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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 April, 2004, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Strongman of Slovak politics
Vladimir Meciar's success in the first round of Slovakia's presidential elections is something of a comeback for one of the country's most popular, yet controversial politicians.

Vladimir Meciar, prime minister for most of the mid-1990s
Vladimir Meciar was prime minister during the mid-1990s

The former prime minister still attracts many voters thanks to the nationalist and populist policies he pursued while in office between 1994 and 1998.

In a surprise result, he has won 32.7% of the votes cast in the latest presidential poll, and goes through to a run-off with his former ally Ivan Gasparovic on 17 April.

Analysts say his support has been boosted recently by wide opposition to the tough economic and social reforms the government of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda has implemented to get Slovakia ready for EU membership.

But Mr Meciar's years in power were marked by corruption scandals and ethnic tensions.

His manipulation of parliament, the electoral law, the media and the secret police were cited by European Union officials as the reasons for putting off Slovakia's application to join the EU while Mr Meciar was in office.

Colourful past

Mr Meciar's image as the dangerous man of Slovak politics was reinforced by one televised incident where he was shown lunging at a Slovak journalist.

The 61-year-old lawyer is also a former boxer.

He took Slovakia to the brink of economic collapse and angered the international community during his time in office with a policy mix condemned by the US and Europe as corrupt and xenophobic.

It was only a very broad-based - and somewhat improbable - alliance of liberals, centrists, ex-communists and ethnic Hungarians that managed to oust him from power at elections in September 1998.

Ceremonial post

Mr Meciar's Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party came first in the 2002 parliamentary elections, but failed to form a governing coalition.

Western diplomats said his presence in government could scupper Slovakia's hopes of joining the EU and Nato.

But with Slovakia's integration now almost completely achieved, his election to the largely ceremonial presidency is not expected to have a major impact - even if it would be embarrassing for the government.

But Mr Meciar says his past experiences have made him a "changed man".

He says he now supports joining the EU, a bloc he once painted as a bullying imperialist force meddling in the affairs of his small country.

But western diplomats are likely to be sceptical, analysts say, and may be slow to welcome him if he wins a run-off vote.

Ex-PM in Slovakia poll surprise
04 Apr 04 |  Europe

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