Fico May Lose Slovak Presidency Bid as Voters Are Unhappy

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico may fail to boost his grip on power in March 29 presidential runoff as disenchanted voters gave stronger-than-expected support to his rivals in the fist round.

Fico, who won 28 percent of votes two days ago, will face philanthropist Andrej Kiska in the runoff, who garnered 24 percent of the vote. Two other opposition candidates, who ranked third and fourth, have said they would urge voters to back Kiska in the final round. That may prevent Fico’s Smer party, which already has majority in parliament, from clinching the country’s top post.

“Fico has a huge problem, more than half of people who voted for Smer in 2012” general elections “didn’t show up,” Grigorij Meseznikov, the director of the Bratislava, Slovakia-based Institute of Public Affairs, said by phone on March 16. “He can win only if he is able to mobilize them all. This was a referendum about Fico and it showed that his rule isn’t viewed as positively as he thought.”

The nation’s most-popular politician for the past decade is halfway into his second term as premier. As Fico strives to consolidate his Smer party’s lock on power in the eastern euro-region member, he needs to lure back voters disappointed in his failure to boost job creation even as the economy expands. If his presidency bid fails, he may be tempted to boost spending in the remaining years of his premiership to brace for 2016 general elections.

“This time, he didn’t feel a need for any sweeteners for citizens as he was relying on his long-term support,” Meseznikov said. “Now it’s realistic to expect that the government will boost spending to make sure Smer will be in the next cabinet.”

Rookie in Politics

While the 51-year--old businessman-turned-philanthropist Kiska is a rookie in Slovak national politics, that seems to be his main attraction among voters, analysts say.

“Chances are still balanced,” Pavel Haulik, the director of pollster MVK, said by phone on March 16. “But after” the first-round vote, “Kiska has a bigger chance.”

Losing contestants, including Velvet Revolution icon Milan Knazko and opposition lawmaker Radoslav Prochazka, said in a debate on March 3 they would urge their supporters to throw their votes his way to thwart Fico’s ambitions. Their combined support in the first-round ballot was 34.1 percent.

Hours after first-round results were released, Fico and Kiska started dueling for voters’ approval.

“The president should be an experienced politician who knows what the world is about and who has contacts abroad,” Fico said in a debate on public STV television today. The final round will provide a choice between “a candidate who’s offering his experience and a candidate about whom we don’t know a thing.”

‘Aren’t Satisfied’

Kiska, who took part in the same debate, retorted that while Fico has ruled for six years, “people aren’t satisfied.”

“The question is whether such a person should be given another five” years in power, Kiska said. “Traditional politicians have failed to solve the problems of ordinary people.” Slovakia’s president is elected for a five-year term.

In a separate news conference, Fico said he expects “the second round to be very interesting,” Sme news website reported.

Kiska would defeat Fico in the decisive round by winning 53.7 percent of the vote, compared with Fico’s 46.3 percent, according to a survey from pollster Focus made from Jan. 27 to Feb. 5. The survey, which had no publicized margin of error, was conducted among 1,051 Slovaks before the first round and was the only poll so far that inquired about voters’ choices in the runoff.

If elected, Fico has said he wants to make the largely ceremonial presidency more active, especially in voicing opinions abroad.

Rejects ‘Experiment’

He has rebuffed concerns about a concentration of power, saying Slovakia “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.

Poor Citizens

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.

The yield on the Slovak benchmark bond due 2023 fell to 2.193 percent, the lowest since the security was issued, on March 13, before rising to 2.21 percent a day later. Slovakia’s borrowing costs have fallen below better-rated Belgium, as Fico’s administration has trimmed the budget deficit to differentiate the country from ailing euro-area members.

The Slovak economy grew 0.9 percent in 2013, compared with a 0.5 percent contraction in the whole euro area. Growth is set to accelerate to 2.3 percent this year, the Slovak Finance Ministry forecasts.

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.

Consumer-Credit Companies

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 made 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.

“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 piece of 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.”

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