Slovakia will go back to the polls on Saturday week, 29 March, after no candidate won an absolute majority – or indeed even got close – in the first round of its presidential election, held last Saturday.
Slovakia has a parliamentary system, so the president, although directly elected, is mostly just a figurehead. (The BBC expresses this by saying that “parliament exercises legislative power”, which of course misses the point completely; all parliaments exercise legislative power.) But the election still holds considerable interest, because the leading candidate in the first round is the incumbent prime minister, Robert Fico.
The second round appears to be wide open. Fico led the first round with 28.0%, followed by Andrej Kiska, a hire-purchase entrepreneur and prominent philanthropist running as an independent, with 24.0% (official results here). Radoslav Procházka, a dissident Christian Democrat, was close behind with 21.2%. Pavol Hrušovský, who was the endorsed candidate of the opposition parties, could only manage sixth place on 3.3%.
Since Fico’s social democratic party, Smer, won 44.4% of the vote at the last parliamentary election, that’s a disappointing result for him, evidently reflecting a degree of popular discontent with established politicians. The opposition centre-right parties will rally behind Kiska in the runoff, putting him in a strong position. But the low first round turnout of 43.4% makes predictions risky; it’s possible that many of Fico’s supporters stayed home.
Slovakia has only been an independent country for a bit over twenty years, but its political experience has been fairly typical of the European mainstream – with a couple of quirks.
Coalition governments have generally been the norm. In 2006, the incumbent centre-right coalition broke up, forcing early elections. Smer emerged as the largest party, but two far-right nationalist parties held the balance of power. Braving international disapproval (Smer was suspended from the socialist group in the European parliament as a result), Fico formed a coalition with the far right and served a full term as prime minister.
The centre-right returned to office in 2010, in line with its continent-wide success of that time. But it again failed to last the full term, losing a vote of confidence in October 2011 due to differences over the Eurozone bailout. Smer then voted to save the bailout, conditional on early elections; in March 2012 it duly won an absolute majority and Fico became prime minister for the second time, this time with no worries about coalition.
(With hindsight, his move of taking the far right into government was a master stroke; deprived of their anti-establishment credentials, both nationalist parties lost support dramatically and by 2012 they were both out of parliament entirely.)
Now, with the swing to the left seemingly petering out and Eurosceptical populism being the big growth area, Fico’s plan to shift up to the presidency may be in trouble.