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EASTERN EUROPE : Former Slovak Premier Gets Back in the Ring : Vladimir Meciar’s party is favored in elections today and Saturday. The ex-boxer’s populist message strikes a chord in his economically troubled nation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You can listen to his theme song on the radio, drink his personalized brand of coffee and gaze at his grinning mug on billboards across the country.

Vladimir Meciar is back. Two years after whipping up a nationalist fervor that swept Czechoslovakia off the map, the heavyweight boxer-turned-politician is mounting a political comeback--leaner by about 50 pounds but still very much a cagey, determined fighter.

Voters cast ballots today and Saturday for the first time since the breakup of the former Czechoslovak Federation, and opinion polls show Meciar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, which engineered the split, favored by more than a quarter of expected voters.

His closest challenge comes from a coalition of parties dominated by ex-Communists, with 16 others lagging behind.

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Just six months ago, Meciar was nearly written off as a political has-been when he was ousted as prime minister by the Slovak Parliament and his own political movement began hemorrhaging. A group of Meciar foes--including defectors from his own party--formed a new government and called early elections in the hope of winning public support.

Instead, the elections have opened the door for the resurgence of the pugnacious former prime minister, who has become the biggest campaign issue in a country beset with some of the toughest economic problems in Eastern Europe.

“People are overwhelmed by the problems, and they are looking for optimism,” said Viliam Sobona, Meciar’s campaign manager. “They need a man who is smiling and will lead them from their problems.”

Pumped by a rich campaign chest and the populist street smarts of advisers from Forza Italia, the party of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Meciar has traveled the country preaching his “Vivat Slovakia” message. His rallies offer cheap beer, free goulash and a patriotic program intended to seize upon fears of the poor, the elderly and the uneducated about the dizzying changes under capitalism.

Meciar has promised to cut taxes, increase retirement benefits, create jobs and slow Slovakia’s already snail-paced selloff of state enterprises to foreign investors. He has hinted that he will try to remove President Michal Kovac, whose harsh appraisal of Meciar last spring was said to have inspired the rebellion that toppled him.

Meciar’s opponents say his government was riddled with corruption, and they describe him as dangerously xenophobic and ultra-nationalistic. Critics fear his victory would bring instability to a country already perceived as reluctant to shed its Communist trappings.

Slovakia ranks near the bottom of Eastern European countries in attracting foreign investment and only just began mastering some of its economic problems with the arrival in March of Prime Minister Jozef Moravcik’s government.

The governing coalition has won a loan from the International Monetary Fund, has aggressively begun selling state-owned enterprises and recently received a letter of praise from President Clinton.

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“In our first election as an independent country, we will decide between a policy of confrontation and a policy of cooperation,” said Milan Ftacnik of the Party of the Democratic Left, the former Communists in the ruling coalition.

Meciar’s party is expected to draw the most votes, but too few to form a government. If the broad-based opposition--an improbable jumble encompassing former Communists and the religious right--wins a plurality, it could continue governing.

But if the opposition falls short, virtually any combination of parties is possible--with the most likely scenarios teaming Meciar with the former Communists or the Christian Democrats. Both parties say they would not join a Meciar-led coalition; pragmatism, though, may ultimately prevail.

“Slovakia needs a government,” said Juraj Kohutiar of the Christian Democratic Movement. “Even a bad government is better than no government.”

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Dean E. Murphy was recently on assignment in Bratislava, Slovakia.


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