March 15 (Bloomberg) -- Slovaks headed to the polls today in the first round of a presidential election that tests Premier Robert Fico’s bid to consolidate more power for his political party.
The nation’s most-popular politician for the past decade will probably be the leader in a field of 15 contenders, putting him on the ballot for the March 29 run-off vote. His likely rival after today’s balloting will be second-place Andrej Kiska, a 51-year-old businessman-turned-philanthropist. Results are expected later today.
Fico, who is halfway into his second term as premier, is striving to consolidate his Smer party’s lock on power in the eastern euro-region member by becoming the head of state and hand-picking his successor to lead the cabinet. To realize his goal, he will have to win over voters disappointed in his failure to boost job creation even as the economy expands.
“The vote will be a referendum on Fico, about his government’s policies,” said Grigorij Meseznikov, the director of the Bratislava-based Institute of Public Affairs. “A Kiska victory can’t be ruled out.”
Fico, 49, whose Smer party snared a parliamentary majority in general elections two years ago, would garner 35.8 percent of the first-round vote, compared with 32.6 percent for Kiska, according to a Median poll conducted Feb. 17-21. The survey of 1,033 respondents didn’t provide a margin of error.
Four March polls by three different polling companies estimated Kiska’s first-round result at between 23 percent and 27.1 percent, second to Fico.
Given Kiska’s grassroots support in his first foray into national politics, he may benefit in the second round as supporters of losing contestants, including Velvet Revolution icon Milan Knazko and opposition lawmaker Radoslav Prochazka, throw their votes his way to thwart Fico’s ambitions, Meseznikov said.
“We need to make sure that the presidency doesn’t go to Fico,” Kiska said in March 5 interview in a Bratislava cafe where he sipped cappuccino and picked at a chocolate cake. “We don’t want all the top posts to be held by one party. We’ve already had that here for 41 years under communism.”
Kiska co-founded two consumer-credit companies in the late 1990s before selling them in 2005 to the Slovak unit of Intesa Sanpaolo SpA. He collected about 10 million euros ($13.9 million) for his stake in the business.
Since the sale, he’s focused on philanthropy, having donated at least 2.5 million euros to the nation’s largest charity, Good Angel, which he founded.
“Fico is a populist with authoritarian tendencies,” Meseznikov said. “On the other hand, Kiska is viewed as a success story. His absence from politics so far is a huge advantage, voters are disappointed with politics as usual.”
Ludovit Toth, a 38-year-old media specialist, said he cast his ballot for Kiska after considering all opposition candidates.
“I like his story,” Toth said in front of a polling station in Bratislava. “He’s got the biggest chance against Fico in the second round.”
If elected, Fico has said he wants to make the largely ceremonial presidency more active, especially in voicing opinions abroad.
Fico has rebuffed concerns about a concentration of power, saying the country “can’t afford an experiment of having a president who would be in an open conflict with the government,” according to a Feb. 8 interview for Mlada Fronta Dnes newspaper.
Fico, a former Communist Party member who was first elected to parliament in 1992, oversaw Slovakia’s switch to the euro in 2009 as prime minister.
His cabinet probably managed to cut the budget deficit below the European Union’s ceiling of 3 percent of economic output last year from 5.1 percent in 2011, according to a European Commission estimate.
It also introduced special levies for selected industries and raised income taxes for corporations and the country’s highest earners to raise revenue, in line with a campaign pledge not to let poorer citizens feel the impact of fiscal consolidation.
Those pledges were winning him support around Slovakia today, including that of Anna Koricanska, an 82-year-old pensioner voting in the capital.
“He’s shown that he cares about ordinary people like us, pensioners,” Koricanska said. “He’s experienced and knows politicians around the world.”
Fico’s opponents, including Kiska, argue that some government measures will further crimp the creation of new jobs at a time when the unemployment rate, at 13.6 percent in February, is almost double the 2008 level.
Still, some analysts say Fico’s abilities to charm voters shouldn’t be underestimated.
“Slovakia is split into pro- and anti-Fico camps,” Peter Haulik, the director of MVK polling company, said by phone. “Fico’s stable electorate represents about 40 percent of the country. He’ll work hard in the last two weeks of campaign to succeed.”
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