Slovakia's former autocratic prime minister has won the first round of presidential elections. Vladimir Meciar will face a former political ally in a run-off vote later this month. A referendum on holding early parliamentary elections failed to garner sufficient votes to pass.

Slovakia's Central Election Commission says the former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar won nearly 33 percent of the vote. Ivan Gasparovic, who left Mr. Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia two years ago to form his own party, came in second with just over 22 percent.

Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, who had been favored to win, was third. Current President Rudolf Schuster ran as an independent.

Under Slovak law the two top contenders, ex-Prime Minister Meciar and Mr. Gasparovic, will now face each other in a run-off election on April 17.

Although Slovakia's post of president is largely ceremonial, the election outcome is seen as a protest vote against tough economic and social policies of the center-right government.

However a referendum on whether to hold early parliamentary elections was declared invalid because less than half of Slovakia's eligible voters turned out.

Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda was expected to see this as a mandate to continue his economic policies, which he said will bear fruit later this year. "We had only last year [when it was] really very difficult for the people, for their income," he said. "And I expect that this year will really be, not only the year of great growth, but also the year [that] will be good for the people."

Mr. Meciar, 61, an ex-boxer and law graduate, has fought for a political come back since he was voted out of office in 1998. He took his republic of over five million people to nationhood in 1993, when Slovakia and the Czech Republic split Czechoslovakia. His rule was overshadowed by allegations of authoritarianism, corruption and a crack down on opponents. Mr. Meciar recently said he has changed and is committed to NATO and the European Union.

The political developments in Slovakia are being closely watched in Europe. The country joined NATO last week, and will become a European Union member on May 1.