Tue. Dec 5th, 2023

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BRATISLAVA — Slovaks headed to the polls on Saturday in a carefully watched election that has the potential to complicate the Western response to Ukraine and put the nation on a extra intolerant, autocratic course.

The front-runner within the majority of polls by a whisper of a margin is Robert Fico, 59, a populist former prime minister who was pressured out of energy in shame 5 years in the past and has made a comeback bid in a conspiracy theory-laden marketing campaign, laced with pro-Russian and anti-American discourse.

Who’s Robert Fico? Professional-Russia populist is favored in Slovakia elections.

A victory by Fico’s Smer occasion can be one other signal of Europe’s tilt towards populist forces, which have capitalized on spiraling prices of residing and anxiousness over the Ukraine struggle. It might additionally flip an ally within the Western response to Ukraine right into a spoiler, with Fico threatening to cease arms deliveries and block European Union sanctions in opposition to Russia.

Throughout a poisonous marketing campaign, Fico tapped into the nation’s longtime polarization towards Moscow and deep dissatisfaction with the earlier authorities as he has parroted Russian propaganda and blamed “Ukrainian Nazis” for beginning the struggle.

However the election stays too tight to name. Nearly stage with Fico’s occasion within the polls is Progressive Slovakia, headed by Michal Simecka, 39, a former journalist who would develop into the nation’s youngest prime minister if he took energy. He has a drastically completely different imaginative and prescient for a pro-European, liberal Slovakia and has made last-minute features within the polls.

A ultimate IPSOS ballot revealed Wednesday put assist for Fico’s Smer occasion at 20.6 % in contrast with 19.8 for Progressive Slovakia.

“Will probably be tight, however decency could prevail,” Simecka wrote in a Fb put up this week.

Whoever comes out forward can have the primary probability at cobbling collectively a coalition authorities, amid a fractured political scene the place no occasion is anticipated to win greater than 1 / 4 of the vote. A lot might experience on a raft of smaller events which might be on the brink of reaching the minimal of 5 % of the vote wanted to enter parliament.

“Slovakia can select a European, dignified future as an alternative of chaos and isolation in these elections,” Simecka stated.

In the meantime, in an all-caps message on his web page, Fico criticized Ukraine for its determination to take authorized motion 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 professional-Russian tide in Slovakia might threaten Europe’s unity on Ukraine

Fico has capitalized on dissatisfaction with Slovakia’s governing coalition that collapsed after a no-confidence vote late final yr, resulting in a caretaker authorities. However Simecka’s occasion didn’t win seats within the nationwide parliament in 2020, leaving it untainted.

Fico in the meantime has been dogged by corruption allegations, however has solid them as an try by the federal government to erase political opposition.

“We don’t wish to hand the nation again to the mafia,” stated Anna Frankova, 29, as she shopped at a farmers market in central Bratislava together with her husband and father-in-law after casting her poll for Simecka’s occasion on Saturday. “We’re nonetheless younger, we wish to have a future right here, and our future is with the West,” she stated.

However like many Slovaks, she expressed weariness with a political scene beset by infighting. She stated that the present caretaker authorities of technocrats appeared a greater choice than the political events vying for energy. “If Fico wins, we’ll depart the nation,” stated her husband Peter Frank, 38, who had additionally voted for Progressive Slovakia, which he stated was “the lesser evil.”

“Whoever is in opposition to Fico, I’ll vote for,” he added.

At a polling station within the capital’s Previous City close to its baroque-style fortress, Peter Hladky, 56, had simply voted for Fico’s Smer.

“I need a robust chief, somebody who is aware of what he’s doing,” he stated. He expressed assist for Fico’s “Christian values” and his stance on Ukraine.

“What number of conflicts are there on the earth? And why ought to a rustic of 5 million individuals rush to unravel them?” he stated of the struggle over the border.

Simecka has warned {that a} fourth time period for Fico might usher in an ally for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban within the European Union, with “main implications” for the bloc’s capability to ship additional arms to Ukraine and enact new rounds of sanctions.

Whereas a Fico authorities would signify a shift in Ukraine coverage from a neighbor that has led on deliveries of tanks and heavy weapons, analysts say the affect of his risk to chop off arms deliveries could possibly be restricted. Fico has solely specified that he’ll cease sending arms from Slovakia’s already depleted navy shares. He has shunned threats to halt provides from the nation’s arms producers that inventory Ukraine with much-needed artillery shells.

“I don’t purchase the utterly gloomy situations if Fico makes a authorities,” stated Milan Nic, an analyst with the German Council on Overseas Relations, who factors out that Slovakia is extra depending on the E.U. than Hungary, whereas Fico is extra consumed by investigations into his associates at house.

“He’s way more domestically centered than Mr. Orban,” Nic stated. “That’s to not say that they gained’t assist one another.”

Analysts say that on the forefront of Fico’s agenda can be placing an finish to the corruption probes which have dogged him and his associates since was pressured to resign within the wake of an investigative journalist’s slaying.

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

How Slovakia stood as much as a journalist’s slaying and kicked out its prime minister

Fico’s marketing campaign has additionally centered on immigration and the price of residing, as Slovakia experiences the best inflation within the euro space, almost double the typical of different international locations that use the euro.

Simecka, in the meantime, has pledged to keep up the nation’s assist for Ukraine and velocity up its inexperienced transition. He has stated he is not going to work with Fico or the far proper, however is in any other case open to a spread of coalition companions.

“For me, the precedence is stopping Robert Fico from forming a authorities,” Simecka advised Reuters this month. “You must make compromises.”

Morris reported from Berlin

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