IT WAS anyone's guess how the second round of presidential elections, which brought victory to former Speaker of Parliament Ivan Gašparovič, would end up, but the outcome still came as somewhat of a surprise.
It had been clear from the moment the election committee announced the outcome of the first round of voting two weeks ago - that Gašparovič and former authoritarian PM Vladimír Mečiar would be heading to the second round - that Gašparovič's primary task was to mobilise voters.
Mečiar has devoted followers who always turn out. At the same time, he is despised by all other voters and has almost no potential for bringing the undecided vote over to his side.
Regardless of the many uncertainties of Slovak politics, nearly all voters resolved the dilemma of being pro- or anti-Mečiar many years ago and that is one axiom that will hardly ever change.
The numbers speak for themselves - in the first round Mečiar received 650,242 valid votes. In the second round he received 722,368 votes. The difference was only 72,126 votes, or 1.7 percent of eligible voters.
It was obvious that every other voter who would turn up, aside from Mečiar's disciplined fans, would vote against him.
Once the contempt the majority of voters have for Mečiar is recognised, the task of getting them to come and vote should be easy for any candidate. For any except Gašparovič, that is.
The winner of the presidential race was well aware that not being Mečiar was his strength.
"My main advantage is that my name is Gašparovič," he told journalists when assessing his chances in the second round immediately after learning the results of the first.
But his past is so closely tied with Mečiar's that it was certain many voters would fail to find a difference between the two and their dislike for Mečiar would be just as harmful for Gašparovič's presidential ambitions as for Mečiar's.
Gašparovič was trapped and his strategy had to be based on two contradictory notions. On the one hand, he had to attack Mečiar for his past and for his reputation abroad. On the other, Gašparovič has no achievements in the political arena outside of those he attained as Mečiar's second man. And by bringing up any new revelations about Mečiar's past misdoings he would only be undermining his own position.
Since Mečiar had a similar problem, the two-week campaign was characterised by dry discussions and empty phrases. Gašparovič was even able to "thank Mečiar for a fair campaign" after the results were announced, not a common thing in Slovakia.
The inner conflict brought one unusual phenomenon - anonymous campaigning. Most major Slovak cities, where anti-Mečiar sentiment tends to be strongest yet people are well aware of Gašparovič's political history, were filled by billboards reminding Slovaks that "not voting means voting for Mečiar". They were perhaps even more visible than the ads of the candidates. No one has admitted to ordering the campaign.
Unable to engage in real campaigning, Gašparovič only had to hope that voters themselves would conclude that there was a significant difference between himself and Mečiar.
The strategy worked. In the first round of elections Gašparovič received 442,564 votes. In the second the number jumped to 1,079,592. Gašparovič won overwhelmingly in large cities such as Bratislava, where he received over 70 percent support.
But it had been far from certain that the strategy would work.
Most analysts and experts gave up predicting the election results, as did public opinion research agencies. All had suffered a major blow in the first round when, up until the results were released, Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan had appeared to be the clear winner in surveys. No surveys were published before this round.
The political parties, whose impact on voter decisions in presidential elections has been widely overestimated, sent out mostly uncertain messages to voters who supported neither candidate.
The ruling coalition's Christian Democrats and Hungarian Coalition Party recommended that their supporters not participate. The other two ruling parties - the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union and the New Citizen's Alliance - told their voters to make up their own minds. At the same time, their leaders announced that they would not be voting.
The Democratic Party, headed by Social Affairs Minister Ľudovít Kaník, said its members would visit voting rooms only to throw in empty ballots.
Major media also seemed at a loss as to how to react to the unprecedented choice between two evils. The daily SME allowed equal room to those promoting non-participation in the elections and those who felt Mečiar needed to be stopped at any cost, even if it meant voting for Gašparovič.
This other side of the argument was decisively promoted by the daily Pravda and by the representatives of major Christian churches. Major public figures were split in their attitudes.
As a result, many Slovaks remained undecided until the last minute. "Are you going to vote?" was the opening phrase of most conversations among the anti-Mečiar, and thus implicitly anti-Gašparovič, voters who represent a majority of the electorate.
In the absence of real campaigning and a broad consensus of democratic forces, two factors seem to have played a decisive role in the outcome of the elections - international reputation and Mečiar's miscalculated public appearances.
Although Mečiar and Gašparovič share a political past, the latter's advantage is that few outside of Slovakia's borders are aware of the fact. Mečiar is known by foreign media, politicians, and even ordinary people. Gašparovič is not.
In the past year Slovaks have had to go through plenty of international embarrassment - a phone-tapping scandal involving high administration officials and the widely, and not very professionally, covered situation of the Slovak Roma to name a few. Electing Mečiar would have become yet another.
Although they may be wrong in their judgment, the international media and representatives will welcome Gašparovič as the better of the two options and Slovakia should be spared another round of attacks. For Slovakia's self-esteem, that is an important fact.
In his campaign, moreover, Mečiar did not come across as a man whose actions could be easily predicted, to put it mildly.
He told wild stories of stopping Russian tanks during the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia with his own body, former US president Bill Clinton's endorsement of his campaign, and his plans to move the presidential seat to the Bratislava castle. In addition, Mečiar remains the know-it-all he has always been.
That reminded many of just who Mečiar is.
In contrast, Gašparovič gave no pretence for the further irritation of the voters. He successfully presented himself as a rational man, if one with a dubious past, who will keep a low profile if elected. And that's the best Slovaks could hope for this time around.
19. Apr 2004 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila