Voters in Slovakia have begun casting their ballots in parliamentary elections seen as crucial for the country's hopes of joining the European Union and the NATO alliance. The West has put Slovaks on notice that, if they return a controversial former prime minister to power, their country will not be joining either group anytime soon.

In a departure from electoral procedure elsewhere in Europe, the voting in Slovakia takes place over a two-day period. More than 20 parties, and nearly 2,500 candidates, are vying for seats in the 150 member parliament. But only about half of the parties will make it into the assembly.

Experts predict that voter turnout will exceed 70 per cent of Slovakia's more than four million registered voters. They say voters are concerned about high unemployment and corruption, but there is another element at play as well, and that is whether Slovakia will finally be able to join the European Union and NATO.

The key factor is whether voters will return former prime minister Vladimir Meciar to power. His populist HZDS party might get a plurality of the votes, but the EU and NATO have warned that Slovakia, under Mr. Meciar, would have no chance of joining either organization.

The other parties in the election have pledged not to join Mr. Meciar in any government. His four-year rule in the mid-to-late 1990s was characterized by violations of the rule of law and rampant corruption. After his electoral defeat in 1998, a coalition of center-right parties under current prime minister Mikulas Dzurinda took over, carried out extensive economic reforms and put Slovakia back on track for membership in the two Western institutions.

But the reforms were painful. Unemployment is now running at 19 per cent, and many Slovaks, especially the poor and less educated, feel left out.

Still, Grigorij Meseznikov, who heads a research organization called the Institute of Public Affairs, says most Slovaks believe that joining the EU is the only way to improve their living standards. He says most Slovaks do not want a return to Mr. Meciar's brand of nationalism and populism. "Slovaks voted for democracy four years ago, and I don't think that there are reasons to think that Slovaks changed their minds and will vote for undemocratic ways," he said. "I think that Slovaks will definitely vote for democracy in these elections."

Although preliminary results of the two-day election will not be known until Sunday, Mr. Meseznikov says he believes the parties that make up the outgoing government will coalesce with one or two new parties that also favor EU and NATO membership.

One of those parties is led by a young populist lawyer named Robert Fico, who was running close behind Mr. Meciar in pre-election polls. But Mr. Fico has been insisting that he should be named prime minister if, as expected, he wins more votes than outgoing prime minister Dzurinda. Whether Mr. Dzurinda and his current coalition partners go along with that remains to be seen.

Western diplomats, who have expressed concern about Mr. Fico's demands that some agreements already concluded with the EU be re-negotiated, say they still believe they can work with him. Their main concern is that Slovakia get a new government in place as soon as soon as possible to prepare for EU and NATO membership.