BRATISLAVA, CZECHOSLOVAKIA — IN 1990, when Czechoslovakians first voted in free elections, many of them found the decision fairly clear-cut: anybody but the Communists.
But last week, when 85 percent of the adult population went to the polls, the choice was not so simple. It was not a matter of just voting against something, but deciding on future of the country.
The issues were big ones. Should economic reform proceed quickly and radically, or slowly and with more state intervention? Should Czechoslovakia remain one country, or split into two?
The results of the June 5-6 federal and regional elections show clear voter preferences, but with the outcome in the Czech Republic diametrically opposed to that in the Slovak Republic. If leaders from the two republics cannot find common ground a split of the country seems inevitable.
In the Czech Republic, the most votes went to the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), headed by Vaclav Klaus, who would like to race to a free market. Mr. Klaus, the country's maverick finance minister, also favors a united Czechoslovakia.
But here in the economic backwater of the Slovak Republic, whose people speak a slightly different language than the Czechs and feel economically oppressed, the party with the most votes is demanding a slowdown in reform and "true sovereignty" for Slovakia. This party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), is headed by Vladimir Meciar, a former communist. He joined the opposition movement Public Against Violence and became premier of Slovakia after the 1989 country's revolution. After he was for ced from office last year, Mr. Meciar founded his own party.
Meciar delivers a simple get-tough-with-Prague message that voters here like. Once a boxer, Meciar comes across to Slovaks as almost a bully - but one on their side.
"We need a politician like this right now," says Milan Suchon, a Slovak voter in Bratislava. "Meciar is a tough guy. He can defend us. Things must be put in order vis-a-vis the Czechs. They must stop getting a better deal."
The Slovak vote is being viewed here as a kind of referendum on the independence question. But while preliminary results show Meciar's semi-nationalist party with a hefty 38 percent of the Slovak vote, HZDS has avoided saying how far it will go on the road to independence.
Meciar is leaning toward a "friendly" confederation, in which the two republics share common defense, foreign, and monetary policy (as well as a single currency). Slovakia, however, would seek international recognition, have its own constitution and diplomatic corps, and make its own decisions about economic reforms, he says.
Meciar said yesterday talks about forming a federal coalition would begin with Klaus tomorrow. Meciar is holding talks with the nationalists and the communists in the Slovak parliament but was leaning toward a coalition with the nationalists, he said.
Michal Kovac, economic adviser to Meciar, says one need only look at the facts for proof that Prague's economic policy discriminates against Slovakia, home to one-third of the coun-try's 15.6 million people. Last year, production dropped much more in Slovakia than in the Czech Republic; Slovak unemployment was three times that of Czechs, and Slovaks lost more purchasing power, he says.
Slovakia asked to proceed in a different way to the market economy, Mr. Kovac says. His party, he says, advocates a greater role for the state, including selective price controls, subsidies for farmers, and subsidies for manufacturers until they finish the transformation into modern companies.
Little of this is likely to appeal to Klaus and the ODS, although during the campaign he and Meciar have avoided attacking each other and are leaving the door open for compromise.
In Prague, politicians from the Klaus camp say Meciar may find some willingness on Klaus's part to reduce the role of the federal government and transfer more power to the republics. But if Meciar tries to slow economic reform or demand more financing for big Slovak projects, he will run into a brick wall.
"The key problem will be agreeing on economic issues," says Jan Mladek, federal deputy economics minister. Mr. Mladek says Klaus will have little sympathy for Slovak demands for a redistribution of resources and deficit financing.
As both Meciar and Klaus try to work out the shape of the new federal government, indeed the future of the country itself, much will depend on the kind of pressure exerted on them by their coalition partners back home in their respective republics.
While it looks as if Klaus's ODS will be able to form a center-right coalition in the Czech Parliament, Meciar's position is less clear. He can turn either to the nationalists, who unequivocally want independence, or to the former communists, who share his views on the economy but want a common state. His choice will signal how flexible he will be on the sovereignty issue.
Regardless of how Meciar nails together a coalition, however, a consensus on Slovak action has emerged among a wide spectrum of parties, including the HZDS.
* The Slovaks want a better deal for their economy.
* They are interested in building some kind of interim government with the Czechs, and are prepared to wait 12 to 18 months to see how this works before taking further action, such as a referendum on Slovak independence.
* They want change through political means, not violence.
* Most Slovaks still want some kind of cooperation with the Czechs, even while they simultaneously demand autonomy.
The question is whether the Czechs will be interested in a halfway or interim solution. The opinion is growing in Prague that perhaps the Czechs should simply let the disgruntled Slovaks go; otherwise there will be no end to the complaints and accusations.
The voting over the weekend involved the election of the Czech parliament, the Slovak parliament and the federal Parliament. The federal Parliament will have its first session at the end of June and will elect the president of the country in July. At the moment there appeared to be no serious contenders against Vaclav Havel as president. It is then up to the president to name the new prime minister and the government.