Slovakia's controversial former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar has won the first round of presidential elections.
Vladimir Meciar is on the brink of a political comeback
Mr Meciar's years in office between 1994 and 1998 were criticised by Western leaders for their lack of democracy and rule of law.
In a surprise result, Mr Meciar won 32.7% of the votes cast, with his former ally, Ivan Gasparovic, in second place with 22.3% of the vote.
The two winners will go through to the second round run-off on 17 April.
The poll was widely expected to be won by the government-backed candidate, Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan.
He had enjoyed some 30% in the opinion polls, but trailed in third place with 22.1%.
Correspondents say the outcome is a major embarrassment for the government, coming just weeks before Slovakia joins the European Union.
Eleven candidates stood for the post, which is largely ceremonial.
Mr Meciar is particularly popular with elderly voters, who have suffered in the market-oriented reforms Slovakia has since undergone.
"It's simple. I voted for Meciar because under his rule
my life was better. We, pensioners, had more money to live on," a voter told Associated Press news agency.
Mr Gasparovic broke away from Mr Meciar in 2002 to form his own party.
Test for government
Meanwhile, a referendum calling for early elections failed due to insufficient turnout, election officials said.
Turnout was reported to have been 35.8%, well below the 50% required for the result to have been valid - and below expectations.
The referendum was initiated by the country's trade unions, who are unhappy with radical finance reforms introduced by the centre-right government.
It was supported by Mr Meciar and other opposition figures.
The government said the referendum was not binding and called on voters to ignore it.