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Slovaks Vote in Presidential Runoff Election - 2004-04-17


Voters in Slovakia are choosing a president who will lead the country into the European Union in two weeks. The candidates in the runoff ballot are a controversial former prime minister and a former speaker of parliament.

A few children enjoy a carousel at an otherwise largely abandoned fun fair on a parking lot near the Communist-style apartment buildings of Komarno.

In this impoverished town of roughly 50,000 people on the border with Hungary, residents say there are not many reasons for them to have fun. They are too concerned about their future.

The choice in the final round of presidential elections is between former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar and his ally-turned-rival, Ivan Gasparovic. The people of Komarno are divided over who should become Slovakia's next head of state.

A low voter turnout would give Mr. Meciar the advantage, since the core vote then would come from his dedicated supporters, the elderly and those living in rural areas.

This worries ethnic Hungarians who live in and around Komarno, which was once part of Hungary under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

Mr. Meciar, who led Slovakia to nationhood as it split from Czechoslovakia in 1993, was known as a Slovak autocratic nationalist and criticized by the West for his perceived poor record on human rights.

Under his leadership, the country failed to qualify for membership in NATO when three of its neighbors - the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - joined in 1999.

However, under a coalition of western-friendly Christian Democrats and Liberals, Slovakia has since joined NATO and will soon become part of the European Union - two moves that will not be affected by the choice of president, since the post is largely ceremonial.

One ethnic Hungarian voter, Edith Szakal, speaking through an interpreter, says she fears that most Slovaks do not want the reforms preached by Western institutions, and will therefore vote for Mr. Meciar.

"Many Slovaks will vote for him, because Meciar does not want any changes," he said. "He is sitting on the old dogmas, which were built up before, and he doesn't want to change."

Another Komarno resident, 34-year-old Blazena Reckova, says it makes sense for her to vote for Mr. Meciar.

She says that as a divorced mother with three small children she sees no benefits from the reforms of the center-right government.

She says people like her need the social stability and welfare programs of the Meciar days.

"We want to vote for Meciar because we hope he will return to us our social welfare, which we lost," said Blazena Reckova. "Because I am a mother with three kids and get only 990 crowns a month, and that is extremely difficult. I am divorced, and we very much hope that our social help will be returned to us, and that we will have a better life."

The monthly allowance of 990 crowns Ms. Reckova receives is roughly $30.

Twenty five-year-old construction worker Frantisek Kovacs says Slovakia's politicians only worry about themselves, not the people who elect them.

"They only go into politics to enrich themselves," he said. "Because, here, I see they are more busy with how to get rich for themselves and not what to do and to give for the people."

Like many Slovaks, he is not optimistic about the immediate future. In the long term, he believes Slovakia is moving inevitably toward the west, regardless of who wins the presidency.

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