Former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's summer home cost $1 million to build, a mammoth sum in this impoverished central European country. But when reporters here ask the politician where he got the money, he replies with vague allusions to a mysterious German creditor and last week Mr. Meciar hit a television journalist who kept asking.
It was typically brazen Meciar style. Controversial and charismatic, Meciar is a political icon here. But his repressive brand of nationalist populism, alleged corruption, and authoritarian contempt for the media have raised hackles both at home and abroad.
Both NATO and the European Union have made it clear that Slovaks must put an end to Meciar's political career in elections Saturday or face continued isolation from the West. As long as Meciar remains in the political picture, Slovakia cannot be accepted into Western clubs, including NATO and the EU, Western diplomats say.
Meciar headed Slovakia's government after its 1992 independence from Czechoslovakia until 1998, and he has remained the single most powerful politician even after being deposed by a broad coalition of opposition parties.
When the neighboring Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO in 1999, Slovakia was excluded because of suspicions over Meciar's close ties to Moscow and his alleged role in a state-organized kidnapping and murder. Meciar's administration was condemned by human rights groups and Western governments as lacking commitment to democratic principles.
While many in Slovakia would like to see his influence ended, those same people often worry that the West is coming too close to openly influencing the vote.
In the run-up to the elections, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, and EU Commissioner for Enlargement Guenther Verheugen have warned Slovaks that if Meciar wins, they will be shunned by the West again. "Those citizens who want to be in NATO must vote for parties that will take Slovakia into NATO. It is as simple as that," Mr. Robertson said in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, earlier this year.
US President George Bush has told Slovak President Rudolf Schuster that Slovakia should form a new government, and one acceptable to NATO, before the alliance's November summit in nearby Prague. Polls show that more than 50 percent of Slovaks would agree to join NATO, up from 35 percent two years ago. The change in public attitude was achieved by an intensive campaign to explain NATO to Slovaks, spearheaded by the anti-Meciar coalition government and western-backed advocacy groups.
Last month, after being told by US officials that the Prague summit would probably be Slovakia's last chance to join NATO, Mr. Schuster made a desperate appeal to the public to vote for parties supported by the West. "If we miss this chance now, we could find ourselves behind closed doors again, but this time for a long time," he said in a televised speech.
Even so, Meciar's party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) consistently led in the polls, claiming around 30 percent of the electorate, significantly more than any other party, until three weeks ago. Then, suddenly, a group of Meciar's closest supporters, inspired partly by western demands that Meciar be cast out, broke away from HZDS to form the Movement for Democracy (HZD). Around 10 percent of the electorate followed. As a result, HZDS is now tied to the brand-new SMER Party of Robert Fico, a similar charismatic populist. No other polls are allowed until the vote, but analysts say there is a chance Meciar will come in second.
"This is a major upset. Meciar has been the most popular politician since this country split from Czechoslovakia," says Michal Masecka, a political analyst at the Slovak Institute of Public Affairs. "In 1998, he actually won the elections, but the other parties refused to form a coalition with him, so he was unable to form a government. A conglomeration of small parties had to form a weak government to oppose him. These elections give great hope that Meciar will be finally destroyed."
The atmosphere here is one of disappointment at the choices on the ballot. Most adults questioned say they will vote but only to keep Meciar and other extremists out of power.
"Voters don't see many options," says Daniel Butora, head of the Slovakia service of Radio Free Europe. "The other main parties are equally corrupt. The primary difference between Meciar and Fico is that Fico is accepted by the West."
Meciar has a reputation as one of modern Europe's greatest orators, and he still has a loyal core of support. He has been compared with both Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther King for his ability to galvanize crowds. "He can convince you of anything, even if you resist," says pharmacist Adriana Demcakova. "I couldn't help but trust him. Now, I see he is corrupt and a liar, but the other politicians are the same. None of them offer any hope."
Unemployment nationwide hovers at 19 percent, and in rural villages like Durcina, northeast of Bratislava, poverty drags down even those who have work. The current government of Mikulas Dzurinda has done little to ease the hard times, and many here want Meciar back. "Lots of politicians make promises, but Mr. Meciar is the only one who really did anything to help older people or the rural poor," says pensioner Josef Knapac. "The West has no right to tell us we can't vote for the man who gave us a better life."
Economists say that Meciar put Slovakia deeply in debt with his populist measures, such as raising pensions, but even his critics often feel uncomfortable about Western influence over the elections. "The pressure from the West is so great that even Meciar's loyal supporters are afraid to vote for him," says Robert Zitnansky, editor of the political weekly Domino Forum. "Many people resent the influence of foreign politicians on our elections. I accept that if we want to join NATO we have to fulfill certain conditions but telling us how to vote is going to far. It is as if the West thinks Slovaks are total idiots."
"I can't exactly blame NATO for trying to influence our elections," says Ms. Demcakova. "They are helping us to get rid of a tyrant. On the other hand, how are we supposed to develop a decent democracy if they tamper with the voters?"
Markus Meckel, vice president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, defends all sides' right to choose. "Slovak citizens have free will to vote for whomever they wish," he said, adding that "on the other hand, Western institutions have free will to express whom they can, and cannot accept as their member."