- The Washington Times - Monday, September 23, 2002

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia General elections boosted Slovak hopes of joining NATO and the European Union by leaving an authoritarian former prime minister with his worst showing ever, according to preliminary results yesterday.
The electoral commission results showed Vladimir Meciar's HZDS party in first place with 19.5 percent, more than seven percentage points below its 1998 election results. The SDKU party of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda was second at 15.09 percent, better than generally expected, considering widespread discontent with fallen living standards generated by his economic reforms.
Third was the Smer party of leftist Robert Fico, with 13.46 percent, followed by three center-right parties.
Despite its first-place showing, Mr. Meciar's party had little chance of making a comeback because of rejection by potential coalition partners. The United States and the European Union have warned that Slovakia has little chance of joining NATO and the EU under Mr. Meciar because of his record of playing loose with democracy during his five years in office after the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993 and the creation of an independent Slovakia.
EU reaction was positive. The state news agency TASR quoted Eric van der Linden, the EU ambassador to Slovakia, as saying: "Everyone is, in all, satisfied with the result."
Mr. Dzurinda again ruled out cooperation with Mr. Meciar ahead of the release of results, declaring: "We won't negotiate with the HZDS" on forming a new government.
Yesterday, he suggested his party would form a coalition with the three other center-right parties, saying that a coalition of parties sharing similar views would be most efficient in completing economic and social reforms.
Mr. Dzurinda improved the image of the Slovakia he inherited from Mr. Meciar, with reforms that erased decades of communist rule, bringing it to the threshold of NATO and closer to EU membership.
While joining the European Union is at least two years away, Slovakia is expected to get the nod at NATO's summit in November in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, where delegates will decide on new members.
President Rudolf Schuster said the results left Slovakia on track to achieve key foreign policy goals. "I believe that in November we will be invited into NATO, and in 2004 into the EU," he told state television.
Mr. Schuster planned to meet with party officials today to hear their proposals on a future government.
Official final results were expected today, but were unlikely to differ much from yesterday's preliminary results, which also showed the Communists surpassing the 5 percent mark needed to get into parliament, likely making theirs the only party in the legislature that remains fiercely opposed to NATO membership.

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