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Slovaks vote on fate of reformist government

Written by: Staff
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BRATISLAVA, June 17 (Reuters) Slovaks voted today in the first election since joining the European Union, choosing between a record third term for Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda or a leftist pledging to overturn economic and social reforms.

The latest opinion polls showed centre-right parties allied with Dzurinda just ahead of the leftist Smer party, but both short of a majority.

Dzurinda took the former communist nation of 5.4 million into the European Union in 2004, carried out sweeping tax and welfare reforms and plans to take Slovakia into the euro zone in 2009.

Populist Smer leader Robert Fico has capitalised on reform fatigue and vowed to reverse many of the changes, saying they have benefited only the rich.

''It's a classic battle between liberal values, a party of the free market and minimal government intervention in the economy, and a party that wants a strong welfare state and a social safety net,'' said Martin Slosiarik, an analyst at polling agency FOCUS.

Voting began at 7 a m (0500 GMT) and ends at 10 p m Results are expected by early Sunday.

After voting in Bratislava, President Ivan Gasparovic predicted turnout would be strong at around 60 percent.

But at many voting stations officials said participation was weaker than in the previous election in 2002 when 70 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

Lower turnout has traditionally hurt Smer more than the other main parties as its voters are less disciplined.

''Turnout will definitely be lower than in previous elections, the only question is by how much,'' said Pavel Haulik of the private MVK polling agency.

Dzurinda's tough free-market reforms have brought billions of euros in foreign investment and turned Slovakia into one of Europe's fastest-growing economies.

REFORM FATIGUE A hard-working campaigner known for late comebacks, Dzurinda has criss-crossed the country trying to convince voters that prosperity is just around the corner and that reforms must be completed to allow Slovaks to compete in a global economy.

Polls indicated his Democratic and Christian Union and two potential allies had gained ground in the last days of the campaign, and had the support of 33 to 37 percent of voters.

Smer remains the biggest single party and is expected to get the first chance at forming a new cabinet, although the polls indicated its support had fallen below 29 percent.

''Even if I don't trust Mr Dzurinda completely, I believe in his party and voted for him, for a continuation of the reforms,'' said pensioner Anna Hlucha.

Both leaders would probably find it hard to cobble together a majority government from as many as eight parties likely to enter parliament, including far-right nationalists and former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's centre-left HZDS.

Financial markets have followed the campaign closely amid investor concern that a new coalition, especially one led by Fico, would not keep the budget discipline needed to meet the fiscal targets required to adopt the euro.

REUTERS MP RN2133

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