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Split over Ukraine war, Slovakia votes for president

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Slovakia will on Saturday hold the first round of a presidential election that is a battle between the Central European country’s Russia-leaning ruling camp and a pro-Ukraine opposition-backed candidate.

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Parliament speaker Peter Pellegrini and liberal ex-foreign minister Ivan Korcok are the clear frontrunners among nine contenders.

Pellegrini is backed by populist Prime Minister Robert Fico, who has questioned Ukraine’s sovereignty amongst a list of inflammatory comments over Russia’s invasion.

Korcok is staunchly pro-Ukraine, holding similar views to outgoing president Zuzana Caputova, a government critic who chose not to seek a second term.

Latest opinion polls have suggested a tight race to become president of the NATO and EU member of 5.4 million people.

An Ipsos agency survey indicated that Pellegrini, a former prime minister, would take 37 percent of the vote, while Korcok would receive 36 percent.

Polling stations will open for 15 hours at 7:00 am (0600 GMT). But since no one is expected to get the 50 percent vote share needed to win Saturday, Pellegrini and Korcok are expected to dispute an April 6 runoff.

‘Orban way’ 

Analysts predict a Fico-backed president could further cement the anti-Ukrainian foreign policy to resemble that of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

“If Pellegrini wins, Slovakia could go the ‘Orban way’,” Tomas Koziak, a political analyst at the University of International Business ISM Slovakia, told AFP.

Hungary has become increasingly at odds with the European Union leadership, frequently criticised over rule of law issues and hampering the bloc’s efforts to help Ukraine.

“In the case of Korcok, the pro-Western orientation is absolutely obvious. His attitude towards Russia would be uncompromising,” Koziak said.

The war in neighbouring Ukraine since February 2022 has been an electoral campaign fixture that divides Slovaks.

“The Slovak political scene is divided between those who are in favour of the continuation of the war at all costs, and those who demand the start of peace negotiations,” Pellegrini told AFP.

“I belong to the latter,” he said.

Pro-Ukraine camp 

His long-time ally Fico has over the years appointed Pellegrini to various positions, including parliamentary speaker and education minister.

The 48-year-old became head of government after Fico was toppled as premier in 2018, following the killings of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee.

The double murder sparked large rallies that forced Fico’s resignation as Kuciak had been working on links between the Italian mafia and Fico’s Smer-SD party.

Korcok is a diplomat who has represented Slovakia in the United States, Germany and Switzerland. The 59-year-old has criticised Fico’s calls to negotiate with Moscow.

“The Russian Federation has trampled on international law… I do not think Ukraine should give up part of its territory to achieve peace,” he told AFP.

“The first prerequisite for us to be able to talk about a peaceful solution to this war is that Russian missiles stop hitting Ukrainian schools and hospitals.”

In the final presidential debate, the two clashed over Ukraine, with Pellegrini urging “an immediate ceasefire and the opening of peace negotiations”.

“Peace cannot mean capitulation,” Korcok replied, adding that peace could come “immediately” on condition that Russian troops withdraw.

‘Russian governorate’ 

Though running as an independent, Korcok is backed by opposition parties who believe a Pellegrini win would pave the way for presidential pardons of government allies found guilty of corruption.

“I will vote for Korcok, as to me Pellegrini is even less acceptable than Fico, and that is saying something,” said Bratislava voter Marta Demcakova.

“I do not want to live to see my children and grandchildren grow up in a Russian governorate,” the 66-year-old pensioner told AFP.

Shop assistant Katarina Podmanicka, a 46-year-old from Zborov, said she expected Pellegrini to be a defender of ordinary people.

“I know he fights for us, for Slovakia,” she told AFP.

Though the office is largely ceremonial, Slovakia’s president ratifies international treaties, appoints top judges and is commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The head of state can also veto laws passed by parliament.

Other presidential contenders include pro-Kremlin former Supreme Court chief Stefan Harabin, far-right former lawmaker Marian Kotleba and anti-graft ex-premier Igor Matovic.

(AFP)

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