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© 1986-2004

Finally, at 1 p.m., the stocky HZDS boss, with his beefy neck and enormous ears, strides up past a very loud group of 10 crazed supporters who are jeering at journalists and screaming "Vlado! Be strong!"

After voting and answering a few questions, Meciar slowly makes his way through the crowd of photographers, chats briefly with his unruly fans, sidesteps a sudden scuffle, and then stops "spontaneously" at an adjacent hospital, where three ragged nurses and a sickly child stand waiting to give the once and future prime minister the chance to show he cares. It's such a crude setup that few bother to pay attention.

The voting ends at 2 p.m. We catch the first Friday exit poll results at HZDS headquarters, and no wonder everyone's smiling: 31 percent for HZDS, a measly 12.3 percent for the second-place leftist coalition led by SDL. HZDS press handlers hand out sandwiches, cigarettes, campaign goodies and cognac. "See? We're not barbarians," says one woman. Meciar cancels his scheduled press conference. The election victor will not be seen again in public for days.

Over at the SDL office, Peter Weiss is shaken. He complains that Meciar's TV stunt lured as many as 6 percentage points from the large block of undecided voters. His coalition partner, the Green Party's Jozef Pokorny, is much more bitter: "Maybe we gambled by being too serious and too truthful," he tells me. "Maybe a little demagoguery would have helped."

'Slovakia Needs a Government'

On Sunday, the election commission gives the official final results to Reuters before noon. The rest of us have to wait another 40 minutes for the "official announcement" press conference. There a drab man with a low monotone reads the results for all 18 parties in each of the country's four electoral districts. After 25 minutes of frantic scribbling, journalists are handed xeroxed pages with every number he's just uttered. No matter how you read it, it's a drubbing, an absolute triumph and vindication for one of Europe's weirdest politicians.

No human on earth, to my knowledge, predicted that HZDS would receive three times as many votes as its nearest competitor, let alone that Jan Luptak and his "Workers' Party" would come away with the role of kingmaker. But there it was: HZDS and the Slovak National Party would hold 69 of the 150 seats in Parliament. SDL, the Christian Democrats, the Democratic Union and the Hungarian coalition would together have 68, if they could finally be persuaded to cooperate. Luptak, with his 13 seats, controlled the swing faction.

Over at the Slovak Radio building, the heads of the seven parliamentary parties, with the conspicuous exception of Meciar, sit for a 90-minute television discussion about the results. Luptak, who looks like a crazed Slavic elf in a suit, babbles a stream-of-consciousness rap about the economy, temples pulsing and voice rising to a fever pitch. "What happened after November [1989]? First what happened? The [Parliament] deputies voted higher salaries for themselves. Then what happened? The deputies went to the factories and raised the salaries of the managers. Then what happened? They raised the salaries of bankers. Then they began to get jealous, so they raised their own salaries again. What kind of reform is that? What about the workers?"

Journalists, and even some panelists, fight a losing battle to suppress laughter. Luckily, super-nationalist Slota interrupts the monologue to needle his nemesis, Bela Bugar of the Hungarian Christian Democratic Movement: "God saved us from you being in the government." Bugar suggests that perhaps God doesn't have a nationality.

After trying to get Luptak to explain his economic theories for 30 minutes (summary: "We need to revitalize the economy"), I talk to Christian Democrat leader Jan Carnogursky, the last true anti-Communist in Slovakia within spitting distance of power.

After opposing Meciar and everything he represents for the past four years, Carnogursky said he is now willing to join the victorious thug in a coalition. I ask why. "You have to understand," he pleads. "Slovakia needs a government."

© 1986-2004; All rights reserved.