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Slovakia: Candidates Face Local And Presidential Contests

Prague, 30 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Slovak voters, who last weekend cast their ballots to support the opposition parties, now face two more important electoral contests. One is to choose local governments. The other is to elect a new president.

Local elections are just six weeks away. And they may consolidate the results of the parliamentary ballot. While the outgoing Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) is expected to maintain its hold on its traditional rural strongholds in northwestern and central districts, elsewhere its position is much weaker.

The election of the new president will have to come later, most likely only after the country's constitution is changed. Currently, the president is chosen by parliamentary deputies. But the opposition parties which won the elections are determined to adopt a law allowing for a direct vote by the public.

Changes to the constitution require a minimum three- fifths majority, that is 90 out of 150 deputies. The four victorious opposition parties: the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL), the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) and the Party for Civic Understanding (SOP) gained 93 seats. The parliament convenes within 30 days of yesterday's formal announcement of the official election results.

Slovakia has been without a president since Michal Kovac's five-year term ended in March. Meciar's HZDS repeatedly blocked opposition attempts to elect a successor. As a result, the president's powers have been temporarily divided between the prime minister (Meciar), the government and the speaker of parliament.

Among potential candidates for the post are Meciar himself, former president Michal Kovac and SOP chairman Rudolf Schuster.

Kovac was a lackluster president. For much of his tenure he was valiantly resisting Meciar's attempts to remove him from office.

Schuster is a charismatic politician, who in the 1980's ran the East Slovak communist regional administration before becoming speaker of parliament (1989-90) then Ambassador to Canada, head of the east Slovak steelworks (VSZ) and finally Mayor of Kosice. His party, the left-of center SOP, is the weakest of the four opposition victors.

If the election is held relatively soon --the most likely date suggested is December or January-- Schuster may be expected to defeat Meciar. A lengthy delay could be to Meciar's benefit. Schuster's liability is his past as a functionary in the communist nomenklatura. This may make him difficult to be accepted as president to some of the right-wing parties.

The leaders of SOP met on Monday with the SDL leadership and confirmed that they share very similar views on forming a coalition. SOP leaders are due to meet on Friday with the leaders of the largest opposition party, the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK). SDK and SDL leaders met today.

The name of Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) leader Jan Carnogursky has also been mentioned as a possible presidential contender. Carnogursky, Slovakia's top dissident in the 1980's, was Prime Minister in 1991-92. He did not run for parliament last weekend.

Carnogursky is perceived by many voters, however, as too close to the Roman Catholic Church. He told Radio Twist yesterday that his presidential candidacy is not at issue at present but that his party would like him to take a seat in the new cabinet. Some political analysts in Bratislava rule out the possibility of Carnogursky joining the government since he is not a member any party currently in the new parliament.

For his part, Meciar will apparently not lead HZDS's negotiating team in its almost certainly doomed bid to form a new government with the nationalist Slovak National Party and certain members of the opposition. The party is expected to appoint the chairman of the board of the East Slovak Steelworks, Jan Smerek, rather than Meciar to try to form a cabinet. HZDS would need to win over at least 19 opposition MPs to form a majority government and all four opposition parties have already ruled out holding coalition talks with HZDS.

After voting on Friday, Meciar disappeared from public view. He was reported to have spent the next three days at a government retreat. He showed up yesterday afternoon to open the weekly cabinet session but left just 15 minutes later. Meciar has yet to comment publicly on the election results.

The new government is likely to resume accession negotiations with the EU and NATO. Another issue is Slovakia's relations with Russia.

The opposition has long argued that Meciar's government was willing to subjugate Slovakia's interests to those of Russia. The new government may make public the texts of numerous agreements, including one on arms production, signed during ex-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's visit to Bratislava last year to support those claims.

The most likely candidate to head foreign ministry is SDK co-founder and former Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan. He is expected to reverse a series of recent appointments of top HZDS functionaries to ambassadorial posts and to recall many of those already serving.

Personnel changes in every district administration and every hospital in the country are also likely to follow. Most of those positions have been staffed by HZDS activists and Meciar's friends.

The coalition is also likely to de-politicize state-run Slovak TV and radio, long dominated by the HZDS.

Slovakia faces a likely devaluation of its currency, the Slovak crown. The question, however, is whether the National Bank of Slovakia makes the move while Meciar is still in office or waits until he departs. An editorial in the opposition daily Sme today urged the central bank to prove its competence "by not delaying something that should be done soon."