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How they voted: A diary of the election weekend

FRIDAY
MAIN SQUARE, BRATISLAVA, 13:30
- Seventy-year-old Helena Žiblitovská is selling wooden handicrafts at an open-air stall. She says the most important theme in the election campaign for her has been the moral decay of society. With polls to open in half an hour, she says she is still wavering between the governmental Christian Democrats (KDH) and the SDKÚ party of PM Mikuláš Dzurinda.


TURNOUT in elections was over 70 per cent.
photo: Zuzana Habšudová

FRIDAY

MAIN SQUARE, BRATISLAVA, 13:30

- Seventy-year-old Helena Žiblitovská is selling wooden handicrafts at an open-air stall. She says the most important theme in the election campaign for her has been the moral decay of society. With polls to open in half an hour, she says she is still wavering between the governmental Christian Democrats (KDH) and the SDKÚ party of PM Mikuláš Dzurinda.


APPONYI CAFÉ, BRATISLAVA, 14:00

- "I couldn't make up my mind because all the politicians seemed bad. The election rallies and the billboards were disgusting and very unintelligent. The only part of the campaign that I found meaningful was the 'Nie je nám to jedno' ['We are not indifferent' initiative by NGOs to get out the vote]," says a 36-year-old woman who works as a set designer but refuses to give her name.

"I'm going to vote for the SDKÚ on the advice of my friend [actor] Richard Stanke. I didn't vote in the last elections because I am a 'new Slovak' - I've only had Slovak citizenship for six months."


HVIEZDOSLAV SQUARE, BRATISLAVA, 14:30

- Accountant Ján Šefčík, 50, seems more interested in choosing a film than in casting a ballot.

"I'm not going to vote," he says, turning away from a Bratislava cinema schedule he has been consulting. After a second of hesitation, he adds: "I'm a Jehovah's Witness, and we are waiting for God's kingdom to come. We don't believe in human governments and politics.

"I'm not indifferent to the situation in the country, and I'm very glad I can practice my religion freely, but I didn't vote under communism when it was punishable by law, and I won't vote now either. Politicians don't keep their promises, and the parties that present themselves as Christian are not real Christians."


POLLING STATION, PIEŠŤANY, 14:40

- The polls have been open for almost an hour. Ľudmila Hoosová, head of a local election committee in the spa town Piešťany, says she isn't doing the job for love.

"All members of the committee get paid. Why else would I do it?" the media communication student asks.

Some voters who visit the polling station seem to think working on the committee is a good way to make money.

"Damn it, mother, why didn't you try to get on an election committee? You would at least have made some money. Just look at how many of them there were, sitting there like snakes," says a middle-aged woman to her elderly relation as they leave the room.

Hoosová says she is impressed with the turnout so far. "We had 10 people waiting in line when we opened. Some were here as early as 15 minutes in advance. A lot of people are coming out, which surprises me."


DOWNTOWN BRATISLAVA, 15:00

- The voting day atmosphere remains business as usual, and people seem surprised to be asked if they have already voted.

"I'm from Žilina and will vote at home tomorrow," says a young man, 25, having lunch in a fast food restaurant. When asked about his choice, he looks around to see how many of the guests at neighbouring tables can hear us, and then covertly flashes two fingers to indicate he will vote for party which was assigned the number two as an election identity - the SDKÚ.

"You can't do everything in four years, and I think Dzurinda's government was the best one we've had so far," he says.


KOŠICE, 15:35

- Reflecting the frustrations of young educated people in Slovakia's eastern regions, Tomás Kaiser, an unemployed university graduate from the eastern city of Košice, has just cast his ballot for Ján Slota's opposition far-right Real Slovak National Party (PSNS).

"Simply from desperation," says Kaiser of the reasoning behind his choice, adding that while he had voted for Dzurinda's SDK party in 1998, the Dzurinda government "had four years but couldn't get the job done."

Kaiser stresses the lack of jobs for young people, particularly in the east of the country where unemployment rates far exceed the national average of around 18 per cent.

He says that he was no supporter of Slota or his radical nationalist party, but used his vote as a protest against the dominant political parties.

"Politicians are only interested in money," he says.


OÁZA PUB, PIEŠŤANY, 15:50

- A man with long blond hair is drinking a beer by himself. It's obviously not his first one of the day. Julo, a mechanic, will be 45 next week.

"Everything pisses me off. They're all idiots," says Julo when asked about the elections.

