- Associated Press - Friday, February 28, 2020

PRAGUE (AP) - Slovaks vote Saturday in parliamentary elections widely expected to unseat the country’s long dominant but scandal-tainted center-left party that governed on an anti-immigration platform, in favor of a coalition headed by center-right populists.

And an extreme far-right party whose members use Nazi salutes and which wants Slovakia out of the European Union and NATO is forecast to strengthen its hold in the 150-seat parliament, to become the third most popular party in the country of just under 5.5 million.

According to the latest opinion polls, the center-right Ordinary People, led by Igor Matovic, is the front-runner, followed by Smer-Social Democracy, led by populist former Prime Minister Robert Fico.

Smer has been in power for most of the past 14 years, and gained 28.3% in the last elections in 2016 after campaigning on an anti-migrant ticket. But the party was damaged by political turmoil following the slayings of an investigative journalist and his fiancee.

Fico’s current coalition partners, the ultra-nationalist Slovak National Party and a party of ethnic Hungarians, might not win any seats, polls suggest.



“My prognosis is that Smer won’t be in the government,” said Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs in the capital, Bratislava.

Here’s a look at the vote:

KUCIAK FACTOR

The 2018 killings of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, triggered major street protests and a political crisis that led to the collapse of Fico’s three-party coalition government.

A new cabinet was made up of ministers from the same three parties and led by Peter Pellegrini, previously the deputy prime minister.

Kuciak had been writing about alleged ties between the Italian mafia and people close to Fico when he was killed, and also wrote about corruption scandals linked to Fico’s party.

Four defendants are on trial in the Kuciak case, facing potential prison sentences of 25 years to life if convicted. They include the alleged mastermind, businessman Marian Kocner. The investigation has been damaging for Fico because it disclosed that Kocner created a wide network of contacts with politicians, including members of Smer, judges and prosecutors, who allegedly helped him with his business dealings.

Kocner was sentenced to 19 years in prison on Thursday in a separate case over forgery and securities crime.

“The expected change (of government) will mean a return of the rule of law,” said Michal Vasecka, program director of the Bratislava Policy Institute. “The killings of Kuciak and Kusnirova contributed significantly to the change.”

FRONT RUNNERS

The pro-Western Ordinary People party is ahead in opinion polls with some 19%. Its chairman, Igor Matovic, has made fighting corruption and attacking Fico the central tenet of his campaign.

“It’s considered the major protest party for those who are not satisfied with the current situation, and it represents for them hope for change,” said Martin Slosiarik, director of the Focus polling agency in Bratislava.

“Like typical populists, they divide the world between the corrupt elites and millions of ordinary people who are managed by those corrupt elites,” Vasecka said of the party. “Matovic keeps repeating it all the time, ‘I am an ordinary person, I am one of you.’ And it seems that people listen to it.”

FAR RIGHT

In a shocking result four years ago, the far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia won 8% and 14 seats in Parliament. In contrast to most of Europe’s far-right groups, analysts say it’s truly neo-Nazi because it advocates the legacy of the Slovak Nazi puppet WWII state. This time, polls show it might get 10%.

Party members use Nazi salutes, blame Roma for crime in deprived areas, describe NATO as a terror group and want Slovakia to leave the alliance and the EU.

All other parties have ruled out cooperation with the party led by Marian Kotleba, which attracts young people fed up with corruption and the inability of mainstream parties to effectively address post-communism problems.

WHAT’S AHEAD

No party is expected to win a governing majority and a coalition government will need to be formed.

Matovic is the likeliest candidate for future prime minister. He is expected to govern with a coalition of liberal Progressive Slovakia/Together, conservative For People established by former President Andrej Kiska and the euro-skeptic, pro-business Freedom and Solidarity party.

They all put their differences aside in efforts to beat Fico but it’s hard to estimate whether their possible partnership can survive the whole four-year term.

“What is coming is a period of great instability,” said Vasecka, from the Bratislava Policy Institute. “The coalition that might be created by democratic opposition parties will be very broad and formed by very different entities.”

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