Tom Nicholson in Bratislava -
Four centre-right parties are poised to form the next government in Bratislava, denying incumbent Robert Fico a second term and putting Slovakia back on the path towards fiscal prudence, reduced corruption and improved relations with Hungary.
With all voting stations reporting, Mr Fico's left-wing Smer party was the runaway winner with 34.8 percent. However, his current coalition partners performed poorly, with the far-right Slovak National Party scraping over the five percent threshold for seats in parliament with 5.1 percent. The HZDS party of authoritarian former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar was bounced from the legislature entirely with 4.3 percent. That means the Fico government controls only 71 seats in the 150-seat parliament, compared to 79 for the centre-right opposition.
"This is a loss for Slovakia, not for the HZDS," said the party's deputy chairman, Marian Klenko.
Mr Fico will likely be empowered to form the next government by President Ivan Gasparovic, according to Slovak parliamentary custom, but with all four opposition parties already having ruled out cooperation with Smer, he is unlikely to find the necessary coalition partners.
"If the opposition decides to form a government with 79 seats, we'll respect their decision, but we'll form a strong opposition. They won't last a year," said Mr Fico after the results were announced. "We will hold talks with all parties on forming a government, but we have our principles, and we won't be begging anyone."
The Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) turned in the strongest opposition performance with 15.4 percent. The SDKU ruled Slovakia from 1998 to 2006 under leader Mikulas Dzurinda. Iveta Radicova, who led the party's election campaign, said she would not entertain coalition proposals from Mr Fico. "I can't see a single issue we would agree on," she said.
Among the surprises of the elections was the 12.1 percent for a start-up liberal party, Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), founded in 2009. SaS leader Richard Sulik vowed before the ballot that if his party qualified for parliament, "I'll get really drunk." At 3 a.m., as his supporters drifted away from the swank Bratislava restaurant where they had gathered to watch the results, Mr Sulik seemed well on his way to that goal.
"Richie, just hold the balloon and be patient," Ms Radicova said to Mr Sulik as he embraced her at SDKU headquarters while holding a blue balloon with an SDKU logo.
Also confounding predictions was the new Most party of former ethnic Hungarian leader Bela Bugar, which took 8.1 percent. Mr Bugar campaigned for reconciliation between Slovaks and Hungarians, who make up 10 percent of the population in this country of 5 million. Relations between Bratislava and Budapest have been strained recently by the election of a nationalist government in Hungary under Viktor Orban. Slovak National Party leader Jan Slota predicted dire consequences if Most formed part of the new Slovak administration.
"This is a real defeat for Slovakia," Slota said. "I feel like crying, Slovaks have made me sad. If a Hungarian party joins the government, they will demand political autonomy in the south of Slovakia. We will all soon be crying tears of blood."
The Orban government infuriated Slovaks last month by passing a law making it easier for ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring countries to acquire Hungarian citizenship. The law is seen as an attempt to weaken the loyalty Slovak Hungarians feel towards Slovakia. An ethnic Hungarian party that championed the move, the SMK, won only 4.3 percent support in Saturday's vote, in a clear sign ethnic Hungarians favour a de-escalation of tensions between the two countries.
Apart from mending fences with Budapest, both the SDKU and SaS have vowed to reduce the country's fiscal deficit and sovereign debt burden, which jumped from 28 to 41 percent of GDP under the Fico government's welfare spending. The economy, which grew 10.7 percent in 2007 on the reforms launched by the SDKU, contracted by 4.7 percent last year, with the fiscal deficit rising to 6.77 percent of GDP.
According to Mr Sulik, "these results are a clear sign that the citizens of this country want a change. They want more responsibility, less socialist babble." Turnout was 58.8 percent, slightly higher than the last parliamentary elections in 2006.
A centre-right government also promises a more serious effort to combat corruption in the public sector. The Fico government leaves in its wake dozens of scandals, including serious allegations that the prime minister himself sold parliamentary mandates, state posts and public contracts in return for clandestine funds from oligarchs. The opposition Christian Democrats, which took 8.5 percent in the elections, have already filed a criminal complaint against Mr Fico with the general prosecutor's office.
"These elections promise that Slovakia will become a more civilized country," said Mr Sulik as his supporters sang along to Queen's We Are the Champions.
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