Ivan Gasparovic, speaker of the Slovakia parliament, announced last week that lawmakers will convene on 23 January to hold the first round of elections for president. He also called on deputies to submit presidential nominations in writing by 12 January.

But opposition leaders warn that it is quite likely that the parliament will be unable to agree on a new president in the first round, or in the second round 14 days later, or even in the third round 30 days after that.

Two candidates backed by the opposition and one independent are in the running. The Party of the Democratic Left (SDL) is sponsoring academician-agronomist Juraj Hrasko, who until 1989 was a member of the Slovak Communist Party (KSS) and served briefly in 1993 as environment minister. The centrist Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) is backing Stefan Markus, who does not belong to any party, is a science secretary of the Academy of Sciences, and chairs the Slovak Helsinki Committee. Augustin Kurek, an independent, was proposed by a single deputy who has split from a junior partner in Vladimir Meciar's coalition.

No candidate appears to have a chance of being elected. The opposition has only 63 of the 150 seats in the parliament, and in order to win, a candidate must have the support of at least 90 deputies. Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) has 61 seats in the assembly and can block any candidate not to its liking. Meciar is already on record as saying no one will be elected in the first round and has branded Hrasko and Markus as "unacceptable" candidates.

Neither the HZDS nor its two coalition partners intend to nominate anyone in the first round.

The leftist SDL considered several compromise candidates, including Constitutional Court Chief Justice Milan Cic and populist mayor of Kosice Rudolf Schuster, a member of Slovakia's small Carpathian-German minority. Schuster was viewed as a rising star on the political scene during the final years of communist rule, having served as speaker of the Slovak Parliament during and immediately after the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Meciar, however, labeled Schuster as unacceptable owing to alleged "character faults."

The most likely scenario appears to be that once President Michal Kovac's five-year term expires on 2 March, the country will be without a head of state until after parliamentary elections, scheduled to take place in the fall. Meanwhile, some of the president's functions, including the role of commander and chief, will be assumed by Meciar himself.

The timing of the first round does not appear to be arbitrary. President Kovac is due to be out of town that day, hosting a summit of 11 Central European presidents in Levoca, eastern Slovakia. The presidents of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, Poland, Austria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Italy, and Ukraine are due to meet in Levoca on 23-24 January. Kovac has proposed that the gathering discuss the emergence and maintenance of civic society.

Kovac, whose resignation has been demanded for several years by Meciar's HZDS, is not running for re-election. Former Prime Minister Jan Carnogursky has ruled out supporting Meciar as a compromise presidential candidate, saying electing him "would not be a good signal at home or abroad." But Carnogursky added that who is elected is less than important than ensuring regular elections. To prevent any attempts at election fraud, he argues, foreign observers should be invited. Meciar, however, has already rejected that proposal on the grounds that "Slovakia is not Albania."

Both Carnogursky and SDL leader Jozef Migas say it is unlikely that a president will be elected before the fall parliamentary elections. Carnogursky says he still supports a change in the constitution that would enable the voting public to elect the president.

A referendum question on enabling the president to be elected directly was retracted last May by Meciar's Interior Minister Gustav Krajci just hours before voters were to go to the polls. That happened, despite half a million petition signatures calling for the president to be elected directly.

For its part, Meciar's HZDS claims it wants a president elected soon. HZDS deputy chairman Arpad Matejka warns that if no one is elected president., the legislative process will be paralyzed since the constitution allows only the president to sign bills into law.

But SDL chief Migas suspects various factors may be involved in the HZDS's refusal to nominate a candidate for the first two rounds. He told the Bratislava daily "Sme" that the HZDS may be holding back their candidate on tactical grounds until a later round. He added that "it cannot be excluded that the HZDS is not interested in a head of state being elected."

Meanwhile, "Sme" reported last week that the rooftop digital clock that faces the presidential palace in Bratislava and counts the time Kovac has left in office has been switched off. A small group of anonymous citizens wanting to express their dissatisfaction with the current situation were allegedly behind that move.