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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 June 2006, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
Slovakia election to test reforms
By Jan Repa
Central Europe analyst, BBC News

Smer's leader Robert Fico
Robert Fico opposes some of Slovakia's market reforms
Slovakia is holding parliamentary elections on Saturday, with the opposition leftist "Smer" party expected to do well.

Smer - or "Direction - Social Democracy" - is running neck-and-neck with three centre-right parties allied with Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda.

Smer's leader, Robert Fico, says he wants to reverse or modify a number of economic policies that have made Slovakia a magnet for foreign investment - but which Mr Fico says have exacerbated divisions between rich and poor in the landlocked former Communist country.

In Western perceptions, Slovakia has gone within a few years from Central European backwater to the last investment "hotspot" - with low taxes and low wages, and a capital, Bratislava, less than an hour's drive from Vienna.

Bold reforms

Slovakia's former Prime Minister, Vladimir Meciar, appeared to play on Slovak resentment of historically dominant neighbours like the Czechs and Hungarians, and to position Slovakia as a "bridge" between Western Europe and Russia.

Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda
Pro-Western PM Dzurinda led Slovakia into the EU and Nato
But his successor, Mikulas Dzurinda, has tried to present Slovakia as a modern, complex-free zone, ready to join EU high-fliers like Ireland.

Slovakia now has the highest per capita rate of car production in Europe. But it also has 15% unemployment.

Wealth is unevenly distributed, with much of its central and eastern regions, away from the capital, yet to sense any real benefits. Add to this the widespread feeling that Mr Dzurinda - after eight years in power - has simply been around long enough, and the prospect of "regime change" appears all too real.

Foreign investors, concerned that Slovakia might reverse direction again, should avoid premature panic.

Coalition options

Slovak governments are all about coalition-building.

Mr Fico - an erstwhile reform-Communist - and his Smer party may be scoring around 30% in opinion polls, or three times more than any other single party. But he would almost certainly not govern alone.

One possibility being mooted already is a coalition of Smer with two of Mr Dzurinda's centre-right coalition partners - the Christian Democrats and the Hungarian minority party, KDH.

A second option might be a leftist coalition, consisting of Smer, Mr Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia and the Slovak National Party. That really would worry Slovakia's EU partners and foreign investors - and so would probably not be Mr Fico's first option.

A third possibility is a coalition of several smaller parties - aimed primarily at excluding Smer. However, this would probably require Mr Dzurinda to step aside.

It is expected that exit polls - accurate to within a couple of percentage points - will be available by Saturday evening. That is when the real work begins.

Slovakia has 4.2 million people entitled to vote. Election to the 150-member parliament is by proportional representation - for a four-year term. Slovakia's president then asks the leader of the party with the most seats to form a government.

The new cabinet has 30 days to win a confidence vote in parliament. If it fails, the president asks someone else. This process can be repeated, without limits, for six months - after which new elections are called.

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