Nevertheless, he says, not voting is not an option. "I care about what happens. It's about the future of this country."

And Julo has already made up his mind. "I chose Vlado [three time former PM Vladimír Mečiar]. He didn't let the West tell him what to do. The European Union - do we need it? I think not. Nato? The same thing."


BRATISLAVA, 19:00

- A musical performance at the Bratislava Nová Scéna theatre, The Cage of Fools, has been interwoven with improvised remarks on the elections.

"Are you ready for the show?" the protagonist asks the public during the performance. "Yes we are," reply the actors behind him.

"I know YOU are," he tells them, "because you've already voted. But I'm asking these people here, the majority of whom I bet haven't done so yet."



SATURDAY


DUNAJSKÁ STREDA, 09:00

- The centre of the south Žitný Ostrov region is sleepy on the morning of the second day of voting. With a local majority of Hungarians, the governmental Hungarian Coalition (SMK) is the people's choice.

A whole family outside a polling station - the father (zoo technician, 58), the mother (cook, 50) and the daughter (teacher, 22) all voted for the SMK, both today and in the last elections in 1998. They say they based their decision on the fact that they are Hungarians themselves, but that they also like the party's leaders and were impressed by an election rally they attended in August.

A 26 year-old ethnic Slovak woman, 26, says she voted for media owner Pavol Rusko's Ano party because she liked both their television campaign and their billboards. She also said that in 1998 she had voted for the Slovak National Party (SNS), a far-right opposition grouping which has been one of the SMK's main antagonists.

Most of the townsfolk say they voted on the first day the polls opened, preferring to keep the weekend free for garden work and being with their families.


JAHODNÁ, 10:20

- In this south Slovak village of 1,360 inhabitants, 1,086 eligible voters and only two ethnic Slovak families, most have voted for the SMK, says Irena Molnárová, 63, a retired sales assistant.

"We vote for people who will stand behind us. We don't want to be a minority in this country, we want to be represented," she says on behalf of herself and her husband. "We're a mixed family, our children went to the Slovak school here, but we will vote for the SMK."

Election commisison head Veronika Gáspárová proudly says she expects a turnout of 90 per cent.


BREZNO, 10:20

- Elementary school teacher Eva Kovalcíková, 31, blushes furiously when asked whom she voted for.

"I voted the left wing - the Communist Party [KSS]," she says while shopping in a local supermarket in this east Slovak town.

"You see, I'm going red like the party I voted for," she explains her blush with a laugh.

"I know it may sound strange, but I'm a leftist voter and I wanted to help at least one left-wing party get into parliament. All those who have held power haven't kept their promises, and I wasn't sure if I could trust new parties such as Rusko's Ano or Robert Fico's Smer.

"The Communists have a lot of people who are well-educated and skilled in representing leftist voters."


DUNAJSKÁ STREDA, 11:30

- Two older women sitting on a bench outside a polling station burst out laughing when asked how they voted.

After shaking their heads, saying they will not reveal what they consider a secret, with some coaxing they admit that they both went for Mečiar's HZDS.

"I've trusted them since the very beginning," says the younger of the pair, 53. "I have reservations about some members of the party, but in general, they've never let me down."

Asked why they didn't vote for the SMK, the two ladies turn dead serious. The elder lights a cigarette.

"We feel very discriminated by the Hungarians here," says the younger woman. "Only those who speak Hungarian can get a job. They recently fired my daughter, who speaks only Slovak, for exactly this reason."


SENICA, 12:45

- There are more important things than elections happening today, such as a wedding between a young couple who are just about to enter a church.

An election committee member says they have been surprised by the number of young people in this west Slovak city of 22,000 who have come out to cast ballots.

Church organ music wafts down the steps as the guests continue to file in. Polling stations are virtually deserted.


PRAGUE, 12:45

- "What I think of elections? I'm totally disgusted and I'm no longer interested in Slovak politics," says translator Patrik Rolko, 28, on the telephone from Prague where he now lives.

"I'm having fun watching the top dogs fight for power with their populist promises. I never thought about going home to vote in these elections. I no longer feel I even want to have a say in elections, because I see my future as lying outside the country," says Rolko, who was born in east Slovakia's Brezno.


NAHÁČ, 13:40

- While most election commission officials have been willing to answer questions about the ballot, the deputy-chair of the commission in the village of Naháč, pop. 440, leaps shouting from his chair.

