Home Europe Slovak president election: Pro-EU diplomat tops coalition stalwart in first round

Slovak president election: Pro-EU diplomat tops coalition stalwart in first round

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Career diplomat and pro-West candidate Ivan Korčok won the first round of Slovakia’s presidential election Saturday on 42 percent support with over 99 percent of districts reporting.

His opponent, ruling coalition member Peter Pellegrini, was in second on 37 percent. With no candidate having won a majority, a runoff ballot is set for April 6.

Korčok was foreign minister under the chaotic 2020-2023 government of political maverick Igor Matovič. Before that, he served as Slovakia’s permanent representative to the EU; head of delegation for the country’s 2003 accession talks to NATO; and ambassador to Germany and the U.S.

“I should say honestly that I need to reach out more to voters who supported the government parties,” Korčok said from his Bratislava election headquarters as the early count was released. “It’s clear that they’re not satisfied with how this government is ruling, where it’s taking Slovakia.”

Pellegrini has served as speaker of parliament since last September’s general election, in which his Hlas (Voice) party placed third behind the front-running Smer (Direction) of Prime Minister Robert Fico. Along with nationalist junior partner SNS, their government has moved to end military support for Ukraine and to cut sentencing guidelines and statutes of limitation for corruption offenses.

Pellegrini previously served as Slovak prime minister in 2018 after Fico was forced from office amid a scandal over the murders that year of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová.

“Let’s enjoy this experience,” Pellegrini said as the polls closed on Saturday. The speaker, who only agreed to a single debate with Korčok before the first round, promised to hold “several duels, as it should be” with his opponent before the second round, and “not to succumb” to an aggressive campaign style.

The country’s 1993 Constitution gives its president largely ceremonial powers, including signing bills into law (the parliament in Bratislava can override a presidential veto by passing bills a second time), approving nominations for cabinet minister and head of the country’s SIS intelligence service, and issuing amnesties.

During the country’s three decades of independence, however, the power of the presidency has often been rooted in its soft power as a bulwark against democratic backsliding. Inaugural President Michal Kováč, for example, became a rallying point for resistance to thuggish 1990s PM Vladimír Mečiar, whose security forces kidnapped Kováč’s son and spirited him to Austria in the trunk of a car to face international fraud charges (later dropped).

In 2014, entrepreneur, philanthropist and political novice Andrej Kiska defeated Fico for the presidency during the latter’s second premiership. During his single five-year term, Kiska was a sharp critic of Fico’s government and a pro-EU tribune as the electorate lurched toward illiberal, euroskeptic attitudes.

In May 2018, the month Fico was forced from office, Kiska was Slovakia’s most trusted public figure with 46.2 percent support, according to the Focus polling agency.

Slovakia’s sitting president, green activist and lawyer Zuzana Čaputová, has likewise been the country’s most trusted politician, with Focus measuring 58 percent support in January 2020.

Since Fico returned to office for a fourth term last October, Čaputová has strongly opposed what she termed his government’s “unprecedented” changes to the country’s penal code and its dovish stance on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

“After Ján Kuciak’s [February 2018] murder, the political dynamic completely changed, with the main topic becoming political corruption and its criminal consequences,” said political analyst Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs. “Today the situation is different. Smer has returned to power and is building essentially an authoritarian system and attempting to change [Slovakia’s] foreign policy orientation,” he said.

“Peter Pellegrini represents this trend.”

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