Former Slovak Premier Poised to Regain Office

Muddled election results may fuel political conflict as a broad spectrum of parties tries to block Meciar's return

ELECTION results in Slovakia show Vladimir Meciar, the two-time former prime minister who pushed for the breakup of Czechoslovakia, to be the people's choice. But his political rivals view Mr. Meciar as a danger to the country's democratic and economic transformation.

Meciar is derided by opponents as a divisive political figure who relies on bullying tactics. His return to power, critics add, would be a severe setback for Slovak economic reform and could possibly destabilize relations with neighboring countries.

The cornerstone of Meciar's political philosophy is a mixture of populism and nationalism. Under his guidance, Slovakia peacefully separated from the Czech Republic in 1993. Since then, Slovakia's economy has stagnated, but Meciar has continued to play successfully on nationalist sentiment to retain widespread appeal.

Hoping to preserve the present reform course, a broad spectrum of political parties is searching for ways to forge a governing coalition that would block Meciar's return to power. The question is whether his opponents can muster the strength to isolate the top vote-getter from government.

The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), headed by Meciar, far outpolled all its competitors in Slovakia's weekend parliamentary elections, garnering about 35 percent of the vote, according to preliminary official results. The party with the next-highest vote total was the Common Choice bloc, made up of reformed Communists, who won with 10.4 percent. About 75 percent of eligible voters participated cast ballots.

The results would give the HZDS at least 58 seats in the 150-member Slovak parliament. Meciar is likely to reach out to small nationalist parties in an attempt to cobble together a governing majority. Observers, however, say that coalition-building could be a protracted process. ``A one-color government with the tacit support from one or two parties has no chance of survival,'' Peter Weiss, the Common Choice bloc's leader, said of a potential Meciar government.

Regardless of whether Meciar is successful or not in returning to power, Slovakia appears to have missed a chance at creating the political stability that the sluggish economy needs to prosper. Since the collapse of Communism, Slovakia has fallen far behind its immediate neighbors - the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary - in the implementation of market reforms. The muddled poll results are now likely to fuel political conflict, which in turn will make it extremely difficult for Slovakia to close the economic gap.

Meciar's two previous stints as premier have been marked by social tensions and a lack of economic reform. Last March, he was ousted in a vote of no-confidence, engineered by several political allies turned enemies, who complained that Meciar's governing style had become dictatorial.

Following his removal, a broad-based coalition, headed by current Prime Minister Jozef Moravcik, succeeded in turning Slovakia's economy in the right direction, bringing inflation down and lowering unemployment. Economic growth during the first half of 1994 was estimated at 4.4 percent, the first positive figures following four years of stagnation.

Also, his government in September launched a mass privatization program, in which citizens could buy vouchers, which could be exchanged for shares in state enterprises.

N addition, the interim government fostered stability by easing tension with Hungary. The two nations had been engaged in an escalating feud over the Slovak government's treatment of the 600,000-strong ethnic Hungarian minority, who make up roughly 10 percent of Slovakia's 5.2 million population. Budapest had charged Bratislava with state-sponsored discrimination against Hungarians in Slovakia.

Yet despite the economic and political progress, the Slovak electorate shunned Moravcik's party, the Democratic Union, which won only about 8.5 percent, the fifth-highest total behind the Christian Democrats' 10.1 percent, and a coalition of Hungarian parties with 10 percent.

In engineering his political comeback, Meciar ran a slick campaign underpinned by a populist platform that promised simplistic solutions to Slovakia's tangled problems.

He vowed to reverse the current wave of mass privatization, describing it as a sellout to foreign interests and also condemned the notion of limited autonomy for the Hungarian minority.

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