Slovaks vote in presidential election that might bolster PM Fico

By Thomson Reuters Mar 22, 2024 | 6:16 PM

(Reuters) – Slovaks vote in a presidential election on Saturday that could strengthen Prime Minister Robert Fico’s grip on power as he seeks more control over public media, softer anti-corruption laws and a dissenting voice to EU support for Ukraine.

Polls are open in the first round of voting from 7:00 a.m. (0600 GMT) until 10:00 p.m. (2100 GMT). A run-off between the top two candidates is due on April 6 if no one wins a majority this weekend.

Fico’s ally Peter Pellegrini, 48, has been a frontrunner in the race to replace President Zuzana Caputova, 50, who is a fierce opponent to Fico, although she is not seeking a new term.

Fico returned to power in an election last September after winning over voters with pledges to halt military aid to Ukraine in its fight against a Russian invasion, keep up spending to help people hit by price surges, and end chaotic governance seen during a previous opposition-led administration.

Pellegrini, a former prime minister and member of Fico’s leftist, ruling SMER party and now the head of junior coalition partner HLAS, is hoping to duplicate that success.

Among the list of candidates, he is facing Ivan Korcok, 59, a pro-EU former foreign minister who wants to prevent the government from gaining the president’s seat.

While Slovak presidents do not wield many executive powers, they have a role in appointments in government and other offices and can shape public debate as the liberal Caputova has often done.

Voters in the past have often rejected giving ruling parties both the government and presidential offices. Caputova won the last presidential election in 2019, riding an anti-corruption wave aimed at Fico’s party, which was in power then.

Fico, a four-time prime minister, has shifted Slovak policy quickly, most visibly by ending state military supplies to Ukraine – while still allowing commercial supply deals – and having dialogue with Moscow even as the EU wants to isolate the Russian regime.

Pellegrini, like Fico, has said the conflict in Ukraine does not have a military solution and supports peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow, something that Korcok, like other critics, call capitulation when parts of Ukraine are occupied.

Fico’s coalition government has also pushed through criminal law changes that critics say weaken the fight against corruption. Caputova, as president, has challenged the changes at the Constitutional Court.

The government has also shut a special prosecution unit in a move the European Commision said this week it regretted.

The government is now planning changes that will give it more control over public broadcaster RTVS, raising concern among media groups and advocates. Korcok has criticised the government’s push for more power.

(Reporting by Jason Hovet in Prague; Editing by Angus MacSwan)