PRAGUE, JUNE 9 -- Early returns from Czechoslovakia's first free elections in more than four decades today showed the Civic Forum party of acting President Vaclav Havel polling slightly more than half the vote, and the Communists apparently running a distant third.
A new alliance of Christian Democratic parties was placing a weak second -- only about 1 percent better than the Communists -- even in the largely Catholic, conservative Slovak Republic where the alliance has drawn its main strength.
More than 96 percent of the country's 11.2 million registered voters turned out for two days of voting that Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), here as an observer, called "wonderfully boring" for its order and calm.
The sudden and tearful exception to that boredom came late in the evening when a prominent co-founder of the Civic Forum's sister movement resigned after admitting he had once agreed to work as an informant for the Communist secret police.
Jan Budaj, a founding member of Public Against Violence, said in an emotional press conference in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, that he was withdrawing from political life because he had signed papers agreeing to collaborate with the secret police. Budaj is the latest of more than 160 candidates to withdraw under a cloud of scandal.
The strong showing for Civic Forum and Public Against Violence, its Slovak counterpart, is seen as a vote of confidence in the team of former dissidents who have led the country since the November revolution that ended four decades of Communist rule.
Civic Forum co-founder Jan Urban said, "We have shown we are the most competent," and called the Forum's nearly 50 percent showing in early returns "a politically healthy result" that he attributed to a campaign that avoided mudslinging and instead focused on the need for national sacrifice.
Voters were electing a new, two-chamber federal parliament and deputies for regional parliaments in the Czech and Slovak republics. The new, 300-seat parliament will choose a president and is expected to pick Havel, the playwright and former dissident who has led the country since the revolution.
A complete tally of the vote is not expected until Sunday, but early returns announced on television this evening correlated with exit polls based on interviews with 11,000 voters. The polling was conducted by the West German survey organization that accurately predicted results in the East German and Romanian elections.
Preliminary returns for the national parliament gave the Civic Forum and Public Against Violence a slender 50.1 percent majority in one house of the federal parliament and 47 percent in the other.
Those numbers mean that the Civic Forum and Public Against Violence would command a majority in at least one house and would not necessarily need a coalition with other parties to set up a new government.
Nonetheless, leaders of the Civic Forum said tonight that they want to rule in a coalition government in order to ensure a broad base of support for the hard work that lies ahead. That work includes the drafting of a new constitution and restructuring of the Czechoslovak economy along free-market lines.
Tonight, Civic Forum's Urban repeated that the Forum would be open to a coalition with any party except the Communists and the Slovak National Movement. He said the Forum wants to have a government of broad consensus.
According to the West German group's survey, the Christian Democrats received about 12 percent of the vote. About 18 parties were participating.
Voters in the Slovak republic gave unexpectedly strong support to the extreme right-wing, separatist Slovak National Party, which ran strongly in parts of central Slovakia.
Surprising nationalist sentiment also was evident in the showing of the little-known Moravian Autonomy Party.
A new, environmentally oriented Green Party failed to do as well as expected, winning less than 4 percent of the vote.
In Slovakia, the leader of the Christian Democratic Movement, former dissident Jan Carnogursky, expressed disappointment in his party's showing. "We had hoped to be first, at least in Slovakia," he said.
Carnogursky had once been considered a leading contender for the job of prime minister, but with his party running barely ahead of the Communists, it now seems likely that the job will remain in the hands of former Communist Marian Calfa.
In Prague's Old Town Square this evening, former dissident and Catholic priest Vaclav Maly, a leading figure of the November revolution, told a crowd of concert goers and a national radio audience: "It's been a difficult time. Now we can relax and recoup our strength, bound by a feeling of national unity."
The resignation of Civic Forum's Budaj overshadowed another campaign controversy arising from candidates' alleged connections with the secret police, that of Parliamentary Speaker Josef Bartoncik, the People's Party leader who allegedly reneged on a promise to withdraw his candidacy after being identified as a longtime paid informant of the secret police.
Today the Havel government, under fire for demanding Bartoncik's withdrawal, offered testimony from a former ranking secret police official, corroborated by other former police officials, that Bartoncik had for 17 years been a valuable source for the secret police on the inner workings of his own party and that of the Charter 77 human rights movement, with which he maintained contact. Bartoncik has said that he is innocent.