Bratislava, 12 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The announcement last Friday, just hours before a deadline for nominations, that former Slovak prime minister Vladimir Meciar would run for president throws the country's presidential campaign wide open.
The first round of elections is scheduled for May 15, to be followed by a runoff of the two leading contenders.
Just how many candidates will be competing in the first round remains unclear, with various news media reporting figures ranging from eight to 11. The support of at least 15 parliamentary deputies or the signatures of at least 15,000 citizens is required to qualify. The speaker of the Slovak parliament, Jozef Migas, is due to announce by Friday which candidates actually qualify.
Until last week, the three top contenders were considered to be Kosice mayor Rudolf Schuster, backed by the ruling coalition, and two independents: ex-President Michal Kovac and actress turned diplomat Magda Vasaryova.
Then, after much lobbying, Slovak National Party (SNS) leader Jan Slota succeeded last Thursday in winning support for his candidacy from two MPs from the ruling coalition in exchange for political IOUs. Neither would ever vote for Slota and their motive seemed to be to weaken Schuster's chances. But Slota's chances of getting elected, slim on Thursday, have now likely been dashed by Meciar's candidacy. Meciar can be expected to take the lion's share of the nationalist vote while splitting the populist and post-Communist vote with Schuster.
After losing parliamentary elections last September, Meciar announced his departure from the political stage and as after previous political defeats he vanished behind the walls of a spa, reappearing only once since then. That was at the funeral of a murdered former trade minister, Jan Ducky, where Meciar attacked several reporters physically and cursed at them.
Meciar has not been seen since, not even when his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), Slovakia's largest opposition party, announced his candidacy on Friday.
Meciar's comeback has provoked a variety of reactions. Slovak Justice Minister and Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) chairman Jan Carnogursky told RFE/RL that the candidacies of Meciar and Slota should help ensure a non-party candidate makes it to the run-off.
"The existence of two candidates from the camp of the current opposition, from SNS and HZDS, significantly increases the likelihood that a civic (non-party) candidate makes it to the second round."
And commentator Stefan Hrib, a Meciar critic, says Meciar's candidacy will effectively end his prominent role in Slovak politics:
"This attempt of [Meciar's] in reality is the best thing that could happen to this country. If Meciar loses -- and according to everything -- he will lose, it will mean not only farewell to him once and for all, but also a fatal weakening of all those who linked their political future with him."
But Slovak commentator Milan Zitny offers a different view:
"For the other candidates, and especially for those who are truly civic (non-party), Meciar's entry into the electoral arena means a fundamental change. According to estimates, Meciar can count on the support of more than 20 percent of the voters and thus his passage to the second round is guaranteed just as is the candidate of the government coalition, Rudolf Schuster, who is preferred by over 30 percent of the voters."
Zitny says that Meciar can only be defeated in the first round if those candidates who have no hope of making it to the run-off throw their backing behind the only single non-party (civic) candidate with a chance of making it to the second round, Magda Vasaryova. In Zitny's words, "the choice is simple -- either she or Meciar".
Similarly, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are reacting to Meciar's candidacy with alarm. For example, Charter 99 -- Civic Democratic Youth is appealing to independent candidates including Vasaryova and Kovac to hold a "civic primary" in advance of the first round so as to ensure the participation of a non-party candidate in the run-off.
Meciar's apparent candidacy is predictably drawing considerable press comment. Pavol Minarik, in a commentary today in the left-of-center Bratislava daily Pravda, says "unless Meciar changes into a serious and responsible politician and convinces the democratic world of this, he will bring Slovakia as before only bad luck and unhappiness." Minarik says that Meciar's chief motive in running for president is his "desperate attempt to amnesty Ivan Lexa one more time".
Lexa headed the Slovak intelligence service (SIS) under Meciar. Before dawn Friday, parliament stripped him of his immunity to face criminal prosecution in five cases, including the 1995 abduction of Michal Kovac junior to Austria. Before leaving office, Meciar amnestied Lexa and others for unspecified acts committed while in office.
The HZDS daily, Slovenska Republika, on Saturday headlined its story on Meciar's comeback "I Heard the Call of the Nation". The quote appears to have been invented. Immediately beneath the Meciar article was another headline, "Perfect Political Act of Revenge", over a story on Lexa's loss of immunity.