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PM in pole position as Slovaks vote for president

Agence France-Presse

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Slovaks vote in the first round of a Presidential election that PM Fico is expected to win, igniting concern that his leftist Social Democrats could monopolize power in the eurozone country


VOTE. Slovaks vote in the 1st round of a presidential election that PM Robert Fico is poised to win, amid concerns that his leftist Social Democrats could monopolize power in the eurozone country. Photo by Samuel Kubani/AFP

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Slovaks voted on Saturday, March 15, in the first round of a presidential election that Prime Minister Robert Fico is expected to win, igniting concern that his leftist Social Democrats could monopolize power in the eurozone country.

Victory for the former communist frontrunner in a pack of 14 candidates would give control of the presidency, parliament and government to the same party for the first time since Slovakia’s independence in 1993.

Fico, 49, has earned valuable political capital during his six years as premier with an anti-austerity agenda tempered by fiscal discipline.

The economy is set to expand by 2.3% this year, driven by its exports of electronics and cars.

Fico is running at around 35% support in polls and is most likely to face millionaire-turned-philanthropist Andrej Kiska in a run-off vote set for March 29.

The non-partisan Kiska, 51, with no communist past, came into the vote with 24% backing and is seen as an untainted political novice with a good nose for business.

The prospect of Fico consolidating his power has galvanized both the political class and voters in the country of 5.4 million, which joined the European Union in 2004 and the eurozone in 2009.

The election has become “a referendum on Robert Fico’s government and the concentration of power”, Grigorij Meseznikov from the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs told Agence France-Presse.

Marian Lesko, an analyst with the Trend business weekly, warned that Fico could try to amend the constitution to boost presidential powers and transform the parliamentary system into a presidential one.

Worried about a power grab, long-time Fico supporter Hubert Bystricky, an unemployed 57-year-old, said he voted against him Saturday.

“He’s a good politician but I don’t want him to have all the power in the country,” he told Agence France-Presse in Bratislava, adding that he chose the “weakest candidate as a gesture of protest”.

A Fico win would trigger a reshuffle in the Social Democrat government, but the party would still control a comfortable 83-seat majority in the 150-member parliament until general elections in 2016.

And the party would select Fico’s successor as prime minister, who would win ready approval in parliament.

In addition, Lesko said: “Any of Fico’s successors, who are effectively his subordinates at the moment, would still view him as their boss after taking up the premier’s job.”

Fico literally limped to the polling station near his hometown of Topolcany, western Slovakia, where he voted Saturday.

Nursing a football injury he suffered on the campaign trail, he vowed to “accept any (election) result” before heading to lunch with his mother.

Business nose vs. political savvy

Voters were divided at polling stations in the capital Bratislava.

Pensioner Karol Janostiak, 75, backed Fico, pointing to his political experience and his penchant for generous social welfare spending.

“I expect him to improve healthcare and education and help push for higher pensions,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Kiska’s supporters meanwhile believe that with his track record of making a fortune only to give it away, he is immune to the kind of corruption allegations that have tainted Slovakia’s right-wing politicians.

“He’s revealed everything about his past, he’s independent, not backed by any party and he’s a good manager,” pensioner Bozena Kleckova told Agence France-Presse.

Kiska vowed “an independent and non-partisan” presidency should he win as he cast his ballot in his provincial hometown of Poprad, in northern Slovakia.

Should he make it to the run-off, the centrist Kiska would become the first Slovak president without a communist party past since independence.

Both frontrunners label themselves as euro-enthusiasts, so any outcome will likely seal Slovakia’s pro-EU foreign policy.

Also in the running are actor Milan Knazko, a leading figure of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that peacefully dismantled communism in the then Czechoslovakia; Radoslav Prochazka, an ambitious young constitutional lawyer; and former parliament speaker Pavol Hrusovsky, a Christian Democrat.

The new president will be sworn in on June 15, when leftist President Ivan Gasparovic’s second term ends.

Polling stations opened at 7:00 am for the country’s 4.4 million voters and close at 10:00 pm.

First partial results are expected at midnight, with the official result due Sunday morning.

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