Slovaks head to the polls on Saturday for round one of a presidential election that Prime Minister Robert Fico is poised to win, sparking concern his leftist Social Democrats could monopolise power in the eurozone country.
A victory for the ex-communist Fico, the leading candidate in a field of 14 contenders, would mean the presidency, parliament and government will be controlled by the same party for the first time since Slovakia won independence in 1993.
Fico, 49, has earned valuable political capital during his two terms as premier with an anti-austerity agenda tempered by fiscal discipline.
He commands around 35-percent support in opinion polls and is most likely to face non-partisan millionaire turned philanthropist Andrej Kiska in a possible run-off vote set for March 29.
Kiska, 51, and without a communist party past, has scored 24-percent support in pre-election polls and is seen as an untainted political greenhorn with a good nose for business.
Other, less popular contenders include actor Milan Knazko, a leading figure of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that peacefully dismantled communism in what was then Czechoslovakia; Radoslav Prochazka, an ambitious young constitutional lawyer; and former parliament speaker Pavol Hrusovsky, a Christian Democrat.
The prospect of Fico consolidating his power has galvanised both the political class and voters in this country of 5.4 million people, which joined the European Union in 2004 and the eurozone in 2009.
The election has become “a referendum on Robert Fico’s government and the concentration of power”, Grigorij Meseznikov from the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs told AFP.
Marian Lesko, an analyst with the Trend business weekly, warned that Fico could try to amend the constitution to “boost the president’s powers” and change Slovakia’s parliamentary system into a presidential one.
Critics warn the driven Fico could look up to neighbouring Hungary’s dominant leader Viktor Orban or the Czech Republic’s power-hungry head of state Milos Zeman for inspiration.
A Fico win would trigger a reshuffle in his one-party government, but it would still control a comfortable 83-seat majority in the 150-member parliament until the 2016 general elections.
“Any of Fico’s successors, who are effectively his subordinates at the moment, would still view him as their boss after taking up the premier’s job,” Lesko said.
– Philanthropist vs. leftist –
A day ahead of the vote, opinion was divided on the streets of the capital Bratislava.
Real estate agent Martin Kugla is pinning his hopes on Kiska, who he believes is “the only one who can defeat Fico in the second round”.
“Self-proclaimed social democrat Fico is a populist and serves the lobbyists,” the 40-year-old said.
But pensioner Elena, 78, who declined to give her last name, says Fico’s anti-austerity credentials won her over.
“He’s done a lot for the poor, especially pensioners,” she told AFP, insisting that Fico is “more competent than any of his challengers”.
Kiska’s supporters meanwhile believe his knack for making a fortune, only to give it away, means he is immune to the kind of corruption allegations that have tainted Slovakia’s right-wing politicians.
Should he clinch the run-off, centrist Kiska would become the first Slovak president without a communist party past since independence.
Both frontrunners label themselves as euro-enthusiasts, so any election outcome will likely seal Slovakia’s pro-EU foreign policy.
The new president will be sworn in on June 15, when leftist President Ivan Gasparovic’s second term ends.
Polling stations will open at 7:00 am (0600 GMT) for the country’s 4.4 million voters and close at 10:00 pm.