"Don't tell them anything," he cries to his colleagues as TSS begins asking commission members for information. "I'm the deputy-chairman and I'm not going to tell you anything! By what authority do you come here and ask us things we can't reveal? Show me your journalists' passes!"

While he peers at them, his seven colleagues continue to answer questions and ignore the deputy-chair.

"These passes mean nothing!" he shouts. "If I wanted I could have one like this as well!"

Other commission members say that 75 per cent of the villagers have voted, most of them for the HZDS.


DOLNÉ DUBOVÉ, 13:55

- Five minutes before the polls close, all eight members of this village's only election commission are stirring cups of coffee, patiently waiting for the last voters to show up. "It's always the same ones who come late", one says.

Of 470 voters, 74.5 per cent have participated, the oldest of whom was 97. "She must have experienced all kinds of elections, maybe even during the [19th century] Austro-Hungarian monarchy," speculates a young man on the commission.

The man blows his coffee as he recalls an old lady with a cane who had walked to the polling station by herself all the way from the other end of the village.

"When we handed her the ballots, she realized with a horrified expression that she had forgotten her glasses. But then she shrugged and said: 'Never mind, I'll just pick a party at random.'"


GREENWICH PUB, BRATISLAVA, 14:00

- The US embassy and the Institute for Public Affairs think tank have invited foreign journalists, diplomats and NGO people to the Greenwich Time bar in the old town district. The first exit polls on the blaring television show the HZDS slightly ahead of Smer, but give the SDKÚ a surprisingly high 13.8 per cent. The results also give a narrow parliamentary majority to the four right-wing parties, and indicate they won't have to negotiate with either Fico or Mečiar to form a government.

The loudest applause comes from a table of Foreign and Defence Ministry officials, who are also the only ones eating. No one else seems sure whether the food and drink is free.


SMER CENTRAL, BRATISLAVA, 14:00

- Robert Fico gives the first live television interview of the day, showing no emotion at Smer's disappointing 14.4 per cent. "We've fulfilled our purpose and will play a major role in the formation of the new government," he deadpans.


GREENWICH PUB, BRATISLAVA, 15:00

- British academic Geoffrey Pridham, 60, is taking notes from the TV broadcast. He's been writing about Slovakia for seven years as part of his work with Bristol University studying EU enlargement to the East.

Asked what his most interesting experience has been during three weeks of touring the country ahead of elections, he laughs abruptly. "Hiking up a mountain in the Low Tatras."

Has it been such a boring campaign? "No, I see it as a more normal sort of campaign. There's less polarisation here than there was four years ago."

Pridham recalls another defining moment in his travels. "I had a long talk with a penzión owner in Telgart [in east Slovakia]. That's a village where four years ago 76 per cent of the vote went to the HZDS. This man said he'd found the campaign flippant and silly. He wasn't a country bumpkin."


GREENWICH PUB, BRATISLAVA, 15:30

- Another exit poll puts the SDKÚ ahead of Smer with 17.1 per cent, slightly behind the 17.5 per cent for the HZDS. The seats expected to go to the right-wing parties are now up to 81, meaning a five-seat majority in parliament.

"Better watch out, you know how inaccurate these polls can be," says Pavol Múdry, head of the Sita news agency.

"But even so, it's good."

Olivier Nicoloff, the newly-arrived counsellor (second in command) at the Canadian embassy in Prague, is neatly recording the poll results in a notebook. He speaks no Slovak, and periodically asks an assistant to translate what is being said on the TV feeds from party election headquarters.

Like other diplomats in the room, he is uncomfortable when asked to comment on the election results so far.

"What we're seeing validates the polls, which said the solid majority of the population was in favour of EU and Nato integration," he says after a moment to rehearse.


ROŽŇAVA, 16:00

- Gas mains technician Rastislav Kupcík, 28, says he is most surprised by the showing of the KSS communist party, which exit polls are giving around 7 per cent, meaning it qualifies for seats in parliament.

"I voted for the SDKÚ, which was a compromise. My favourite was the [tiny free-market] OKS, but I understood they had little chance of getting into parliament. I think Slovakia, which is a small country, has no choice but to enter Nato and the EU, and I believe we can achieve these goals with the SDKÚ.

"But I'm surprised so many people voted for the KSS - it's strange that there are so many who don't remember what the communists did to this country.

"I think a right-wing government is a good idea. A left-wing cabinet is a luxury we can afford only after 40 or 50 years of right-wing cabinets that first revive the economy and make the country richer. Then left-wing politicians can come and spend all the wealth in one term."


