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Slovaks Vote in Presidential Elections - 2004-04-03

Slovaks voted Saturday in the first round of elections to choose a president who would guide the country through the first years of membership in the European Union and NATO. They also vote in a referendum on whether Slovakia should hold early Parliamentary elections to replace an unpopular government.

Among the leading candidates for the largely ceremonial post of president are Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan and former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, an ex-Communist who was much criticized for his autocratic style. The incumbent, President Rudolf Shuster, is running as an independent, and is given a slim chance of winning.

If no candidate gets at least 50 percent of the votes, the two top contenders will go into a runoff election April 17.

Vladimir Meciar took the country to nationhood following the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, and is widely blamed for delaying the country's integration with European institutions. He was voted out of office in 1998, but has remained in politics. He now says he has changed.

In a separate ballot, the Slovaks are also deciding whether to hold an early parliamentary election to get rid of the unpopular government of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda. The referendum, initiated by opposition parties and trade unions, is seen as a protest against the government's belt-tightening policies. Many Slovaks accuse the prime minister of aiming to please foreign investors at the expense of the people.

But, speaking to a small group of Western reporters ahead of the elections, Mr. Dzurinda defended his policies.

"If we invite investors we do basically something good for people," he said. "I understand that it is impossible to the reforms without pain. But we have decided, rightly by my mind, that we do the most unpopular steps just immediately after the elections. We did it. Because I understood that we have such a mandate."

The prime minister said foreign investment, including a $1.5 billion car manufacturing plant built by Hyundai, creates thousands of much-needed jobs.

First official results of Saturday's voting are expected on Sunday.