Slovak Premier Fights Slide in Presidential Election Race

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico will have to overcome his toughest challenger in a bid to fortify his grip on power by winning the presidency as his popularity shrinks after a failure to boost job creation.

The premier, who controls a parliamentary majority through his Smer party, will face independent Andrej Kiska in a March 29 runoff after the businessman-turned-philanthropist came second in the first round two weeks ago. With no opinion polls published between the two ballots, the ex-businessman is favored by odds makers at the largest Slovak betting company, Nike sro.

“Fico’s running because he wants to create a monolith of power,” Grigorij Meseznikov, the head of the Institute for Public Affairs think-tank, said in a telephone interview. “He wants to be an active president, fully using his powers, and at the same time have his own government, even if someone else will lead it officially.”

Halfway through his second term as premier, Fico wants to remake the ceremonial post of president into the euro member’s central political position. That echoes efforts to consolidate power by other leaders in neighboring countries including Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban, Meseznikov said. In the Czech Republic, President Milos Zeman has sought to extend his sway over cabinet policy since winning the country’s first popular ballot for the post in 2013.

Fico’s Priorities

Fico is struggling to reconcile the goal of curbing the fiscal gap with boosting economic growth, which is largely driven by demand for the country’s exports, including cars assembled at factories of foreign automakers Volkswagen AG, PSA Peugeot Citroen SA and Kia Motors Corp.

The budget shortfall probably fell below the European Union ceiling of 3 percent of economic output last year, from 4.5 percent in 2012, according to a European Commission estimate. The economy grew 1.5 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier, the fastest pace in more than a year. Unemployment, at 13.5 percent in February, compares with 8.8 percent in Hungary and 8.6 percent in the Czech Republic.

The yield on the 10-year Slovak government bond fell to a record low of 2.14 percent yesterday, holding below borrowing costs in similar maturity of higher-rated Belgium, according to generic data compiled by Bloomberg.

As he prepares for the runoff, Fico is trying to mobilize voters following the March 15 first round, when about half of his traditional supporters didn’t show up. Even so, his 28 percent tally surpassed Kiska’s 24 percent.

Since then, the 49-year-old lawyer who was first elected to parliament 22 years ago, has promoted a new vision for the presidency. Executive powers are now held by the cabinet.

‘More Important’

“The president’s role will rise significantly,” he told reporters March 20 in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital. “The president will, in a short time, become a substantially more important political figure than the premier.”

Fico’s message to his supporters at rallies, where he handed out free roses to women and donned a soccer jersey for a match with locals, highlighted what he called the government’s achievements in protecting Slovaks from the impact of the global economic crisis.

“We didn’t raise their taxes and fees,” Fico said in an interview after a March 18 rally in Bratislava. “I feel certain satisfaction. I consider my mission as well done.”

Striking Chord

Kiska, 51, a newcomer in Slovak national politics, is striking a chord with voters, according to Otilia Dhand, an analyst at political risk evaluator Teneo Intelligence.

In the middle of the 1990s, Kiska co-founded two consumer-credit companies 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 then, he’s focused on philanthropy, having donated at least 2.5 million euros to the nation’s largest charity, Good Angel, which he also founded.

That career resonates with Slovakia’s “center-right” voters, who turned up in force in the first round and the majority of them will probably vote for Kiska in the runoff, Dhand said.

“This shifts the odds marginally in Kiska’s favor,” Dhand said by e-mail on March 26. “Though Kiska’s victory would have a limited policy impact, it would likely shatter Fico’s popular image of an undisputed leader.”

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