Ever since the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Petr Jaks has watched the Slovak Republic, better known as Slovakia, become increasingly isolated. When he heard of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland being welcomed into NATO earlier this year, he felt ashamed.
"We missed the train on that one," says Mr. Jaks, a computer consultant. "It's a disgrace, really. And all because of Meciar."
Vladimir Meciar, the former prime minister whose autocratic rule once earned Slovakia the tag of "a totalitarian island in a sea of democracy," lost power in September parliamentary elections. Now he is struggling to reemerge as president. "He keeps coming back," Jaks says. "But we need him gone for good."
Mr. Meciar faces Rudolf Schuster, the governing coalition candidate, in a runoff vote Saturday. As the president was previously chosen by Parliament, this will be the first time the post is decided by popular ballot. With anti-Meciar sentiment strong, Schuster is favored to win, though a low turnout would boost Meciar's chances.
Slovakia has been without a head of state for 14 months. While his duties are mainly ceremonial, the president's influence can reach far beyond his office.
"The existing government has problems with stability," says Michal Ivantysyn, a political scientist at the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava. "The president has the ability to make this situation either better or worse."
Others view a Schuster victory as a public endorsement of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, who has traveled to Europe and the United States seeking closer ties and investment. "Investors have already seen that this government has changed for the better," says a Western diplomat. "A Schuster victory will give additional moral authority to the current reforms."
A Meciar defeat, moreover, is likely to end his era of politics-by-force. The former pugilist, whom journalists often referred to as a dictator, demagogue, and thug, is widely credited with causing the breakup of Czechoslovakia to gain power. He was known for using the secret police to terrorize political enemies. Even the previous president, Michal Kovac, was not immune. In 1995, his son was beaten and kidnapped in an incident allegedly involving Meciar's security forces.
Two years ago the European Union cited the democratic failings of the Meciar regime as reason for not considering Slovakia for membership. Although his defeat alone will not get Slovakia into the EU, it will bring the country one step closer to integration with the West.
"When Slovakia is perceived as a stable democracy, its chances for EU membership will rise very quickly," says political scientist Mr. Ivantysyn. "A defeat for Meciar will help that process along."
Despite all this, support for Meciar is strong in rural areas, where he is viewed as a powerful defender of Slovakia's interests.
Andrej Skultety, a young, ponytailed man at a cafe below Bratislava Castle, recalls driving his grandmother for an hour so she could vote in the first-round election. "She's fanatical about him," he says. "He's a very charismatic leader. If he talks bull, people believe his bull. That way they don't have to think."
In light of NATO's involvement in Kosovo, which many Slovaks oppose, a Schuster victory would be even more significant.
Mr. Skultety becomes visibly uncomfortable at mention of the bombing campaign in Yugoslavia. "If you asked me last year about joining NATO, I'd say definitely, yes. Now, I'm not so sure."
After a moment's thought he adds, "But we can't allow a Meciar victory. That will take us back too many years."