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Slovaks Elect Gasparovic President; Meciar Defeated - 2004-04-18

A former ally of Slovakia's authoritarian ex-prime minister has unexpectedly won the country's presidential runoff election. The latest official results show that lawyer Ivan Gasparovic defeated his former mentor, Vladimir Meciar, with about 60 percent of the vote. The 63-year-old president-elect, who wrote the constitution for Slovakia when it split from Czechoslovakia in 1993, was clearly surprised by his victory.

Speaking on Slovak Radio, Mr. Gasparovic said he had expected the government's presidential candidate, Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, would be selected in the first round of elections to face former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar.

"It is interesting that I managed to steal Mr. Kukan's place. I did not expect that," he said.

Mr. Meciar, a former boxer who hoped to make a political comeback after being voted out of office in 1998, also expected to have a runoff with Mr. Kukan. In that case, he said, he would probably have won because Mr. Kukan's center-right government's economic reforms have made it deeply unpopular in this country of more than five million people.

Although the post is largely ceremonial, the president of Slovakia holds veto power over legislation, including the reforms demanded by Western institutions. President-elect Gasparovic, who is married and has two children, says nobody in or out of Slovakia has anything to fear from him.

Slovak political analyst Ivo Samson agrees. He says Western diplomats feel Mr. Gasparovic is likely to be easier to work with than Mr. Meciar would have been.

"There is of course a slight difference between Prime Minister Meciar and Mr. Gasparovic," he said. "Mr. Gasparovic is as good as unknown abroad."

After having rejected the first-round candidate from Mikulas Dzurinda's minority center-right government, some Slovak voters say they had to choose between two bad candidates, in the second round, to preside over the country's entry into the European Union the first of May.