HomeNewsSlovakia election: Exit polls show slim lead for liberal Simecka

Slovakia election: Exit polls show slim lead for liberal Simecka

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BRATISLAVA — Exit polls in Slovakia’s parliamentary elections Saturday showed a slight lead for the progressive party of Michael Simecka over populist Robert Fico, in a knife-edge vote that could reverse the country’s support for Ukraine.

Ahead of the election, most polls showed Fico, 59, as the front-runner. A former prime minister who was forced out of power five years ago, Fico launched a comeback bid with a campaign that was heavy on conspiracy theories and laced with pro-Russian and anti-American discourse.

Who is Robert Fico? Pro-Russia populist is favored in Slovakia elections.

But in exit polls released after voting stations closed, Simecka’s Progressive Slovakia had a slim advantage over Fico’s Smer party, with 19.97 and 19.09 percent of the vote, respectively, according to results gathered by public broadcaster Radio and Television of Slovakia. Another exit poll conducted by the independent research firm Focus also showed Progressive Slovakia leading the vote with 23.5 percent, compared to 21.9 percent for Smer.

Simecka, a former journalist, has a drastically different vision than Fico for a pro-European, liberal Slovakia and made last-minute gains in the polls. At 39, he would become the country’s youngest prime minister if his party took power.

“It will be tight, but decency may prevail,” Simecka wrote in a Facebook post this week.

“Slovakia can choose a European, dignified future instead of chaos and isolation in these elections,” Simecka said.

Amid Slovakia’s political divisions, no single party is expected to win more than a quarter of the vote. Much could ride on a raft of smaller parties that are on the threshold of reaching the minimum of 5 percent of the vote needed to enter parliament.

Building a coalition government could be “very complicated,” said Radoslav Stefancik, a political scientist at University of Economics in Bratislava “Because there are a lot of small parties that will be playing hard to get.”

The front-runner ahead of Slovakia’s Sept. 30 general election is a former primer minister who could fracture the West’s united support for Ukraine. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

A victory by Fico’s Smer party would be another sign of Europe’s tilt toward populist forces, which have capitalized on spiraling costs of living and anxiety over the Ukraine war. It could also turn an ally in the Western response to Ukraine into a spoiler, with Fico threatening to stop arms deliveries and block European Union sanctions against Russia.

During a toxic campaign, Fico tapped into the country’s deep dissatisfaction with the previous government, parroting Russian propaganda and blaming “Ukrainian Nazis” for starting the war.

In an all-caps message on his page, Fico criticized Ukraine for its decision to take legal action in response to Slovakia banning its grain imports: “THE WORLD IS STARTING TO GET FED UP WITH ZELENSKY AND UKRAINE, BECAUSE THEY ARE UNGRATEFUL AND STILL UNSATISFIED!”

A pro-Russian tide in Slovakia could threaten Europe’s unity on Ukraine

Fico also seized on the unpopularity of Slovakia’s governing coalition, which collapsed after a no-confidence vote last year, leading to a caretaker government. But Simecka’s party had failed to win seats in the national parliament in 2020, leaving it untainted.

Fico, meanwhile, has been dogged by corruption allegations. He has cast them as attempts by the government to erase its political opposition.

“We don’t want to hand the country back to the mafia,” said Anna Frankova, 29, as she shopped at a farmers market in central Bratislava with her husband and father-in-law after casting her ballot for Simecka’s party on Saturday. “We are still young, we want to have a future here, and our future is with the West,” she said.

But like many Slovaks, she expressed weariness with a political scene beset by infighting. She said that the current caretaker government of technocrats seemed a better option than the political parties vying for power. “If Fico wins, we’ll leave the country,” said her husband Peter Frank, 38, who had also voted for Progressive Slovakia, which he said was “the lesser evil.”

“Whoever is against Fico, I’ll vote for,” he added.

At a polling station in the capital’s Old Town near its baroque-style castle, Peter Hladky, 56, had just voted for Fico’s Smer.

“I want a strong leader, someone who knows what he’s doing,” he said. He expressed support for Fico’s “Christian values” and his stance on Ukraine.

“How many conflicts are there in the world? And why should a country of 5 million people rush to solve them?” he said of the war over the border.

Simecka has warned that a fourth term for Fico could usher in an ally for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the European Union, with “major implications” for the bloc’s ability to deliver further arms to Ukraine and enact new rounds of sanctions.

While a Fico government would represent a shift in Ukraine policy from a neighbor that has led on deliveries of tanks and heavy weapons, analysts say the impact of his threat to cut off arms deliveries could be limited. Fico has only specified that he will stop sending arms from Slovakia’s already depleted military stocks. He has refrained from threats to halt supplies from the country’s arms manufacturers that stock Ukraine with much-needed artillery shells.

“I don’t buy the completely gloomy scenarios if Fico makes a government,” said Milan Nic, an analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations, who points out that Slovakia is more dependent on the E.U. than Hungary, while Fico is more consumed by investigations into his associates at home.

“He’s much more domestically focused than Mr. Orban,” Nic said. “That’s not to say that they won’t help each other.”

Analysts say that at the forefront of Fico’s agenda would be putting an end to the corruption probes that have dogged him and his associates since was forced to resign in the wake of an investigative journalist’s slaying.

Jan Kuciak, who was fatally shot alongside his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, had been investigating links between the Italian mafia and associates of Fico.

How Slovakia stood up to a journalist’s slaying and kicked out its prime minister

Fico’s campaign has also focused on immigration and the cost of living, as Slovakia experiences the highest inflation in the euro area, nearly double the average of other countries that use the euro.

Simecka, meanwhile, has pledged to maintain the country’s support for Ukraine and speed up its green transition. He has said he will not work with Fico or the far right, but is otherwise open to a range of coalition partners.

“For me, the priority is preventing Robert Fico from forming a government,” Simecka told Reuters this month. “You have to make compromises.”

Morris reported from Berlin

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