- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — After eight years of rapid economic reform, Slovak voters turned to the left for the first time since the fall of communism in 1989.

Robert Fico’s left-leaning Smer party won a clear mandate to form the next governing coalition with 29 percent of the vote. Smer outpaced its nearest rival by 11 points, according to preliminary results. His party appears to have collected 50 of the 150 seats in parliament, but they will need 26 more to form a majority government.

Voters responded to Mr. Fico’s charges that economic transformation had left too many people behind. He vowed to reverse some of the reforms and expand the social safety net.

“Fast economic growth will no longer be for the benefit of a narrow group of people,” Mr. Fico told supporters at Smer’s headquarters before they burst into the national anthem. “We want a center-left government that will establish solidarity and reduce the differences that have grown between economic groups because of eight years of [Prime Minister Mikulas] Dzurinda’s reforms.”

Mr. Fico, 41, has vowed to repeal a 19 percent flat tax, and increase taxes on the wealthy and cutback on tax holidays for foreign firms. But following through on these and other promises will depend on the results of his coalition negotiations.

Having ruled out a two-party coalition with Mr. Dzurinda’s Slovak Democratic Party, he is left to try and form a three-party coalition with some combination of two junior members of the outgoing government — considered mainstream center-right parties — or a pair of unconventional parties.

But as part of the outgoing government, both the Christian Democrats and an ethnic-Hungarian party backed the government’s economic reforms, which have brought Slovakia rapid economic growth. The country’s annual gross domestic product(GDP) growth of around 6 percent has been fueled by huge inflows of foreign investment. Slovakia is now the largest car manufacturer in Europe on a per-capita basis.

So Mr. Fico will probably have to compromise his economic-reform agenda to bring the mainstream parties into government.

The alternatives include former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar and his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). Mr. Meciar’s authoritarian style of governing led Slovakia into international isolation in the 1990s. The other option is the Slovak Nationalist Party (SNS), an extremist party.

Not too long ago, Mr. Fico, a former communist, was also viewed as a maverick politician. But he has refined his image and formally associated his vaguely named Smer Party (which only means “direction”) with European social democrats.

So Martin Butora, a founder of the Institute of Public Affairs here, is cautiously optimistic that Mr. Fico will seek a mainstream alliance.

“If we want to keep our dynamism, we have to perform,” Mr. Butora said. ” A Smer, HZDS and SNS coalition is the least prepared to perform.”

Mr. Fico has also said he would withdraw Slovakia’s token military commitment in Iraq. The country has about 100 noncombat troops there engaged in mine-clearing.

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