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Slovaks Overwhelmingly Approve EU Membership

Slovakia's prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, says his country has approved European Union membership in a referendum that was nearly invalid because of a low voter turnout. Official results are expected Sunday, but it is already clear that over 90 percent of Slovaks participating in the ballot, voted for joining the European Union.

Prime Minister Dzurinda announced that an overwhelming majority of Slovaks had voted 'yes' for Slovakia to enter the European Union next year.

Election officials said preliminary results made clear that voter turnout was only slightly higher than the 50 percent threshold needed to make the referendum valid.

But the outcome also showed that nine out of 10 Slovaks participating in the ballot supported EU accession, prompting Prime Minister Dzurinda to say: 'Good luck to you in the EU.'

It is believed that an appeal from Slovak President Rudolf Schuster helped to save Mr. Dzurinda's pro-Western government the embarrassment of an invalid EU referendum.

Even a few hours before voting ended, President Schuster urged everyone to have their say in the road ahead for Slovakia.

Although Slovakia's Parliament was expected to ratify EU entry anyway, politicians were hoping for support from voters who will have to re-elect them.

Commentators have attributed low turnout to a perceived poor campaign and an apparent nationwide impression that EU membership was a foregone conclusion.

In addition, the elderly and other groups, already suffering under the daily burden of their country's post-communist transition, fear more economic hardship when Slovakia joins the European Union in 2004 with nine other mainly former communist nations.

Those who support EU accession argued that eventually living standards would improve in a country where average monthly wages are $400, several times less than in current EU member states.

Yet, Slovakia is not the only EU candidate country suffering under apparent voter apathy. Only 46 percent of voters cast their ballots in neighboring Hungary's referendum last month.

There is concern among analysts and diplomats that these turnouts could influence the outcomes of referenda in Poland and the Czech Republic which will vote on EU membership in June.