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Slovakia: Slovaks Gear Up For Key Elections On Road To EU, NATO

Slovaks head for the polls later this month in an election that a top European Union official has described as the most important in the history of the country, as it bids for EU and NATO membership. At this point little is certain, but analysts are making two predictions: one, that former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar is unlikely to come back to a position of power. And two, that the next government is likely to be another broad-based, pro-EU coalition that includes at least one party that didn't even exist when the country held its last general election four years ago.

Prague, 6 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Recent opinion polls in Slovakia are likely to gladden the hearts of many Western diplomats.

The polls confirm a slide in the popularity of former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia party (HZDS), which dominated Slovak politics in the 1990s until it was ousted four years ago. Not only that, the results show that HZDS has, for the first time ever, lost its traditional lead in the opinion polls.

For years, the West has fretted over the possibility that Meciar could return to power in this month's general elections and lead Slovakia back into the international isolation of his earlier reign, when the country was ruled out of NATO and European Union entry for backsliding on democratic reforms.

But the HZDS, which until recently enjoyed ratings of 25 to 30 percent, has been losing support in recent months -- due to both a split in the party and a scandal over corruption allegations involving some costly repairs to Meciar's home.

Three polls now show support for HZDS at 18 percent -- a fraction behind the Smer (Direction) party, a relative newcomer to the political scene, which has just over 18 percent. A fourth poll released this week gives HZDS a slight lead.

The slide in support appears to deal a fatal blow to Meciar's ambitions of joining the next government. Most other parties have vowed not to work with him. Even if Meciar's party comes out with the most votes, President Rudolf Schuster has hinted he could sideline him and ask other parties to form a government.

An upbeat Guenther Verheugen, the EU enlargement commissioner, noted last week that Slovakia's situation in the run-up to the elections "now looks much better than before the summer break."

Analysts say the next government is likely to be another broad-based, pro-EU coalition, though with a different makeup than the current government led by Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda.

Likely candidates are Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic Christian Union, the Hungarian Coalition Party, and perhaps the Christian Democratic Movement, all of which are in the current government and polling a combined 25 to 30 percent.

One party almost certain to be in government is the newcomer Smer, which is led by the popular deputy Robert Fico. Another newcomer, Alliance of New Citizens -- its abbreviation ANO means "yes" -- is also polling strongly, at around 9 percent. One other party that also looks likely to enter parliament is the Movement for Democracy, or HZD -- the HZDS splinter group that is the main source of Meciar's current woes.

Fico, a lawyer by profession, launched Smer in 1999 after splitting from the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL) -- the left-wing party in the governing coalition. Fico's pledge to tackle corruption and bring new faces into Slovak politics appears to have been welcomed by voters, who have consistently rated him one of the country's most professional and trustworthy politicians.

A savvy media operator, Fico has a flair for delivering direct, populist messages on a range of subjects, including Slovakia's scheduled entry into the European Union in 2004. A recent Smer poster, for example, features a row of naked buttocks with the slogan "To the European Union? Yes, but not with bare bottoms!"

Vladimir Bilcik is an analyst at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. He says Fico has successfully tapped into voters' disappointment with the current government. "He has been capitalize on his personal charisma, his personal drive, which over time has attracted a lot of voters," Bilcik said. "Secondly, Smer has been very good at marketing itself. It's consistently really pursued a very strong, very visible campaign. It's also a very oppositional campaign, in relation to the current government, on a very personal level -- in some ways, perhaps, a nasty campaign. It has been out in posters, in the media, with a lot of clear populist pronouncements."

The other new kid on the block is ANO, led by Pavol Rusko, who has been dubbed the "Slovak Berlusconi."

Tim Haughton, a Slovakia expert at London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies, says Rusko has capitalized on a high profile he earned building up a successful media empire. "[ANO's popularity is] based primarily around Rusko and obviously supported by his media empire -- by TV Markiza, the most popular commercial TV station in the country, and also his interests in Radio Okey and in 'Narodna Obroda,' one of the newspapers in Slovakia. But essentially one of the reasons why Rusko has some popularity is that he's a man who's shown he's quite a successful, effective businessman. And if you look at his party, it's built almost like a business-like party. And I think that appeals, to some extent, to a certain section of Slovak voters who look at the party and think, 'Well, Rusko has made a great success of Markiza and these other business enterprises; perhaps if he can run a business he can run the country.'"

But ultimately the outcome of this month's elections are hard to predict. Analysts say this is for several reasons.

One is that, as of 6 September, there is a blackout on all voter-preference surveys. By the time voters go to the polls on 20 September, the surveys released this week may no longer be an accurate guide.

Voter turnout may also be key. A low turnout could work in Meciar's favor, as he can rely on a cadre of loyal supporters.

Also clouding the picture are the many small parties hovering close to the 5 percent threshold for entering parliament.

And when the winners hunker down for talks on forming a government, they'll have to set aside the personal animosities that have so far overshadowed important issues like the country's high unemployment rate. Fico, for example, has vowed not to work with either Dzurinda or Ivan Miklos, the deputy prime minister in charge of the economy.

Haughton says all this makes it harder to predict who will be the next prime minister. Fico and Dzurinda are obvious candidates, but it is equally plausible that a new face will be the winner. "There are all sort of names that could be thrown into the hat," Haughton said. "But you've got to remember the personal rivalries and hatred among politicians. So you might see someone emerge -- from not-quite relative obscurity, but some candidate who is the least unacceptable for all the coalition partners -- becoming prime minister."

Whoever sits down for talks will be keen to form a government quickly to push forward Slovakia's main foreign-policy goals -- EU and NATO membership. In November, NATO holds its Prague summit, when it is expected to announce which countries will be invited to join the alliance. The following month the EU meets in Copenhagen, when it is expected to announce when applicant countries can expect to enter the union.

Analysts say as long as a pro-EU government can be cobbled together following this month's elections, EU and NATO membership is more or less secure for Slovakia -- particularly as the new cabinet will be eager to go down in history as having secured this double prize for the country.

But there could still be some challenges along the way. Fico, for example, has threatened to reopen chapters in the EU negotiations where he feels Slovakia has gotten a bad deal. "I think from the union's point of view, no one perceived it particularly positively or with any great understanding, mainly because no one is sure what [Fico is] aiming at -- whether it's campaign rhetoric or a principled position," Jan Figel, Slovakia's chief EU negotiator, told RFE/RL's Slovak Service this week.

Bilcik notes that once EU and NATO membership is secure, any government coalition could come unglued. "The issue, in the medium to long term...will be the quality of this membership [in EU and NATO]," Bilcik said. "And once we do achieve that goal of being member states of EU and NATO, the glue that might hold the next government [together] will be much less of a glue, particularly because the focus will shift to other problems associated with our membership in these organizations."

Haughton says another danger for ANO and Smer is that they could go the way of other parties launched with great fanfare before previous elections. Several -- including President Schuster's Party of Civic Understanding, or SOP -- faded away or disintegrated soon after coming to power.

(RFE/RL's Slovak Service contributed to this report.)