GREENWICH PUB, BRATISLAVA, 17:00

- US Ambassador Ronald Weiser arrives, along with Slovak Ambassador to the US Martin Bútora. The Greenwich party heats up a few notches as the diplomats' entourages mix in with the result-watchers. Bútora brings out a bottle of bourbon, which is passed around the restaurant.

With both Bútora and Weiser besieged by acquaintances, TSS sits down with Paige Reffe, "the registered foreign agent for the Slovak government in Washington.

"I hate how the title sounds, but that's what I do," he says.

Reffe also works with the US Committee on Nato, which he says reflects and shapes what the US administration thinks about Slovakia, and "allows things to be said that administration people can't say."

A shout of applause floats out from the crowded Greenwich, where the SDKÚ has just taken the lead over the HZDS.

"The dragon is slain," Reffe says. "Dzurinda has been vindicated."

Bútora's bottle of bourbon is already half-empty, sitting on a table inside the bar.


BREZNO, 17:00

- Ivona Halimovicová, 27, a car saleswoman on maternity leave, holds her eight-month-old baby boy in her arms. Her husband, a design engineer, works in the Czech Republic and sees his family on weekends only.

"I didn't vote. I'm very disappointed with politicians. Instead of stuffing their own pockets they should have tried to make lives easier for young couples," she says.


SMK/KDH CENTRAL, 18:00

- The atmosphere is relaxed at the Hungarian party headquarters, but the faces of the politicians in the room look worn, visibly taxed with the effort of keeping up appearances for the TV cameras.

In the same building but two floor sdown, the KDH has its headquarters, and the government partners mingle freely up and down the stairs.

SMK leader Béla Bugár and KDH boss Pavol Hrušovský tease each other about the drinks served at the different party headquarters - beer at the KDH and wine at the SMK.

Bugár is complimented on an interview he has just finished. He says with some asperity: "I'm like a parrot by now. I could record all of this and then just press a button."

The KDH politicians are sitting in a large conference room and watching election on a big-screen TV. They applaud enthusiastically when it's Hrušovský's turn to be interviewed, and laugh at the statements of KSS leader Jozef Ševc.

Hrušovský brings a beer with him for his interview with TSS. "You're the paper that interviewed me about [Nazi collaborator and WWII Slovak leader Jozef] Tiso, right?"

The KDH in some ways is a successor to Tiso's wartime HSĽS party, but insists it has no sympathy for fascism.

The party is also strongly identified with communist-era dissidents who resisted the regime. Hrušovský says the Communist Party's surprising results are "very sad".

One KDH campaign worker grumbles at the cheerful music which is floating down the stairs from the third floor, where a Hungarian folk band is celebrating the SMK's result.

"Why are they so loud? They're acting like they got 15 per cent."


SDKÚ CENTRAL, 19:00

- Deputy PM for Economy Ivan Mikloš, the party's number two, is sipping from a glass of white wine and listening to what sounds like a tactical summary from a junior party member.

Good humour and a heavy cologne wash off him in waves. "I just went home to shave," he explains. "I'd just finished when the last results came in [putting the SDKÚ on top]."

The party's headquarters, in the hangar-like House of Culture in the Ružinov district of the capital, is not as intimate a setting as the old SDK election centre, but the faithful are just as exuberant as they were during their 1998 victory.

"Whoa, Yes!" cries Mikloš, in English, as final exit poll results come in putting the SDKÚ in a solid third and again giving the right-wing parties 79 seats.

"Slovak society is maturing very quickly," he continues, when we can be heard above the hooting claque that surrounds Dzurinda for a live TV feed.

"[Voters] are not stupid. You can partially manipulate them, but if you overdo it, it can have the opposite effect."



SMER deputy chair Monika Beňová could not understand the SDKÚ success.
photo: Ján Svrček

SMER CENTRAL, 19:30

- Robert Fico is giving no more interviews this evening, says spokesman Marek Maďarovič.

The contrast between the Smer headquarters and SDKÚ central is strong. After the light and space of the House of Culture, the Smer building, difficult to find at night between housing blocks in a residential area, seems dark and cramped.

The atmosphere, too, is more than simply subdued. Tall, muscular young men in tight-fitting suits and very short hair rake the thinning crowd with fierce eyes, acknowledging only each other. Who are they all?

