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Slovakia: Democratic Opposition Has Chance To Change Policies

Bratislava 28 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The defeat of Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's populist-nationalist coalition in parliamentary elections over the weekend presents the democratic opposition with its best opportunity since 1990 to turn the political tide and put Slovakia firmly on the road to European integration and NATO membership.

Four opposition parties won a constitutional majority of 93 of the 150 seats in the Slovak parliament. Within hours after preliminary election results were announced Sunday morning, their leaders began roundtable talks on forming a stable coalition government.

Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), which took first place, just seven-tenths of a percentage point ahead of the largest opposition party, the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), is expected to go into opposition along with its partner, the Slovak National Party (SNS). Meciar, who has not been seen in public since voting with his wife on Friday, has repeatedly said he will not form a minority government.

The main opposition force, the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), won 26.33 percent of the vote and 42 parliamentary seats. The post-communist Party of the Democratic Left (SDL) won over 14 percent and 23 seats. The Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) won over nine percent and 15 seats. The populist center-left Party of Civic Understanding (SOP) won eight percent and 13 seats.

Together, the four opposition parties have 93 seats, three seats more than the three-fifths majority required to amend the constitution.

The man most likely to succeed Meciar as Prime Minister, Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) chairman Mikulas Dzurinda, says the election outcome showed that "Slovakia wants a change, a different orientation, and an end to constant confrontation." Dzurinda is 43 years old, a Christian Democrat and former Deputy Transportation Minister. He is a close associate of former Prime Minister and ex-dissident Jan Carnogursky.

Dzurinda or whoever eventually becomes prime minister will have a very difficult task - stopping Slovakia's economic slide downwards and eastwards, disentangling the country from its very close economic and defense industry relationship with Russia, and re-establishing a solid relationship with the West. The new government will have to implement measures, some of them likely to be unpopular belt-tightening, to enable Slovakia to become a legitimate candidate for EU and NATO membership.

Parliamentary speaker and Meciar associate Ivan Gasparovic has 30 days to call the new parliament into session, after which he says the current Meciar government will resign.

The new parliament will have to elect a new president. The four parties have the votes to elect whomever they can agree on among themselves. Slovakia has been without a president since March, when Michal Kovac's five-year term expired. Ever since, Meciar's HZDS repeatedly prevented any candidate from being elected.

The outgoing speaker of parliament, Gasparovic, says the election outcome is a "mirror image" of parliamentary elections in Romania nearly two years ago that resulted in an end to strong-arm, post-Communist rule and the coming to power of the democratic opposition, including the ethnic Hungarian party. Similarly, HZDS deputy chairman Sergej Kozlik told reporters HZDS is a "standard" party and will go into opposition in the event it fails to form a majority government.

In an important signal to the international community, the current opposition leaders agreed in Sunday's roundtable talks that the Hungarian Coalition Party (MDK) should be in the government. Anti-Hungarian sentiment has been traditionally strong in Slovak politics, and the nationalist SNS once again played the Hungarian card during this latest election campaign. The international community has been critical of the Meciar government's treatment of the Hungarian minority, which numbers more than half a million and inhabits a compact area of rural southern Slovakia.

In another important signal, the chairman of the post-communist SDL, Jozef Migas said Sunday his party will do everything to ensure the formation of a functional government that will ensure post-election stability in Slovakia. After years of flirting with the idea of forming a coalition with HZDS, Migas has finally ruled out the idea. In his words, "the government must be functional and majority."

Despite predictions that the elections could be tampered with, representatives of all the parties said the two-day vote passed off freely and fairly. International observers, however, were a little more reserved, criticizing the campaign, particularly the government's attempt through last-minute legislation to stave off an opposition victory.

Voter turnout was almost 85 percent. The head of the Council of Europe monitoring delegation, Franciszek Adamczyk of Poland, praised the high turnout, saying it reflects a belief in the fundamental values of democracy. In his words, "the elections do reflect the will of the people."

A preliminary report issued by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Bratislava yesterday said that "although an atmosphere of political polarization led to a lack of confidence in the overall process by many Slovak citizens, the election as such was carried out in an apparently correct and acceptable manner."