The second round of the regional elections have cleared a possible comeback trail for controversial ex-Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, whose nationalist rhetoric and alleged corruption while in power still worries Nato and European Union countries now considering entry applications from the former Soviet satellite.
In the run-off election round, candidates for Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) opposition party won six of eight regional chairman posts, smashing nominees put up by Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda's ruling coalition.
Two weeks ago, the HZDS won a similar landslide in the first round of regional elections, capturing half of the 400 seats in local parliaments either alone or in a coalition with other parties.
The scale of the HZDS victories is significant considering 10 parties participated in the complicated races, including Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), Robert Fico's Smer party, the former communists (SDĽ) and the ethnic Hungarian party (SMK).
Although voter turnout for the second round of the election was lower than in the first (23% after 26% two weeks ago), the success of Mečiar's party - currently the leading opposition force - sets the stage for what is expected to be its strong push for power in next September's parliamentary elections.
The head of the Polis polling agency, Ján Baránek, told the daily paper Pravda: "The second round confirmed the dominance of the HZDS in the regions and an overall failure by cabinet parties in the regional elections. It's a message from the voters, especially to the right-of-centre parties, for the upcoming parliamentary elections."
Dzurinda said he interpreted the election results as a call to right-centrist parties to co-operate, including his own SDKÚ, the conservative Christian Democrats and the ethnic Hungarian SMK. While all three parties sit in cabinet, rivalries have grown as national elections approach, with the Christian Democrats in early December refusing to support two SMK regional candidates who appeared to have a chance to win over their HZDS rivals.
Dzurinda said it was paramount that these centre-right parties transmit a clear message to the international community next year, assuring the world that Slovakia would have a pro-reform and democratic government after elections in 2002.
"The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia and Smer chose short-term success but their methods do not offer solutions," he said.
Throughout this year, Nato and EU officials have hinted that a Mečiar rebound from his failure to form a government after 1998 elections might jeopardise Slovakia's membership bids. Both western institutions rejected the country when Mečiar was in power in the 1990s.
Speaking on election weekend at an EU summit in Laeken, Belgium, Dzurinda urged EU officials to include Slovakia in planning for the first wave of eastward enlargement expected in 2004. Mečiar has recently joined with Dzurinda in declaring support for Slovakia's application to join Nato.
The alliance - which added the former Soviet satellites of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999 - plans to expand by at least one new member next year.
But NATO's secretary-general, Lord George Robertson, told Dzurinda at a mid-December meeting in Brussels that any country added to the alliance next year must be politically stable.
The Slovak leader, in turn, reportedly told Robertson that Mečiar's HZDS was "nationalist and chauvinist."
Robertson later snubbed Mečiar by denying a Slovak report that he planned to meet the former prime minister before Christmas.
22. Dec 2001 at 0:00 | Deirdre Tynan