Slovakians electing 1st president since split with Czechs

2 leading candidates well-known politically


PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- For the first time since Slovakia was created in 1993 from the peaceful split of Czechoslovakia, its voters yesterday chose their president by direct election.

While the vote was new, the two leading candidates were not. The front-runner, Rudolf Schuster, 65, is the official candidate of the four-party coalition government, a political veteran who was the Communist leader of parliament, served after the anti-Communist revolution of 1989 as Czechoslovakia's ambassador to Canada and is the widely respected mayor of the eastern Slovak town of Kosice.

His prime challenger is Vladimir Meciar, 57, who was prime minister for all but nine months from 1992 until he was defeated in parliamentary elections last year and is widely blamed for stalling Slovakia's efforts to join NATO and the European Union.

Polls indicated that Schuster had what should be a comfortable lead of eight percentage points over Meciar, whose victory could cast a pall over the coalition government's successful efforts to bring Slovakia back into the club of Central Europe's post-Communist success stories -- the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary.

7 other candidates

Seven others are also candidates, the most prominent of whom is Magda Vasaryova, a popular former actress and successful Czechoslovak ambassador to neighboring Austria.

The former Slovak president, Michal Kovac, whose term ended in March 1998, gave up his candidacy May 11 and asked his supporters to vote for Schuster.

Restoring reputation

Yesterday's election is considered a bellwether for Slovakia and the efforts of its new prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, to restore the reputation tarnished by Meciar.

Slovakia has been without a president since Kovac's first five-year term expired in March 1998, and grave disagreements prevented direct election for a successor or a choice made by parliament.

After Meciar lost power, the new government was able to amend the Constitution and hold yesterday's election.

If none of the candidates gains more than 50 percent of the vote, which local observers believe is unlikely, the top two finishers in yesterday's vote would go forward to a second round to be held May 29.

Pub Date: 5/16/99

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