"We have four guys who guard the building, but they're our friends, they eat and spend time with us, while the others are drivers. They work at sports clubs and so on," says Fedor Flašík, Fico's campaign manager, rejecting the suggestion that the young men are the live theatre version of Fico's 'strong hand' recipe for government.

Flašík, considered one of Slovakia's top marketing experts, cuts a trendy figure in a long white T-shirt with the word 'Signal' on the front, a jean jacket and blue and white striped pants. He wears three intricate-looking bracelets on his right arm.

"I don't really understand it. I don't understand. I'm going to try and understand it," he says when asked why Smer hasn't come near the 20 per cent target it set itself.

"Maybe it's a kind of traditionalism, that Slovak voters like to vote for parties they are accustomed to. But I don't know, I really don't know. It's not normal, and it defies logic that in a country with high unemployment and tough living conditions, people vote for right-wing parties. Only in Slovakia."



THE HZDS opposition party was saying little until Mečiar broke silence.
photo: Ján Svrček

HZDS CENTRAL, 19:30

- HZDS leader Vladimír Mečiar visits his party headquarters for the first time, but refuses to talk to journalists.

"I don't know what his feelings are," party spokeswoman Žaneta Pittnerová says.

Of all of the party headquarters, the HZDS is the only one to limit journalists' contacts to party leaders. Most reporters have come for one thing only - to talk to Mečiar.


KSS CENTRAL, 17:40

- While exit polls are giving them a return of seven per cent and their first trip back to parliament since Slovakia's 1993 independence, the Slovak Communist Party (KSS) is holding no celebration on Saturday night, and their headquarters is dark.

"They've all gone home. The boss went to the Markíza studio, and everyone else went away," says a grey-haired security guard at the KSS office in the Vinohrady suburb of Bratislava.

Although the guard will not give his name, he does acknowledge having voted the KSS. "Everything was better before," he says. "Milk cost Sk2 [per litre before the 1989 revolution], now it costs Sk20.

"I used to be able to go to the bar with Sk50 and drink until I didn't know which way was north," he continues, adding, "now there's nothing - no work, nothing."


TAXI, BRATISLAVA, 21:00

- Driver Dušan Fedorov, 47, is annoyed, having had trouble finding the Smer building. He gives the impression, however, that his frustration has deeper roots, such as the fact the university-educated balneologist (an expert in medicinal springs) lost his job two years ago and has been driving cab since.

Like so many others in this country of over 17 per cent unemployment, he has voted for a right-wing party, Pavol Rusko's Ano.

"When I look at what he's done with [TV station] Markíza, how successful he's been, I say 'give him a chance to do the same with the country.' Things are so tough here for businessmen that we need an entrepreneur to sort things out."

Fedorov says he has not been moved by Fico's campaign, and shakes his head when told about the party's security guards.

"Why does a security guy have to look like that? With a shaved head, a thick neck and bad eyes? They just spread fear. If Fico is such a decent politician, why does he need such guys around him?"


SDKÚ CENTRAL, 21:00

- The crowded room full of TV screens falls silent with each news announcement through the evening, followed by joyful applause. The SDKÚ looks again like forming the backbone of the future government coalition.

"From the forecasts it's apparent that Slovakia will have a democratic, reformist government, and that it will become a member of Nato and the EU. That's the most important result of these elections," says a buoyant Interior Minister Ivan Šimko.

"Since the first projections were announced, I've had a bounce in my step again. If this works out, Slovakia will be the most striking post-communist country in the region," says SDKÚ member Milan Hort over the noise of jubilant party members and supporters.


HZDS CENTRAL, 22:00

- HZDS deputy leader Rudolf Žiak tells TSS around 22:00 that he's "not satisfied" with the party's voter support.

"Personally I expected 25 per cent," says the former head of counter-espionage at the country's SIS secret service.

Žiak is calm and courteous.


HZDS CENTRAL, 03:30, SUNDAY MORNING

- The last journalists give up their vigil for Mečiar as the first definite results come trickling in. The HZDS has won with over 560,000 votes - just over half the total it took in 1998.

Despite suffering their worst-ever election result, HZDS officials keep their counsel and betray no emotion, refusing to speak before Mečiar visits President Rudolf Schuster on Sunday.


With Lukáš Fila, Zuzana Habšudová, Kristína Havasová, Miroslav Karpaty, Tom Nicholson, Saša Petrášová, Martina Pisárová and Dewey Smolka

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