Slovaks choose between pro-Russian ex-PM Fico and pro-Western liberals

BRATISLAVA, Sept 30 (Reuters) – Slovaks started voting on Saturday in a parliamentary election closely fought between former leftist Prime Minister Robert Fico, who has pledged to end military aid for neighbouring Ukraine, and pro-Western liberals.

Final opinion polls showed the two parties in dead heat, with the winner expected to get the first chance to try to form a government to replace the caretaker administration running the country of 5.5 million since May.

A government led by Fico would mean Slovakia joining Hungary as EU countries challenging the bloc’s consensus on support for Ukraine, just as the European Union looks to keep unity in opposing Russia’s invasion.

It would also add to a bloc of eastern ex-Communist states with governments publicly hostile to liberalism, along with Poland’s nationalist PiS, which also faces an election next month, though Poland remains pro-Ukrainian.

A Progresivne Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia, PS) government would stay the course on foreign policy, keeping Slovakia’s strong backing for Ukraine and putting the country in a pro-integration and liberal camp in the EU on issues such as majority voting to make the bloc more flexible, green policies and LGBT rights.

Neither Fico’s SMER-SSD (Direction-Slovak Social Democracy) nor the PS, led by European Parliament Vice-Chairman Michal Simecka, is expected to win a majority, meaning the future government is likely to depend on results for over half a dozen smaller parties, from libertarians to far-right extremists.

The moderate-left Hlas (Voice) of Peter Pellegrini, an ex-SMER-SSD member and prime minister in 2018-20, is seen coming third and may be the kingmaker. He has kept his options open but said this week his party was closer to Fico.

Fico has ridden on dissatisfaction with a bickering centre-right coalition whose government collapsed last year, triggering this election a half-year early.

Fico’s pro-Russian views follow moods in Slovak society, traditionally relatively warm on Russia. The sentiment has been amplified by pro-Russian narratives and disinformation on social networks.

“Fico benefited from all that anxiety brought by the (coronavirus) pandemic and the (Ukraine) war, by the anger spreading in Slovakia in the past three years, and fuelling that anger,” said sociologist Michal Vasecka.

Fico has pledged to end military supplies to Ukraine and to strive for peace talks. This is a line close to that of Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban but rejected by Ukraine and its allies, who say this would only encourage Russia.

He has also criticised sanctions on Russia and defended national veto powers in the EU.

But Fico was also a pragmatic leader in the past, which foreign diplomats and analysts say could tame his foreign policy turn.

Analysts and diplomats have also said that Slovakia, with the euro zone’s biggest budget deficit of nearly 7% of gross domestic product this year, badly needs EU modernisation and recovery funds. Any government would thus think twice before going into conflict with Brussels over issues such as rule of law.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT). Voting ends at 10 p.m. Exit polls are to be released after polls close, and results will become available within several hours.

Reporting by Jan Lopatka in Prague and David W. Cerny in Bratislava; Additional reporting by Radovan Stoklasa in Trencianske Teplice; Editing by Peter Graff and William Mallard

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