© Reuters. People walk past an election posters ahead of the country’s parliamentary election in Bratislava, Slovakia, September 29, 2023. REUTERS/Eva Korinkova
By Jan Lopatka
BRATISLAVA (Reuters) -Slovakia’s parliamentary election was poised on a knife’s edge on Sunday with exit polls handing liberal party Progressive Slovakia (PS) an initial lead while early official results put former leftist Prime Minister Robert Fico’s party on top.
With 30% of voting districts reporting, the SMER-SSD party led by Fico – who has vowed to end military aid to Ukraine – led with nearly 25% of the vote. The HLAS party and potential Fico ally followed at 17%, with PS in third with 13% of the vote.
“What has been counted are small districts,” said Robert Kalinak, a SMER-SSD candidate and long-time Fico ally. “It all depends on when you have 50%, a critical mass of voters. Then you can start thinking about how many votes can still shift.”
The early results came mostly from Fico strongholds outside the major cities where voters are likely to favour the PS party.
The PS party has advocated maintaining Slovakia’s strong backing for Ukraine, and would also likely follow a liberal line within the European Union on issues such as majority voting to make the bloc more flexible, green policies and LGBTQ+ rights.
“I want everyone to be prepared for a probably long and tense night,” PS party leader Michal Simecka, a former reporter and Oxford graduate, told supporters.
A government led by Fico and his SMER-SSD party would see NATO member Slovakia joining Hungary in challenging the European Union’s consensus on support for Ukraine, just as the bloc looks to maintain unity in opposing Russia’s invasion.
With no party projected to win an outright majority, forming a new government will hinge on results for more than half a dozen smaller parties, from libertarians to far-right extremists.
An exit poll by Focus agency for TV Markiza showed PS winning 23.5% of the vote, ahead of 21.9% for three-time prime minister Fico’s SMER-SSD party.
A second exit poll by Median agency for public broadcaster RTVS showed the liberal party winning 19.97% of the vote, ahead of 19.09% for SMER-SSD.
Mikulas Hanes, a political analyst at NMS Market Research Slovensko, said the exit poll by Focus showed Fico will have difficulty forming a government as potential ally the Slovak National Party (SNS) looked uncertain to win seats.
“If it does, it will be a fight for every single deputy,” he said.
Any coalition that PS could potentially form would likely need to include more right-wing or socially conservative parties, which would blunt its socially progressive and EU integration drive.
Former Fico party colleague Peter Pellegrini, whose HLAS (Voice) party sat third in exit polls, kept his options open on future coalitions but ruled out working with the far-right Republika party when speaking to reporters on live television after the initial projections came out.
The incoming government in the nation of 5.5 million will take over a ballooning budget deficit forecast to be the highest in the euro zone.
Fico has ridden on dissatisfaction with a bickering centre-right coalition whose government collapsed last year, triggering the election six months early. In campaigning, he stressed concern about a rise in the number of migrants passing through Slovakia to Western Europe.
Fico’s views reflect traditionally warm sentiments towards Russia among many Slovaks, which have gathered strength on social media since the Ukraine war started.
Fico has also pledged to end military supplies to Ukraine and to strive for peace talks – a line close to that of Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orban, but rejected by Ukraine and its allies, who say this would only encourage Russia.