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Slovakia: Schuster Likely To Defeat Meciar In Presidential Runoff

Bratislava, 17 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The first round of voting for Slovakia's president on Saturday saw Kosice Mayor Rudolf Schuster and former Slovak prime minister Vladimir Meciar advance to a run-off on May 29. If turnout is similar to Saturday's 74 percent of eligible voters, Schuster appears likely to become Slovakia's first directly elected president.

Schuster, who led Saturday's tally, is the official candidate of Slovakia's governing coalition. The Slovak Election Commission says he won 47 percent of the first round vote, while about 37 percent supported Meciar.

Third among the nine candidates was Magda Vasaryova, a former actress who gathered 6.6 percent of the vote on an independent ticket. She was followed by independent Ivan Mjartan with about 3.6 percent, and Jan Slota of the Slovak National Party, with 2.5 percent.

While Meciar could get some votes from backers of Mjartan and Slota in the runoff, their combined cross-over vote would n-o-t be enough to push Meciar ahead of Schuster.

Meanwhile, most of Vasaryova's supporters are believed to be vehemently opposed to Meciar. There is little likelihood that the former prime minister will gain votes from them. Yet many of Vasaryova's backers may choose to abstain from the runoff ballot rather than support Schuster. That is largely because of Schuster's background as a member of the Slovak Communist Party's central committee before the collapse of communist rule in 1989.

Other political leaders who have opposed Schuster because of his communist background started announcing their support for him yesterday as the "anti-Meciar" candidate. Most important among them is Justice Minister Jan Carnogursky, who chairs the governing coalition's Christian Democratic Movement.

Schuster told RFE/RL he expects unity from the coalition, which first joined forces to defeat Meciar in parliamentary elections eight months ago.

"I think that the citizens had the opportunity to gauge the degree to which we are united, and now we shouldn't even talk about unity because there are only two candidates. We have only two possibilities. Either a part of the coalition will support Mr. Meciar or the whole coalition will support me. There is no other alternative. I think there is nothing to speculate about. There is nothing to explain. Now we have to act if we want to confirm the change that happened [during parliamentary elections last year]."

First round exit polls suggest that as many as 92 percent of Slovakia's ethnic-Hungarian voters supported Schuster on Saturday. Schuster said the development shows the strength of the coalition. But he also warned against xenophobic distortions of those statistics.

"I have no problem with [the support I have from ethnic Hungarians]. It is Meciar's problem. Meciar separates the Slovak society. I unify it. This is the first evidence that the Hungarian minority can support the candidate of a coalition. If somebody considers it a mistake that they supported me, I have my voters all over Slovakia. So if someone says only the Hungarians have voted for me, he is n-o-t telling the truth. Meciar's supporters will vote for him but he would like to criticize those who didn't vote for him just because they supported me. The Hungarians have kept their coalition promise. I see only a positive development in that, not negative." Meciar, who served as Slovak prime minister for most of the period between 1992 to 1998, helped to trigger the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993. Western leaders often criticized what was seen as the authoritarian manner of his rule, something they cited as the reason Slovakia has n-o-t been invited into NATO or as one of the front-rank candidate states for European Union membership.

But Meciar remains popular in rural communities across the country, and he retains political influence through his allies who still control top management positions in major state companies. Meciar's nationalist rhetoric also could appeal to unemployed workers who have not seen much improvement in their economic situation since last year's elections.

Tibor Cabaj, parliamentary leader of Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), said he does n-o-t see Meciar's second place finish on Saturday as a failure. In fact, the 37 percent of the vote that Meciar gathered was much higher than pre-election polls had predicted.

Meciar has refused to be interviewed by journalists since the announcement of official results. He also cancelled a press conference that had been scheduled for yesterday.

While Slovakia's presidency is largely a ceremonial office, western business leaders in Bratislava have been watching the ballot closely to determine whether Meciar has a political future in the country. If Meciar loses, one effect could be speedier management reforms at state companies. Such reforms are seen by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) as a key to increasing productivity and foreign investment in Slovakia.