Former allies Mečiar (left) and Gašparovič will face off
Official results put Mečiar in first place with 32.73 percent, followed by Gašparovič with 22.28 percent and Kukan in a tight third, enjoying the support of 22.09 percent of Slovaks. The difference between Gašparovič and Kukan was only 3,644 votes.
The elections were plagued by a low turnout of under 48 percent. The final figures are contrary to all surveys released in the run-up to the April 3 elections, which predicted Kukan as the winner of the presidential race.
"I respect the decision of the voters," Kukan told journalists as he was leaving the headquarters of his Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) party after learning the results in the early morning of April 4.
"I can't hide my disappointment. But life goes on," he added.
The first round of elections brought clear victory to Mečiar, the boss of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and a former PM, whose undemocratic ruling methods during his term in office between 1994 and 1998 seriously threatened Slovakia's integration into NATO and the EU.
"The HZDS is thrilled by the victory of its leader," said campaign boss Viliam Soboňa after learning the results. Soboňa added that the HZDS had expected Gašparovič to reach the second round.
Gašparovič served as speaker of parliament and HZDS deputy chairman during Mečiar's rule. He left the HZDS just months before the September 2002 parliamentary elections after a clash with Mečiar, who refused to place his second man on the party's ballot.
Gašparovič launched his own party, the Movement for Democracy, which did not make it into parliament in 2002. The man who won a tight race for the second place with Kukan did not seem stunned at the outcome.
"I knew how it would end up, so I went home to sleep," Gašparovič told a press conference.
"I was always one of the good ones," he replied when asked whether he was getting ready to play the role of the lesser evil, as current President Rudolf Schuster did in the first direct presidential elections five years ago.
For Schuster, the elections brought disappointing results of just over 7 percent, half of what had been expected. The success of the two opposition candidates has been widely interpreted as a failure on the part of the ruling parties.
"This is payback for the inability of the ruling coalition to agree on a common candidate," said Béla Bugár, boss of the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), in an interview with SITA.
The SDKÚ put Kukan forward months in advance without any prior consultation with other partners in the government. Ľubomír Roman, nominated by the ruling New Citizen's Alliance, stepped out of the race in the run-up to elections and endorsed Kukan.
The SMK asked its sympathisers to support František Mikloško, an MP for the ruling Christian Democrats. Mikloško received 6.52 percent of the vote.
Support for Martin Bútora, the former ambassador to the US who gained 6.51 percent of the vote, came mainly from the ranks of voters who had supported the coalition in 2002, according to analysts. Bútora was officially backed by the Free Forum, a new party formed by former members of the SDKÚ.
The opposition welcomed the results.
"It is not up to me to criticise Kukan, but I think that people really showed the SDKÚ," said Robert Fico, leader of the opposition party Smer at a press conference.
The party supported Gašparovič's campaign and Fico took credit for his success.
"It definitely showed that Smer's backing helped Gašparovič make it into the second round," he said.
The vote has also put the fate of the SDKÚ in doubt. "I will certainly think about my future and that of the party and its bodies," said Dzurinda.
|Results of the first round of the presidential elections|
|Candidate||Number of votes||percent|
5. Apr 2004 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila