On the controversial theme of campaign financing, opposition party officials say Meciar and his HZDS party have long surpassed the Sk 12 million ($343,000) limit on campaign spending. But HZDS Central Election Commissioner member Jan Sarovecky denies surpassing the campaign spending limit and insists no government money was used to finance the campaign by the populist left-of-center movement. He says payment for Schiffer's appearance Sept. 10 for a highway opening, came from private funds.